The Basic Idea
From scheming soap opera stars to sketchy politicians, you have probably come across a deceitful character who does whatever it takes to get what they want. For this unscrupulous person, the ends always justify the means. Perhaps somebody in your daily life acts this way, and you have felt their manipulative, exploitative, or deceptive wrath. Why do people act this way? It is possible that this person has Machiavellian traits.
Machiavellianism describes a person’s tendency to disregard morality in their decision-making. Machiavellians are often referred to as “puppeteers”, who try to deceive others into getting what they want. They typically have a cynical worldview, viewing others as equally manipulative and duplicitous as they are.
In 1512, the life of Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli wasn’t going so well. Once a prestigious political advisor, he lost everything after being accused of conspiracy by the Medici family, the new rulers of Florence. For his crimes, the Medici’s had imprisoned, tortured, and exiled Machiavelli. In exile, Machiavelli schemed up a venture to win back trust from the Medici family and endear himself to the Florentine public: he would write and distribute a pamphlet to show his knowledge of politics and his devotion to the strong hands of power. This work, called The Prince, outlined a vision of leadership where power was wielded ruthlessly to assure stability at all costs.1 Filled with cheerful quotes like “it is better to be feared than loved”, and “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared,1” this vision of leadership not only failed to win him back any influence, but also alienated Machiavelli from the people of Florence. Ever since, Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with sneaky schemes and amoral actions.2
While the basis of this personality trait comes from Machiavelli’s philosophy, it wasn’t categorized as a psychological fact until the mid-1960’s. Two psychologists, Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis, were interested in studying how personality affects manipulative behaviour. However, they were struggling to quantify the link between the two. After all, manipulative behaviour comes in several forms, many of which may fall outside of the narrow confines of the scientific method. What makes somebody manipulative or not? In their frustration, the two stumbled upon Machiavelli’s manipulation masterclass, The Prince. Inspired, they simplified some of his key statements from the book and shaped them into a 20 question quiz called the Mach IV. They wanted to see if those who strongly agreed with Machiavelli’s teachings would actually show manipulative behavioural tendencies. To test this, the researchers examined how individuals interacted with others, played strategic games, and dealt with unethical situations. After performing these tests, they could confirm that their scale worked: individuals who highly agreed with Machiavellian teachings often showed manipulative interpersonal behaviour, ruthless gameplay, and ambivalence towards immorality. After being replicated multiple times, the Mach IV became a commonplace assessment of manipulative behaviour, and the psychological trait of Machiavellianism was born. 3
Renaissance diplomat, statesmen, and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli is renowned for his 1513 work The Prince, in which he outlines the importance of cunning wits, deceptive tricks, and grappling with the pessimistic reality of human nature to ensure a prosperous and secure society.
Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis
The pioneering psychologists who defined the Machiavellian personality trait. The duo performed many studies of manipulative behaviour and authoritarian personality types, analyzing them from behavioural, genetic, and developmental angles.
Machiavellism, when left unchecked, can wreak havoc on others. In Christie and Geis early studies, they found that Machiavellians “manipulate more, win more, are persuaded less, and persuade others more.” While winning often and not being manipulated sound like good qualities, Machiavellians are not ideal leaders. This “win-at-all-costs” mentality quickly turns problematic when injected into organizations. Long-term studies of Machiavellian leaders find their techniques lead to organizational cynicism and emotional exhaustion. They can lead to serious workplace issues, such as theft, sabotage, cheating, and deceit.4
Machiavellians typically don’t leave their personalities at the workplace, so the discord they sow permeates into their personal relationships as well. Their partners often have low relationship satisfaction and their relationships have low romantic relationship quality. Their behaviour can result in even more serious issues, such as emotional abuse and cheating.5
One may assume that, at least, Machiavellians at least are happy in their exploitative ways. But the data does not show this to be true. Machiavellians commonly experience depression, paranoia, low self-esteem, and a bevy of other cognitive issues.6 It appears Machiavellianism does not improve anybody’s mental well-being. The data seems to show that wherever Machiavellianism can be found, strife will follow.
Some claim Machiavelli, and Machiavellianism itself, may have gotten too harsh of a reputation. After all, Machiavelli wasn’t a devious tyrant, he was an academic attempting to understand his reality and ensure stability in a divided Italy. His blueprint for power shed light on the possible manipulative tactics that could be used by leaders, which led to developments like checks and balances and laws on absolute power. While The Prince promoted a ruthless dictator, Machiavelli’s insights into the immorality of human behavior inspired techniques to keep authoritarianism at bay. 7
Some may claim Machiavellianism provides similar stability and protective guardrails at the personal and interpersonal levels. After all, if Machiavellianism is as detrimental as the research suggests, why do Machavellians so often achieve high levels of success and positions of power? A growing body of evidence suggests this manipulative trait may be evolutionarily adaptive, as a Machiavellian’s ability to emotionally detach from morally difficult situations can generate swift decision-making.8 Machiavellian success also comes from their willingness to utilize a variety of techniques to reap the highest rewards possible.9 If a person achieves their highly valued goals using a flexible moral code, Machiavellianism may not be as detrimental to well-being as previously assumed.
While great for our manipulator, these benefits certainly don’t justify the manipulation. Our growing understanding of the Machiavellian personality trait allows us to see into the minds of the world’s master manipulators. Knowing what drives Machiavellians and their behaviors is essential to building a more just world. Like our current restraints on absolute power were designed against Machiavelli’s teachings, we must also build up psychological armor against manipulation. Only by understanding our inherent biases, mental shortcuts, and psychological weak points can we understand how to protect ourselves from malicious manipulators.
Modern Machiavellianism in House of Cards:
Perhaps one of the more successful pop-culture representations of Machiavellianism is Frank Underwood, the ruthless main character in Netflix’s House of Cards. The show follows Frank’s brutal ascent to the American presidency, greasing the wheels of power with bribes and blackmail along the way. Pairing brilliant script writing with ominous soliloquies, the show reveals how a true Machiavellian maneuvers their way to power, as well as the lengths they will go to achieve it. However, the show begins to reveal how Underwood’s unrelenting quest for power is ultimately building a ‘house of cards’, rather than a legitimate legacy. Like Machiavellians in the real world, later seasons see Frank plagued by marital strife, failed policies, and insubordination, emphasizing how ruthless exploitation of others can be an effective tool to attain power, but a fragile mechanism to maintain it.
Related TDL Content
Niccolò Machiavelli: If you are interested in learning more about the “father of political science”, The Decision Lab has an in-depth piece on Machiavelli which breaks down his techniques, perspectives, and how his contributions have shaped our perceptions of human behaviour and politics.
Robert Greene: Looking for ways to increase your influence over others? Well, Robert Greene wrote the book on it. Author of The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction, Greene has dedicated his life to understanding how power and human behavior operate. If you want a brief overview of his work, The Decision Lab has authored a profile which outlines his dastardly discoveries.
- Machiavelli, N., & Bull, G. (2003). The Prince. Penguin Classics.
- A&E Television Networks. (2009, November 24). Niccolo Machiavelli is born. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/niccolo-machiavelli-born.
- Christie, R. & Geis, F. (1970) “Studies in Machiavellianism”. NY: Academic Press
- Dahling, J. J., Kuyumcu, D., & Librizzi, E. (2012). Machiavellianism, unethical behavior, and well-being in organizational life. Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior: Implications for Individual Well-Being, 1. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315703848
- Brewer, G., & Abell, L. (2017). Machiavellianism, relationship satisfaction, and romantic relationship quality. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 13(3), 491–502. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v13i3.1217
- Khan, A. (2020, May 25). Machiavellianism: Implications of being a master manipulator: Blog. Monk Prayogshala. https://www.monkprayogshala.in/blog/2020/5/4/machiavellianism-implications-of-being-a-master-manipulator.
- Sellers, M. N. (2015). Niccolò Machiavelli: Father of modern constitutionalism. Ratio Juris, 28(2), 216–225. https://doi.org/10.1111/raju.12077
- Carre, J. R., & Jones, D. N. (2017). Decision making, morality, and Machiavellianism: The role of Dispositional traits in GIST Extraction. Review of General Psychology, 21(1), 23–29. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000093
- See 6.