Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Meet the Machiavellians

These master manipulators are natural con artists and dangerous companions.

Source: StockLite/Shutterstock

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), political philosopher and author of The Prince, wrote, “A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests,” and, "A prince never lacks good reasons to break his promise.” According to Machiavelli, honesty—and all other virtues—are expendable if deceit, treachery, and force would be more expedient. In short, he would argue, people in positions of power should choose to be, well, Machiavellian, even if that is not their natural leadership style.

In psychology, Machiavellianism refers to a personality type that does not choose to be, but simply is, a master manipulator. Machiavellians (or “High Machs"; see below) do not need to read The Prince to acquire a knack for duplicity. They are temperamentally predisposed to be calculating, conniving, and deceptive. Essentially amoral, they use other people as stepping stones to reach their goals. From a Machiavellian’s perspective, if we allow ourselves to be used, we probably deserve it. P. T. Barnum expressed this mindset: "There’s a sucker born every minute.”

We can all be duplicitous at times, depending on need or circumstances. If you’ve ever called in sick when you were well or lied to your spouse about what you were doing, you have demonstrated the human capacity to con others. Such episodes probably do not reflect your standard behavior patterns, and you may have felt a little guilty.

But this type of behavior is routine for Machiavellians.

In 1970, psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis introduced the first test of Machiavellianism, the Mach IV. "High Machs" are those with elevated scores on the Mach IV. (There are versions of the test online that you can take and self-score.)

The test includes statements such as these for people to agree or disagree with:

  • "The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear."
  • "It is wise to flatter important people."
  • "The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is that the criminals are stupid enough to get caught."

Groucho Marx once quipped, “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” He was joking, but to a High Mach, this sounds like really good advice.

How can you spot a High Mach? Here are 5 characteristics to watch for:

  1. They function best in jobs and social situations where the rules and boundaries are ambiguous.
  2. Emotional detachment and a cynical outlook enable them to control their impulses and be careful, patient opportunists.
  3. Their tactics include charm, friendliness, self-disclosure, guilt, and (if necessary) pressure.
  4. They prefer to use subtle tactics (charm, friendliness, self-disclosure, guilt), when possible, to mask their true intentions and provide a basis for plausible denial if they are detected. However, they can use pressure and threats when necessary.
  5. They tend to be preferred by others in competitive situations (debating, negotiations), but are not preferred as friends, colleagues, or spouses.

Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism make up the "Dark Triad" of personality types. But while psychopaths and malignant narcissists generate much interest and discussion, Machiavellians typically get far less attention. Machiavellian behavior, however, is typical not just of High Machs, but of psychopaths and narcissists as well.