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12 Signs That You’re Dealing With a Master Manipulator

A new study on the dark trait Machiavellianism can help you spot manipulation.

Key points

  • Early neglect, abuse, and exposure to other trauma can shape a person's tendency to exploit others later in life.
  • Those who try to control others have an unflattering view of humanity combined with a willingness to use any means to achieve their goals.
  • People who are high in Machiavellianism do not seek personal pleasure but rather end-oriented results.

Are there people in your life who you feel have their own agenda when they deal with you? Perhaps you’ve struck up a relationship with a fellow volunteer or co-worker while completing a group project. However, after a couple of weeks, you begin to sense that this other person doesn’t seem to have the best wishes of the group at heart.

Having missed several deadlines, this individual tells what you believe are untruths, such as “I sent that email—didn’t you get it?” Even worse, you find that you’re being asked to be a co-conspirator, as it were, by also lying to other group members about items that are past due. To cover up the fact that the work wasn’t done, this person asks you to send out an email that you know contains false information and won’t take no for an answer when you say you’d rather not. Your only recourse, without being dishonest yourself, is to finish the work for both of you so that it will get done in time.

The tendency to manipulate others in order to achieve one’s own ends falls into the category of “Machiavellianism,” a historical reference to the Italian philosopher Machiavelli associated with the phrase “the ends justify the means." As pointed out in a new study by The Australian National University’s Conal Monaghan and colleagues (2020), “History is also littered with many political leaders who achieved and maintained power through a callous and duplicitous disregard for the liberty of their citizens” (p. 277).

The psychological quality of Machiavellianism, the Australian researchers point out, is “is a relatively stable individual difference that is positively associated with unethical behavior in social exchanges and beyond” (p. 278). Your collaborator on the group project might meet the criteria for this undesirable personality trait by showing a tendency to lie and manipulate without showing concern for the group’s welfare.

Monaghan and his colleagues, in reviewing previous research, point to the importance of distinguishing between the manipulative tactics of people high in Machivellianism from the views they hold that other people are untrustworthy, weak, and vulnerable to being exploited. Furthermore, they propose that this highly antagonistic trait is shaped by environmental factors rather than being hardwired into personality. Among the childhood experiences that can shape the tendency to exploit and use other people are early neglect, abuse, and exposure to other trauma that leads to the development of cynicism and distrust.

Although the authors don’t cite Erik Erikson, his theory about psychosocial development seems to be relevant. Erikson proposed that you can achieve a sense of trust early in life if you are raised in a setting in which you feel cared for and safe. Additionally, as Monaghan et al. suggest, having a sense of trust can also help you to develop empathy and a sense of morality, making it unlikely that you would seek to harm or exploit others.

Even though there may be a reasonable basis for a person to try to manipulate and exploit you, this still doesn’t help when you have to figure out how to avoid these unpleasant outcomes with the people in your life. According to the Australian research team, the people who try to control you do so out of a combination of “an unflattering and pessimistic view of humanity, which is considered gullible, untrustworthy, selfish, and manipulative” (p. 278). This is the “views” dimension of Machiavellianism.

The second dimension, known as "tactics" reflects the “willingness to use any means, irrespective of traditional morality, to achieve their goals” (p. 278). Those high in Machiavellianism are not seeking personal pleasure but are seeking those end-oriented results. It’s possible they may take some joy out of seeing their convictions come true (i.e. that other people are gullible), but their main motivator is to get the job done with as little work as possible on their part.

With this as background, the Australian-led research team went on to develop an instrument that would make it possible to assess the two separate dimensions (views and tactics) of a brief Machiavellianism scale. They predicted that, if their scale was valid, the views dimension would relate positively to a series of negative emotions (fearfulness and emotional detachment) as well as high levels of narcissism. The authors predicted that Machiavellian tactics scores would correlate positively with psychopathy and a desire to maximize personal gains in a moral dilemma task. Monaghan et al. based their work on samples that included university students as well as employees of an international company and online participants recruited from a general website associated with the study.

The final 12-item scale divides into the two components of views and tactics, as shown below. The first three items in each category are scored as positive indications and the second three as negative indications of the trait:

Views subscale:

  1. In my opinion, human nature is to be dishonest.
  2. I think that most people will take advantage of others in the right situation.
  3. When people do something nice for me they really have another agenda.
  4. I feel that deep down people trust each other.
  5. I think people would rather help each other than act selfishly.
  6. I believe that most people are essentially good.

Tactics subscale:

  1. I think that it is OK to be unethical for the greater good.
  2. I think that it is OK to take advantage of others to achieve an important goal.
  3. It is sometimes necessary for me to mislead others to get things done.
  4. I value being honest over getting ahead.
  5. To me, it is never justified to deceive others.
  6. To me, something is not worth doing if it requires being unethical.

After subjecting the scores from these items to rigorous statistical testing, including obtaining scores from the same people over time (to assess consistency), the authors concluded that this two-factor measure performed as they expected it to do. Indeed, as they predicted, people scoring high on the views dimension were more likely to have misanthropic views toward others, to be highly narcissistic, and to have lower well-being.

The participants with high scores on the tactics subscale were, again, more likely to be high in the predicted attributes of psychopathy, lack of willingness to reciprocate, and an approach to moral dilemmas that emphasized means over ends. In other words, with just these 12 items, you should be able to get an accurate picture of an individual’s tendencies to try to subject you to their cynical and exploitative worldviews.

Now that you know someone is high in this very unpleasant quality, how can you avoid being subjected to their unfair and unfeeling treatment as they attempt to bend you to their will? Most importantly, recognize that just as they are used to controlling people, they would most likely be more malleable than you imagine. If the words “just say no” come to mind, then go ahead and follow through on that thought. Their callousness and lack of morality should not stop you from asserting your own free will, particularly once you recognize just how low in empathy they are. Second, consider reminding these individuals about the importance of achieving whatever goal you are supposed to be working toward. In that group project, if in fact, your co-collaborator wants to see results, you can emphasize that the best way to do so is to join forces.

To sum up, most of the everyday manipulators you run into aren’t trying to get control of the world in the true Machiavellian sense. Furthermore, as the Monaghan et al. team point out, Machiavellianism is a trait, not a category, and it is one that can be shaped by experience. There may be hope for those would-be controllers in your life, but in the meantime, avoid being forced to fulfill their wishes so that you can fulfill your own.

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Monaghan, C., Bizumic, B., Williams, T., & Sellbom, M. (2020). Two-dimensional Machiavellianism: Conceptualization, theory, and measurement of the views and tactics dimensions. Psychological Assessment, 32(3), 277–293. doi: 10.1037/pas0000784.supp (Supplemental)