- Machiavellians often reveal clues about their intentions if you know what to look for.
- Sometimes the telltale sign isn't what they do, but what they don't do.
- One clue to watch out for is that niceness isn't always nice.
A Canadian grandmother sits in a Hong Kong jail charged with drug trafficking. Her troubles began when she went online looking for love. The woman (I’ll call her “Alice”) fell for the fake dating profile of a man calling himself “James,” who claimed to be working in Ethiopia. He vowed to meet Alice and marry her as soon as he could get away.
Eventually, James sent Alice a plane ticket and asked her to join him in Ethiopia. Her adult daughter warned Alice not to go, but she was determined to meet her true love in exotic Africa. But upon her arrival in Addis Ababa, James was a no-show. Instead, she was met by a stranger who informed her of a change in plans. James would meet her in Hong Kong instead. The stranger gave her an airline ticket and a suitcase, which was supposedly a gift from James.
When she got off the plane in Hong Kong, Alice didn’t make it through customs. The suitcase she’d been given in Ethiopia contained cocaine hidden in clothing. James had seduced her only to turn her into a globe-trotting drug mule.
But the tragic tale of Alice’s imprisonment in China is only half the story. This was not the first time she’d been horribly exploited in a romance scam. A previous “catfisher” had conned her out of $200,000. Alice even wrote a book about that experience.
As an anonymous source wisely said, “Life’s lessons are repeated and become more difficult until they are learned.” Here are five ways to recognize a Machiavellian manipulator before you become a victim.
1. The Dog That Doesn’t Bark
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, a dog’s failure to bark proved to be the clue that broke the case for Sherlock Holmes. In romance scams and other types of frauds, the con artist typically overwhelms the victim with too many details and a too-good-to-be-true story. This is an example of the dilution effect—a phenomenon that occurs when our critical thinking is overwhelmed by an avalanche of interesting but irrelevant details that distract us from what’s important.
By telling us too much about nothing, the schemer baffles us with BS. The dog that didn’t bark in Alice’s case is that James never came to meet her despite his profession of love. His excuses and backstory were distractions to keep Alice complacent about this major omission.
2. Testing Boundaries
Alice’s first scammer didn’t get $200,000 from her all at once. He got it in dribs and drabs by presenting her with a succession of problems, emergencies, and urgent needs. He strung her along, spinning one improbable tale after another. But the thief would have gotten nothing if she had refused his first lowball request for money. An online suitor asking for financial help—especially if there has been no face-to-face meeting—is a serious breach of personal boundaries and a major red flag.
3. Assertive Niceness
When a nice person comes on too strong and too fast, it may signal ulterior motives. Our tendency is to respond by being open and lowering our guard. Machiavellians see that as an invitation to take advantage—“You asked for it.” Genuine kindness is always a virtue, but be cautious of blandishments (and especially love-bombing).
4. The One-Sided Proposition
Notice that Alice never got to meet her first fake boyfriend, but he got to meet her money (several times). She also never got to meet James, but James got her to transport his drugs.
A more familiar example of this often occurs during negotiations. If you’ve ever waited in a car salesperson’s office while he or she presented your offer to the sales manager, you’ve probably had something like this happen: “Sorry, Mr./Ms. Customer, but we can’t sell it at this price. Help me out—can you kick in another two thousand?”
First, you’re not there to “help” the salesperson extract more money from you. Second, notice that they’re not offering anything in exchange for the higher price. A reasonable response might be, “No, but I’ll up my offer by $1,500 if you install a roof rack.” You may not get the roof rack, but you’re showing them that you won’t make concessions without getting additional value in return. If they refuse the roof rack, then you refuse to increase your offer. At some point, you’ll probably agree to pay a little more, and they’ll make additional concessions that they weren’t planning to offer.
5. The Hard Bargain
Speaking of negotiating, another sign you might be dealing with a Machiavellian is the introduction of bargaining into a situation that normally doesn’t involve negotiations. For example, if a romance scammer asks for $1,000 and the victim says, “I don’t have that much.” The most likely response will be something like, “Can you send $700?” The request for money is the first red flag. Bargaining is the second. Dating usually involves negotiating on where to have dinner and sometimes on who picks up the check. But it doesn’t involve haggling over financial support.
Here’s another example: I had a beard when I was in college, and my mother hated it. She tried mild criticism to get me to shave it. When that didn’t work, she played the guilt card. But the beard remained. Finally, she undertook to bargain and negotiate with me, offering me money and threatening grave, unspecified consequences if I refused.
Even between mother and son, this kind of negotiating was improper pressure. (I kept the beard until I graduated and was ready to enter the job market.) My mother wasn’t a master manipulator, but she hated that beard so much that she behaved like one in hopes of gaining my compliance.
It’s not always possible to avoid becoming ensnared by a Machiavellian until it’s too late. On the other hand, there’s no reason to walk blindly into a trap when the telltale signs are plain to see. Recognizing their tricks and schemes gives us a fair chance of beating master manipulators at their own game.
© Dale Hartley.
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