Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior – Machiavellianism

Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior cover

Machiavellianism is a chapter of “Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior” (2009), reviewing the literature of Machiavellianism and how their peculiar traits and predispositions affect their social behavior.

About The Author

Mark R. Leary, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.
The chapters we review are from Daniel N. Jones and Delroy L. Paulhus.
Jones is Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Delroy is a professor and personality researcher.


Keep in mind this review is in good part based on the research literature review on Machiavellianism published by Fehr, Samsom, and Paulhus, published in 1992.

For a more updated review, check out “Machiavellianism, The Psychology of Manipulation“.

Machs Defining Traits

The authors say that the construct validity of Machiavellianism rests on pragmatic manipulation.
Three themes emerge from Machiavellianism:

  1. Belief in manipulative tactics
  2. Cynical·worldview
  3. Pragmatic morality

Machs Are About Pragmatic Rewards & Winning

Compared to low Machs, high Machs gave high priority to money, power, and competition (Stewart & Stewart, 2006) and relatively low priority to community building, self-love, and family concerns (McHoskey, 1999). Machs admitted to a focus on unmitigated achievement and winning at any cost (Ryckman, Thornton, & Butler, 1994).

High Machs Have No Superior Mental Abilities

In sum, the assumption that Machs have superior mental abilities-whether it be IQ, EQ, or mind reading-is not supported by the data.

They do seem to have “superior” skills when it comes to taking the lead, charming, and lying.
And, likely, in manipulating, albeit that might be a consequence of their propensity and willingness, rather than actual superior skills.

People Have Good Impressions of Machs, But There Are Mixed Results

The developmental literature suggests that young Machiavellians may be well adjusted and even well-liked (Hawley, 2003; Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993).

Even as adults, they are sometimes preferred as leaders (Coie, Dodge, & Kupersmidt, 1990) and debate partners (Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1998).

Notwithstanding those exceptions, Machiavellian behaviors among adults generally draw strong disapproval (Falbo, 1977). One moderating variable may be the social role for which the Machiavellian is being rated. Wilson and colleagues (1998) showed that high Machs were seen as less desirable for most forms of social interaction (e.g., confidant, good friend, business partner) but may be more desirable as debate partners.

Those “most social interactions” are actually very specific situations that include high empathy and caring.

And when it comes to presidents:

Ratings of archival data indicated that presidents seen as more Machiavellian were also seen as having higher levels of drive and poise (Simonton, 1986). A follow-up to that research indicated that presidents who were viewed as more Machiavellian were also seen as more desirable leaders, with high ratings on charisma and effectiveness (Deluga, 2001).

Machs Don’t Have External Locus of Control

Early literature, including Christie and Geis, concluded that, counterintuitively, Machs seemed to have an external locus of control.

That’s not the case, say the authors:

More recent studies have reported the same pattern (Gable & Dangello, 1994; O’Connor & Morrison, 2001; Yong, 1994). Along with Paulhus (1983), we consider that conclusion to be misleading. None of these studies partitioned perceived control into its three spheres of engagement-personal, interpersonal, and sociopolitical. Paulhus showed that these three aspects of perceived control have quite different relations with Machiavellianism. Machs’ apparent external locus of control derives entirely from the sociopolitical factor: Machs are simply endorsing their cynical view of others’ competence (see also McHoskey et aI., 1999). That is, they perceive other people as weak and as having little control over their situations. In contrast, Machiavellians score quite high on measures of interpersonal control. In this sphere, Machs believe that they can manipulate others to get what they want.

Machs Are Not Authoritarian

One might expect a positive association between Machiavellianism and authoritarianism because a condescending attitude toward outgroups is central to both constructs. The 1992 review, however, concluded that overall associations are weak.

In sum, the worldview of Machs is one of pragmatic tough-mindedness.

Higher Performance in Unstructured Organizations

Machs appear to have an advantage in unstructured organizations (Gable, Hollon, & Dangello, 1992; Shultz, 1993). They thrive when they have more decision power, fewer rules, and less managerial supervision. In highly structured organizations, high Machs actually perform worse than low Machs (O’Connor & Morrison, 2001; Shultz, 1993; Sparks, 1994).

That is consistent with the original findings on Machiavellianism and their attitudes and preferences:

In general, the research on career success is consistent with the original notion of latitude for improvisation. As Christie and Geis (1970) determined in laboratory research, Machs remain cool, exploit interpersonal relationships, bend the rules, and improvise. When this flexibility is constrained, Machs are likely to incur problems.

How successful or not successful Machs are also depends on what job we’re assessing, and from what point of view:

Machs seem to thrive in business situations with a high latitude for improvisation (Shultz, 1993), but they perform worse in other situations, such as when latitude for improvisation is impeded (Sparks, 1994). Even after successful manipulations, Machs may suffer a decrement in reputation that reduces future opportunities (Wilson et aI., 1996). The source of evaluation may influence whether Machs are judged as successful or not. When evaluated by a supervisor, Machs seem to evoke negative evaluations, but they concomitantly report and record higher levels of sales in certain jobs (Ricks & Fraedrich, 1999).

Machs Are More Unsatisfied About Their Jobs

The 1992 review concluded that Machs are generally less satisfied with their jobs. More recent research has supported this finding in retail executives (Gable & Topol, 1988), marketers (Sparks, 1994), and bank managers (Corzine, Buntzman, & Busch, 1999). Machs are more likely to feel unappreciated, to believe that they have plateaued in their careers (Corzine et aI., 1999), and to leave their positions (Becker & O’Hair, 2007). Machs also report more negative feelings from coworkers (Vecchio, 2000, 2005).

Do People Want Machs?

People might want Machiavellians as leaders when results are needed:

Group members may prefer high Machs for roles that help the group deal with enemies and opponents (Wilson et aI., 1998).
A classic example is the preference for a Machiavellian as president of the United States (Deluga, 2001; Simonton, 1986). On the other hand, Machs are less favored as friends, confidants, and business partners (Wilson et aI., 1998).

But not as friends:

Length of interaction also plays a role. As noted· by Fehr and colleagues (1992), high Machs are more liked in short-term encounters (such as when participants are viewing a videotape) (Ickes, Reidhead, & Patterson, 1986). However, when individuals simulate the experience of engaging with a high Mach (such, as by reading a first-person story), they judge Machs more negatively (Wilson et aI., 1998).

Morality of Machiavellians: Pragmatism

The original researchers on Machiavellianism considered immorality among the three key elements of Machiavellianism.

The 1992 review concluded that Machs behave in a less ethical manner-but only in specific circumstances-.

My Note:
This is acutally something that emerged from early researches as well. Nobody behaves always immorally, and especially not strategic players like Machiavellis.

The authors say that the moral perspective of Machs may be seen as either immorality or simple pragmatism (Leary, Knight, & Barnes,·1986).
And they introduce a different perspective: holding different values:

A radical reinterpretation may be mandated by research indicating that low and high Machs hold qualitatively different kinds of ethical beliefs. High Machs place relatively more emphasis on competence values (i.e., valuing competence and ability to succeed), whereas low Machs report relatively more emphasis on moral values (Musser & Orke, 1992; Trapnell & Paulhus, in press). Such results can be seen as a reframing of Machiavellian morality in terms of its priorities.

This reframing is consistent with Haidt’s (2001) notion that people differ little in their overall moral reactions but rank the priority of moral facets (e.g., justice, integrity) rather differently.


Nathanson and colleagues reported a series of studies of anonymous revenge anecdotes (Nathanson & Paulhus, 2006). Although it predicts revenge reports, the Mach IV overlaps considerably with measures of subclinical psychopathy (McHoskey, Worzel, & Szyarto, ‘1998; Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Indeed, the association of Mach with revenge was entirely accounted for by the overlap of Machiavellianism with subclinical psychopathy (Nathanson & Paulhus, 2006).


hostile Machs are more likely to justify committing sabotage against a company they are upset with (Giacalone & Knouse, 1990).

However, more than themselves seeking revenge, Machs are very attuned to the opportunity of others being able to exact revenge, or to punish their Machiavellian ways:

In bargaining games, Meyer (1992) found that high Machs are more likely to betray another participant in a one-shot opportunistic manner. More recent research has suggested that Machs are especially likely to betray others when there is no chance for the other person to get retribution (Gunnthorsdottir, McCabe, & Smith, 2002).

Interpersonal Circumplex: Machs Are Individualists

Interpersonal Circumplex The interpersonal circumplex is framed in terms of two independent axes-agency and communion (Wiggins, 1991). Agency refers to the motivation to succeed and individuate oneself; communion refers to the motivation to merge with others and support the group. Several studies have established that Machiavellianism lies in quadrant 2 of the circumplex, indicating that high Machs are high on agency and low on communion (Gurtman, 1991, 1992; Wiggins & Bro’ughton, 1991).

Machiavellians being practical and driven to win, it makes sense they tend to be more self-centered.

Machiavellians are also out to achieve without consideration for others, though:

Work by Locke and colleagues yielded a composite variable called self-construal that indexes a relative preference for communion over agency. As expected, self-construal falls diagonally opposite Machiavellianism in circumplex space (Locke & Christensen, 2007), confirming a key suspicion regarding Machs: They are not simply out to achieve but rather are out to achieve at the expense of (or at least without regard for) others.

Machiavellian Intelligence: Evolutionary Advantages

The authors begin by saying that humans are both prosocial, and selfish:

Although it includes arguments for the advantages of prosocial traits (such as altruism, compassion, and cooperation), the hallmark of evolutionary theory is the notion of the “selfish gene” (Dawkins, 1989). Contrary to many observers’ intuition, it is not paradoxical to include both prosocial and antisocial tendencies within the behavioral repertoire of our species (Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001).

But that selfishness, or at least cunning, can provide an advantage:

The natural selection of selfishness would naturally foster Machiavellian personalities. In ancestral times, those who exploited opportunities to cheat, steal, and manipulate others to achieve their goals would have outreproduced those who did not. this adaptive advantage has been referred to in the literature as Machiavellian intelligence (Byrne & Whiten, 1988): The term is often used interchangeably with terms such as social intelligence, everyday politics, social astuteness, political intelligence, practical intelligence, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence, all of which allude to cognitive abilities involving skill at adapting to social complexities.

The Power Moves includes “Machiavellian Intelligence” as part of the more general “Power Intelligence“.

So, if there are advantages, why is not everyone Machiavellian?

The Evolutionary Ceiling to Machiavellianism

Mealey (1995) agreed that antisocial traits such as Machiavellianism and psychopathy may reflect an adaptive reproductive strategy but argued further that antisocial traits are frequency-dependent. In other words, not everyone in an ecology can be cooperative because the advantage of being a high Mach is too great.

However, there are two reasons why not everyone in an ecology can be a high Mach

The first is that low Machs would have the advantage of building strong social relationships and cooperative alliances, and the second is that high Machs would simply be cheating each other and little would be gained. Thus there are at least two good reasons that preclude the full spread of Machiavellianism.

One is that Machs have a serious disadvantage in forming cooperative alliances that depend on trust.

The second reason is that Machiavellian tendencies will show marginal returns: At some point, high Machs would be trying (unsuccessfully) to cheat each other, and no advantage ensues (Mealey, 1995).

Self-Interested Cooperation

The authors say there advantages to both cooperation, and exploitation:

In the words of Wilson and colleagues (1996), “advantages of cooperation are usually long term, whereas the advantages of exploitation are usually only short term” (p. 287).

When Machiavellians cooperate, it’s not “true” cooperation, but self-interest:

Instead, we agree with Hawley (2006) that the behavioral repertoire of Machiavellians is “bistrategic,” that is, it includes both cooperation and coercion. However, we place special emphasis on the fact that neither long-term nor short-term cooperative tactics in Machiavellians reflect true cooperation; instead, such behaviors are in the service of malevolence.

My Note:

Personally, I find this difference spurious.
Cooperation is born out of self-interest. Cooperation could have hardly evolved if it wasn’t good for the individual.
There is no such a thing as a being that cooperation for “true cooperation” and one who cooperates because he seeks win-win. “True” cooperation as implied by the authors sounds a lot like win-lose. That’s not cooperation, that’s being exploited.

Sexual Behavior

High Machiavellians tend to be more promiscuous than low Machs (Linton & Wiener, 2001; McHoskey, 2001b; Schmitt, 2004; Paulhus & Williams, 2002).
Recently, more detailed analyses have partitioned promiscuous behaviors and attitudes (Webster & Bryan, 2007). Jones and Paulhus (2008) found that Machiavellianism correlated only with the attitude component. The lack of correlation with promiscuous behavior suggests that high Machs are no less discerning than low Machs in their actual sexual activities. Such findings are another indication that Machiavellians are not solely short term in orientation.

A short-term predisposition can be seen as a sexual strategy.
By evolutionary standards then we should see more men deploying that strategy since men gain more from short-term sex.
And we might see an avoidant attachment style that also supports short-term behavior:

The research on Machiavellianism supports the gender difference in short-term reproductive strategies (Figueredo et aI., 2005). Most samples show higher Mach scores in men than in women (Christie & Geis, 1970) and in young than in older adults (e.g., Rawwas & Singhapakdi, 1998). These trends suggest that Machiavellianism promotes sexual activity. Individuals who seek multiple short-term sexual opportunities (e.g., those unrestricted in sociosexuality) would benefit from manipulative tendencies and a lack of empathy.

However, the authors don’t believe that sexual strategies predict more manipulation from men:

These arguments rest on the assumption that manipulation is more effective for the gender that prefers promiscuity than the one that prefers investment and commitment. We dispute that assumption and suggest that female Machiavellianism manifests itself in a manner consistent with the female reproductive agenda.

Personality Tradeoff

Machiavellianism harbors both adaptive and maladaptive qualities. Key to understanding this tradeoff is the distinction between agentic and communal notions of adaptiveness. Adaptiveness for agentic goals concerns the promotion of personal achievement, whereas adaptiveness for communal goals concerns the benefits to one’s group

Problems With Machiavellian Construct

The authors say that they confirm the construct validity of Machiavellianism as measured by the Christie and Geis (1970).

However, they find “disconcerting” the overlap with impulsivity (Marusic et aI., 1995), and that the appropriate label for that personality type is subclinical psychopathy (Paulhus & Williams, 2002)
They say that Psychopaths and Machiavellians share similar antisocial tendencies (Mealey, 1995), but the original theory-from Machiavelli (1513) to Christie and Geis (1970)-specified that Machs are cool and strategic rather than hostile and impulsive.

In my opinion, though the authors are mistaken.
The hostility and impulsivity of Machiavellians is very much a grey area, and later literature reviews showed that high Machs adapt to the situation and social environment.
As a matter of fact, Tamás Bereczkei says that impulsivity and short-term gratification is one of the main differences between psychopaths and Machiavellians.

The authors also say that Machs should pay attention to reputation, which indeed is the case.

Finally, the authors present an interesting new take on the Mach-IV test, but the Mach-VI they proposed hasn’t had much success since.


  • No particular aggression in Machs: there is no evidence for overt aggression in behavioral studies of Machiavellian adults.


Very good review on Machiavellianism and some good insights.

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