The Narcissist vs. the Machiavellian

What are the differences in attitudes and behavior?

Posted Jul 30, 2019

Source: wgbieber/Pixabay

The topic of narcissism has been wildly popular in social media, journalism, and political debate lately. Although less widely known, there has been a parallel rise in interest in the traits of Machiavellians.

From 2016 through 2018, there was discussion between Michael Wolff (journalist for the Washington Post) and Italian-American Professor Stefano Albertini (writing for La Voce di New York, aka VNY) about whether President Donald Trump was best described as a Narcissist or a Machiavellian. It is not my intention to suggest any diagnosis here, but simply to provide an example of a public figure who brings to mind both sets of character traits. Also, it should be added that Machiavellianism does not exist as a diagnosis or a Personality Type; it is instead a cluster of behaviors and attitudes. Whether it is “better or worse than” narcissism is a subjective question and I’ll leave that judgment to the reader.

What does “Machiavellian” mean?

To be brief, Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian historian/philosopher/writer whose works included The Prince, published in 1532. The book basically encouraged dishonesty and all sorts of immoral behavior as normal and effective ways for “Princes” to maintain power. To greatly oversimplify the impact of this work, one consequence has been the use of the term Machiavellian to describe anyone whose behavior is deceitful, calculating and exploitative. Professor Albertini concluded that Trump’s behavior does not fit the standards of Machiavellianism. For comparison, he did characterize former President Nixon in that way (1/14/2018,

The label “Machiavellian” has become popular in business circles due to the apparent “success” of individuals whose behavior is self-serving, lacking in empathy, and exclusively profit-motivated. In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver featured the horrific working conditions of today’s many warehouse employees. Individuals are working long hours doing physical labor, frequently not allowed enough time to get to a restroom without letting their productivity drop and thereby possibly losing their job as a consequence! It seems that only Machiavellian executives could require that kind of working conditions.

How do Machiavellians differ from Narcissists?

Both Narcissists and Machiavellians are manipulative, deceitful, and lacking in empathy (though not as lacking as psychopaths). The key differences are in capacity for long-term strategizing, attitudes about human nature and morality, and the type of deception each uses.

The Machiavellian is more strategic in long-term planning in order to meet his/her self-serving goals. Consistent with this long-term view, the Machiavellian has good impulse control, typically better than that of the Narcissist. Overall, the Machiavellian appears less emotional than the narcissist. S/he is unlikely to express outrage or distress when denied a request. The classic narcissistic rage is absent. In contrast, the emotionally injured narcissist often exhibits either sudden irrational outbursts of anger or sullen withdrawal when denied a request.

Machiavellians have a cynical view of humanity and a disregard for conventional morality. They are more likely than narcissists to break laws, having a general belief that “everyone breaks the rules/laws so why shouldn’t I?” and that “the ones who get caught are just foolish.” The Machiavellians will consider the consequences of their actions and make a judgment as to whether it’s worth the risk to do something unethical or criminal. They border on lacking any moral code. The attitude is that “the end justifies the means” regardless of harm to others. In contrast, the Narcissist will usually have a sense of right vs. wrong and will try to justify his/her own behavior as moral, even when acting blatantly arrogant or entitled, as in “I am worthy of special treatment.” The arrogant Narcissist will go as far as seeing him/herself as superior to others morally, i.e. “a better person.” To maintain that self-perception of superiority, the narcissist will usually avoid criminal behavior.

Machiavellians differ from narcissists in the nature and purpose of their lies. The Narcissist will deceive or tell lies just to get away with it and feel empowered by their ability to deceive. Often, the narcissist lies to bring attention, admiration, or sympathy to themselves even if it’s only for a brief period of satisfaction. In contrast, the Machiavellian uses deceit purposefully for the political, financial, or other long-term advantages. The latter does not seek attention or fame but actually prefers to carry out deception in a more hidden way. The Grandiose Narcissist would enjoy the attention of being “front and center” even if that involves getting caught in a lie. The Machiavellian would see that behavior as foolish and would remain behind the scene, “pulling strings” to accomplish their goals.

Concluding thoughts

You can easily imagine how both types of characters can be very hurtful in personal relationships, whether as a boss, family member, or close partner. Both present a high risk of being manipulated, deceived and exploited. This is not intended to over-simplify the nature of Narcissism, which has been identified in three basic forms: Grandiose/Overt, Vulnerable/Covert and Communal. For further discussion of the subtypes of Narcissism, see an earlier post. Unless you’re aware of the Machiavellian traits, you might rule out narcissistic behavior but still be confused about why you’re being treated so poorly. Since Machiavellians tend to hold back emotion, use good impulse control, and deceive cunningly, they are very skilled at keeping their motives hidden. How can one cope with this behavior and protect oneself from being exploited by a Machiavellian? That will be the subject of a future blog.