Machiavellianism: The Psychology of Manipulation

machiavellianism psychology of manipulation cover

“Machiavellianism” (2017) is a book on Machiavellianism and the psychology of manipulation.
The author defines the book as “the first comprehensive psychological book on Machiavellianism since Christie and Geis, and he might be right. “Machiavellianism” is the best overview of empirical findings on Machiavellianism available as of today (2021).


Tamás Bereczkei graduated as a Biologist, and became a Doctor of Science in Psychology. He leads the Evolutionary Psychological Research group at the University of Pécs. Besides Machiavellianism, his main research areas include social intelligence, altruism and cooperation, and mate choice.

Machiavellian: A Description

The author describes a Machiavellian as “one who uses others as a means of achieving one’s own goals“.

He provides a longer -and more negatively-framed- description in the preface:

Such individuals disrespect moral principles, deceive their fellow beings, and take advantage of others’ frailty and gullibility. They take advantage of others by using them to achieve their own goals while their victims are not in the least aware of being used. They have a penetrating, rational and sober mind undisturbed by emotions. At times we cannot help being enchanted by their talent even though we know they misuse it.

Personally, I think that, one way or another, almost everyone “uses others” to achieve something.
So the real question is if the final outcome is win-win, or win-lose.
Plus, as Stef reminds us, some more considerations based on past outcomes and totalitarianism can enter into the calculation.

The takes a slightly judgmental stance on Machiavellianism. It’s understandable in a way, but I don’t fully agree with it.

The 5 Machiavellian Traits

Low Machs may show one or some of the following traits from time to time.

Machiavellians instead embody all five characteristics simultaneously and that, says the author, pose a danger to others (Slaughter 2011).

1. Manipulation

The author says that Machiavellians are first and foremost manipulators.
But they are also careful, so they are not always obviously manipulative and callous. They are tactically manipulative and selfish, and they draw from a vaster toolset of manipulative techniques.

High Machs also lie more, and feel less guilty and remorseful (Murphy 2012).
However, again, high Machs are not necessarily constant liars. They’re ore opportunistic liars, or call it “expedient lying”.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean they hold sincerity as a value.
Says the author:

Machiavellians aim to appear sincere whereas non-Machiavellians hold sincerity important in its own right.

2. Amorality

Machiavellians pursue self-interest, and since they are not bound by morality -“they can easily separate themselves from moral precepts”-, that pursuit can sometimes lead to unethical behavior.

In social exchanges, they feel they are not bound by reciprocity or “fairness”.

In a classic sociological experiment on trust and theft, high Machs were more likely to cause loss to their partners in the trust condition, and stole from those who had previously shown trust towards them.
By contrast, low Machs did not steal in the trust condition, and resigned substantial material gain rather than violate fairness and responsibility norms.

In a sample of 1343 subjects, Jonason and colleagues found a negative relationship between Mach scores and the importance assigned to values such as Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, and Authority.
Machs’ results were similar to those obtained for psychopathy but different from narcissism (that showed no significant relationship with any of the moral values mentioned).

However, Machiavellians don’t always act immorally.
Machiavellians’ amorality is opportunistic.
For example, not when the risks are too high compared to the potential benefits, and not when there is nothing to be gained.

Says the author:

They quite often provoke others, continuously testing where the red lines are in their relationships (Gunnthorsdottir et al. 2002). When they feel weakness or lenience in others, they launch an attack with no hesitation.

3. Cynicism

Machiavellians are suspicious of others, and attribute negative traits to people, including hypocrisy, malevolence, and lying.

Since they have a dog-eat-dog worldview, Machiavellians cheat out prevention, because they think others would cheat anyway (McIllwain 2003).

Machiavellians, who usually are open and frank about their nature, see others -and especially low Machs- as weak for being insincere and hypocrites.
And that makes it fair to take advantage of that weakness.

In Machiavellians’ eyes, low Machs are not in control of their life and at the mercy of the events and people around them.
So when Machiavellians manipulate or take advantage of them, they are just being one of the many external forces that people naturally yield to.

My Note: Machs are right on something
When it comes to hypocrisy as in the discrepancy between stated moral values and behavior, sometimes they are partially right.

4. Emotional coldness

Machiavellians are “emotionally distanced” with a cognitive orientation.
They think more rationally and consider all available options and possibilities in a cold-minded manner (Pilch, 2008).

Machiavellians are very goal-oriented, and they analyze information and craft strategies to achieve that goal.
Their goals also tend to be themselves, including personal advancement, gains, and victory.

This attitude can provide Machiavellians with a big advantage in life.
Says the author:

Their lack of doubt as well as concentration on personal goals provide them with immense advantages over others in gaining material goods and favorable positions. In contrast, low Machs are much more concerned with their network of personal relationships and with moral norms that often make them vulnerable.

And that’s why I advise readers here to acquire a similar attitude in “enlightened individualism“.

5. Lack of empathy

The author says that it is “very likely” that Machiavellians cannot empathize with others and put themselves in other people’s shoes.

Says Tamas:

A strong negative relationship was found between Machiavellianism and empathy scores irrespective of the specific test used to measure this ability

(Andrew, Cooke, & Muncer 2008; Wai & Tiliopoulos 2012; Al Ain et al. 2013; Jonason & Krause 2013)

Given the lack of empathy, says the author, it is not surprising that “Machiavellians exhibit low levels both of helpfulness and selflessness” (Paal & Bereczkei 2007; Bereczkei & Czibor 2014).

Motives & Consequences

Expanding on the above 5 basic traits:

1. Reward-driven behavior

Machiavellians strive to win and to gain the largest profit possible.

Usually, they go for pragmatic rewards such as money, prestige or position. The author doesn’t add, but probably that also includes mates.

And they tend to avoid situations where there is no obvious “what’s in it for me“.
Christie and Geis had noted indeed early on that Machiavellians don’t put much effort into experiments that have no concrete reward.

Machiavellians show a preference for immediate rewards. In one experiment the drive to bigger payoffs led them to lose more money than Low machs.
However, the experiment had somewhat hidden risks for the higher-risk options and, importantly, Machiavellians do not go for direct and immediate rewards at any price.

And, as the author says, “Machiavellians are in many cases able to achieve success in the long term as well, (…) and they often win in situations resembling everyday life“.

This is an important difference with psychopaths, which instead are more likely to lose out in the long run to their short-term, reward driven focus.

2. Different brain activity

Machiavellians show different brain activity when placed in fMRI machines.

For example, when cooperation is expected but they can gain by cheating.
Or the opposite, in which they show increased ACC activity when their short-term interests (cheating) and long-term interests (long term win-win) conflict.

3. Pragmatism: Extrinsic rewards preferred

First, the difference:

  • Extrinsic = external tangible goals/rewards, or avoiding harms and damages
  • Intrinsic: internal drives such as pleasure of activity, striving for development, belonging, or serving a larger cause

Also see “Drive” for a more layman’s friendly overview.

Research shows that Machiavellians are mostly motivated by external factors (Fehr et al. 1992; Jones & Paulhus 2009) and to obtain external gains such as money, power, and influence.

John McHoskey found out that “Machiavellianism was positively correlated with material success whereas negatively with all intrinsic motivational factors (communion, family ties, self-love)”.

4. Individual Before Collective

Machiavellians pursue individual versus community interests.

A 2014 study aptly titled “valuing myself over others” found that Machiavellianism is positively correlated with an individualistic value orientation (emphasizing autonomy, independence, and competition) and negatively correlated with collectivistic values (loyalty to the community).

Sometimes though you need some of that individual-before collective attitude to see through the manipulative propaganda:

5. Strategic Fluidity

Machiavellians are very strategic.

And they adapt to the situation.

Says the author:

Machiavellians are not characterized by rigid thought patterns; they do not act according to some pre-existing schema, to which they would adhere at any price. Research findings reported in the past few years have clearly shown that the uniqueness of the Machiavellian character lies in tactical skills and flexible decision-making.


A cornerstone of Machiavellian strategic decision-making is the continuous weighing-up of the situational conditions.

Even during a mock business negotiation, Machiavellians used more persuasion tactics, and adapted more flexibly to the changing situation.

Machs also adapt to the situation when it comes to deceiving.
And they cheat and deceive others when the benefits of manipulation exceed the costs.
Generally, that happens when:

  1. You can avoid detection
  2. You won’t be punished for cheating
  3. You conform to community norms (or don’t break them since there were no clear expectations or conditions)

Machiavellians are also able to collaborate and think long term, which means they can also succeed in environments and endeavors that require “staying power”.

Machiavellians’ adaptability might be one of the main reasons why many studies contradict each other, or generally fail to find strong and one-dimensional correlational patterns:

Perhaps this behavioral complexity is what produced controversial results in some studies.

Machiavellians also adapt their strategies to the situation far more than low machs do.
For example:

They earn large profits in social dilemma games but once the experimenter enables players to punish free-riders, they restrain their profiteering and increase the sums offered to partners to avoid punishment (Spitzer et al. 2007). In most cases, they are unwilling to help others but when they are aware of being observed by members of the community, they are at once ready to support even unknown individuals so that they maintain their prestige (or its illusion) in the group (Bereczkei, Birkas, & Kerekes 2010).

6. More Traits: Personality, Temperament, & Character

  • Lower agreeableness
  • Lower conscientiousness
  • Higher neuroticism: but they don’t let it show
  • More individualistic, and a weaker sense of group orientation
  • Low need for social approval
  • Sensation seeking: but cannot be considered typical risk takers
  • Borderline personality disorder: overlaps mostly with “identity diffusion”, as Machs are social chameleons and “fear of fusion”

Machiavellian Communication

  • Persuasive lies

Machiavellians lie very persuasively, and efficiently conceal their true intentions.
In two studies Machiavellians (Exelinne, Geis & Moon 1981) found Machiavellians to be more credible than non-Machiavellians.

  • Impression management

Machs do strive to make good impression.

And, in good part, they succeed.
A study found that even by simply looking at pictures, people rated high Machs in more favorable terms.
High Machs were mostly described as “smart”, “brave”, “ambitious”, “appealing”, “dominant” and “talented”. Low Machs were primarily described
as “irresolute”, “sentimental”, “unintelligent”, “credulous” and “indecisive”.
And people rate high Machs higher on social attractiveness than they rate low Machs (Wilson, Near, & Miller 1996).

  • Machiavellian phenotype?

Researchers gave subjects the description of an “individual manipulative for personal gains”, and the subjects picked the face which was generated from the average face of many high Mach subjects (Holtzman, 2011).

Machiavellian phenotype research (Holtzman 2011)
1. low Mach female; 2. high Mach female; 3. low Mach male; 4. high Mach male (Holtzman 2011)
  • Telling behavioral features

My note:
This section in the book included two studies that supposedly showed how high Machs were disliked in real-life. But I have found those studies to be misquoted, so I skip them (see the “cons” section).

Machs Can Be Very Cooperative…

… When it’s good for them as well.

In an experiment of Public Goods Game each player could decide whether to keep a sum of money in their private account, or to share it in a public account.
The money in the public account would be double at the end of the game and shared among all.

The researchers expected that the presence of altruists would lead Machs to decrease their public contributions to take advantage of them.
Instead, when Machs also increased their contributions when playing with altruists.
The author speculates that Machs calculate that if they contributed small amounts to the group account, altruists might change their minds and reduce their public contributions, leading to a lose-lose turn of events for Machiavellians.

Machiavellians Have More Sex

They start earlier, and have more sexual partners.

Jonason et al. in a paper called “The dark triad: Facilitating a short‐term mating strategy in men“, says that Machiavellians are much more likely to change partners frequently, to prefer short-term relationships.
They show low levels of closeness, intimacy and commitment towards their partners (Ali & Chamorro-Premuzic 2010).

They are also more likely to approach dating with a more malevolent bent, and use more value-taking strategies, including making their partners drunk, or intimidate and humiliate them partner when they believe doing so will help them “score”.

However, later on the author also says that Machiavellians do not confine themselves to short-term, and are as likely to enter long-term relationships.

Machs At Work: Kings of Unstructured Environments

Machs performance at work might seem like a mixed bag at first:

  • Some studies show Machs doing worse

A meta-analysis with more than 43,000 subjects in 245 independent samples found that Machiavellians had a lower average income and more frequently engaged in “deviant” behavior at the workplace.

The author says it’s not surprising because, in the long run, Machs cannot hide their true selves. And once the reality of who they truly are emerges, people aren’t too fond of Machs.

  • Some studies suggest Machs doing better

However, other studies suggest that Machs reach higher income, occupational statuses, and positions.
And that might be either because of their drive to win, or because people attribute personal qualities to Machs.

In the author’s own study, top leaders had the highest scores of Machiavellianism, and there was a link between the age of the company and Mach scores at the top.
In general, the younger the company, the more Machiavellians did well.
A German study also reached the same conclusion: no advantage for Machs in tightly structured organizations. But in more loosely organized companies without clear top-management instructions, Machs were earning twice as much.

  • Machs do better in unstructured environments

It seems then that Machs do better in unstructured environments, probably because those environments provide them with more opportunities for their strategies, political machinations, and manipulations.
It’s a similar trend to what’s been seen in the laboratory as well: whenever there was more room for maneuvers within the environment, Machs tended to do even better.

Machiavellians Are Not Evil

The author very directly asks:

Are Machiavellians evil?

And he replies:

That would be an exaggeration. Usually they do not harm others for the sake of causing harm, and they do not find pleasure in others’ suffering as opposed to psychopaths.

I don’t fully agree that psychopaths all necessarily enjoy other people’s suffering, but I do agree with the general point he makes.

Keep in mind that Machiavellians only act immorally when there is something to be gained (the means justify the end).
They’re not hell-bent on evil.
So when there is nothing to be gained, Machiavellians might as well act morally (the end does not justify the means).

Machiavellians Seek Good Social Reputation

Machiavellians aren’t very concerned with social norms, and they resist community expectations.

But they do care about people’s opinions and seek to make a good impression and win others’ benevolence.

In a real-life study, Machiavellians who were asked to do charity work publicly, three times as many Machiavellians agreed as compared to the private request, suggesting an effort of “pretended altruism” (my note: however, it didn’t say how many more low Machs also agreed in the public condition, albeit it’s implied it was less).
And the public act did have an effect: people rated the volunteer as more reliable and friendly.

Machiavellians also seem to be good at managing in-person impressions -especially when it’s first impressions-:

People Like Machiavellians

An experiment for example showed that while Machiavellians are unwilling to help people in trouble when group members are not around, they are more likely to give charitable donations when they know that others will know about it.

And Machiavellians do often succeed at making a good impression.
People often judge Machiavellians to be intelligent even though research shows they’re no more intelligent than others (Wilson et al. 1996). And people do consider them as being charismatic and effective leaders (Deluga 2001).

Machiavellians Might Make for Good Leaders

Bereczkei says that as leaders, Machiavellians’ personal interests can overlap with collective interests.
Therefore, since it’s in their interest to further their own group, they can put their Machiavellianism to good uses for the community.

That being said, while I consider it a good point, I must remain skeptical.
For more on political power dynamics see “The Logic of Political Survival“.

Emotional Intelligence & “Manipulative Intelligence”

The gist is:

Machs perform poorly on emotional intelligence tests.
They might be poorer at understanding their own emotions and detecting people’s emotions when nothing is at stake.
But when they have something to gain, Machs perform well -or better-, and are very effective manipulators.

When it comes to mind reading, it is possible that Machiavellians are in general average or poor mind readers. But, again, they show above-average cognitive abilities in situations offering the opportunity to manipulate others.

Emotional Coldness

  • Emotional detachment

Machiavellians perform better in emotionally loaded situations such as, for example, a debate involving personal feelings and values (Geis, Weinheimer, & Berger 1970; Sullivan & Allen 1999).

Machs seem able to cast emotions aside and they devote full attention to the cognitive appraisal of the situation, focusing only on the achievement of strategic objectives.

  • Impulse control and communication of emotions

Machiavellians have difficulty both in communicating their own emotions and understanding those of others.

In common with alexithymia, Machs also present “externally-oriented thinking (Al Ain et al. 2013; Jonason & Krause 2013). This means Machiavellians are rarely concerned with their internal life, do not analyze their own thoughts and feelings, and don’t often rely on their imagination.

As such, Machs tend to score low on emotional intelligence tests.
But that’s not the whole story (read on).

  • Anxiety

The findings are mixed.
Some studies found no significant relationship between Machiavellianism and self-report measures of anxiety (e.g. STAI; Ali, Amorin, & Chamorro-Premuzic 2009). Other studies revealed a positive relationship between the two variables (Fehr et al. 1992; Al Ain et al. 2013).

Machs Fail “Normal” EI Tests

Writes the author:

This interpretation could be generalized: high Machs find it more difficult than average to understand other’s emotions, recognize the feelings or intentions reflected in the posture and facial expressions of others, and also to display difficulty in expressing and regulating their own emotions (Austin et al. 2007; Wai & Tiliopoulos 2012; Szijjarto & Bereczkei 2015; Pilch 2008; Vonk et al. 2015).

That means that Machiavellians have, or at least score, low in emotional intelligence.
Machiavellianism is also negatively related to the more broad construct of social intelligence that includes sensitivity to, and understanding and control of, social relationships.

The Problem With Most Emotional Intelligence Scales

Some authors point out issues with what emotional intelligence measures (O’Conner & Athota 2013).

The issue is that EI measures focus almost exclusively on positive emotions.
They concern traits such as “kind”, “friendly” and “benevolent”. Hence, it is not surprising that low Machs score high, and high Machs score low.
And once the agreeableness effect was eliminated the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and emotional intelligence disappeared.

Hot VS Cold Empathy

“Hot” empathy is what the conventional notion of empathy, referring to the ability to experience an individual’s emotional state and potentially motivate the observer to help.

“Cold” empathy refers to understanding and recognizing someone else’s mental state and feelings, but without enabling one to share others’ emotions.
While cold empathy does not make people willing to help, it can enable people to use the information in various ways, including for taking advantage of others.

A highly empathetic person shares emotions as well -“hot” empathy-.
But the two are only weakly related, with Machs showing a low level of empathic concern but likely having a good “cold” empathy underpinning their theories of mind (read on).

Also see:

Mind Reading & Theory of Mind

Theroy of mind refers to one’s ability to attribute to others mental states and contents such as desires, beliefs, intentions and emotions that may be different from one’s own mental states.

Research shows that Machs either have average or below-average ability to understand other people’s mental states (Paal & Bereczkei 2007; Lyons, Caldwell, & Schultz 2010; Ali et al. 2009).

The big question then is:

How can Machs successfully manipulate others with a below-average ability to recognize others’ goals and emotional states?
The question hasn’t been fully answered yet, but we have some partial answers at least.

One possible answer is similar to the emotional intelligence conundrum we saw above: the tests and studies used are not effective to measure Machs’ abilities.
A recent experiment proposed subjects two stories: one with a conventional narrative and conventional “states”. Another one was posed in terms of manipulating and achieving goals (Szabo, Jones, & Bereczkei under publication, but probably this one here).
Results indicated that Machiavellianism was associated with increased mentalization performance in the context of manipulation. 
The author says that “it seems that Machiavellians in fact recognize very accurately when others (characters in the stories in the study) manipulate or are being manipulated”.
Later on, the author says that from his point of view, Machs are remarkably smart observers of human nature.

A different answer by some authors is to differentiate between the types of theories of mind: idiographic and nomothetic.
Idiographic seeks individual differences and peculiarities, while nomothetic categorizes the individual into a general “type” based on previous experience.

Manipulative Intelligence

When Machs tested with the “emotional manipulation scale”, which might be considered a “dark EI”, they substantially more frequently reported their willingness to deceive, confuse or influence others according to their own goals.

Says the author:

This means that Machiavellians may be able to understand others’ emotions and control their own feelings at a high level but that essentially they employ these abilities to serve their self-interest.

And that is consistent with several other studies which have also demonstrated that Machiavellians are in fact better than others in certain dimensions (Austin et al. 2007; Grieve 2011; Nagler et al. 2014).
For example, Machs exhibit above-average emotional intelligence when they have the opportunity to deceive others either verbally or nonverbally.
By contrast, when where there is no chance to exploit others and gain, they remain blind to the feelings of others as disturbing factors for which they find no use.

MERT Testing: Machs Still Perform Poorly

Some tests sought to provide a more real-life feel with videos, pictures, and audio (Multimodal Emotion Recognition Test, or MERT).

Machs also scored lower.
However, such tests fail to overcome the essential problem that subjects are not actively involved in the situation.

Let’s dig deeper.

Rea-World Testing Shows Great EI/Social Performance

One study combined the cheat card game with real money to examine how people express, conceal and recognize emotions in a realistic situation (Orosz & Bereczkei 2015).

High Machs were more likely to detect their partners’ lying. And had more correct detections compared to the total number of cheat calls.
Finally, they also concealed their emotions more effectively, as measured by the number of cheat calls from their partners.

My Note:
This study seems to have been performed by a student of the author, and I couldn’t find it online.

Machiavellian Intelligence

Nicholas Humphrey (1976) first described the “social intelligence hypothesis”, which suggests that humans’ high-level intelligence adapted to the social environment rather than to challenges posed by the natural environment.

A central domain of the social intelligence theory comprises manipulative-deceptive strategies.
Richard Dawkins and John Krebs (1978) first explained that much communication in the animal world is not to provide honest information as it was previously thought, but it’s to deceive others.

The next step towards Machiavellian intelligence was in the form of “selection pressure” and “arms’ race” (Robert Dunbar, 1992, 1998, 2002) between manipulative strategies, and people’s need to spot the manipulation and counter-deceive.

These theoretical considerations have been supported by studies on primates.
For example:

So researchers developed the “Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis” in the mid-1980s (Byrne & Whiten 1988).

Machiavellian intelligence is based on the idea that skillful manipulation confers significant evolutionary advantages.
Successful deception and exploitation of rivals exerted selection pressure on the development of an increasingly more complex social intelligence.

The author concludes that “researchers have agreed that manipulative and deceptive strategies have made an essential contribution to the emergence of humans’ uniquely large brain and intelligence.”

Machiavellians might then simply be those individuals who, more than others, inherited the Machiavellian genes and mind.
Among the advantages of the Machiavellian Intelligence in humans:

  • Persistent task orientation, related to their working memory capacity
  • Efficiently assess possible ways and costs of gaining rewards
  • Inhibiting spontaneous emotions
  • Selecting potential targets
  • Flexbility & adaptability of behavior and strategies

This website includes “Machiavellian intelligence” into the overlapping but larger construct of “power intelligence“.

Power Intelligence (PI): What Is it, How to Increase It

So if there are advantages, why isn’t everyone a high Mach?
Because Machiavellianism has a ceiling in evolutionary terms. From a group/individual point of view, defection can’t go too far or cooperation and trust would break down. And two, because there must be non-Machiavellians for the strategy to work to yield results (frequency-dependent selection).
Finally, the individual’s Machiavellian deception also has to be contained to avoid being ostracized or punished by the group.

Machs Are Good at Inferring

The author then outlines his own theory of how Machiavellians approach strategies and decision-making.

He reviews brain scans and how Machs’ brain activity differs, and introduces his research on working memory. Machiavellians have high working memory capacity, which allows making inferences and judgments about people (Bereczkei & Birkas 2014).
Machs are efficient at memorizing and recalling information, and in computational operations. That is, on the basis of their previous experience they infer others’ personality type and emotional life.

It’s Mostly Socialization (Surprisingly)

Heritability of Machiavellianism seems to be low (0.31).

That is in contrast to psychopathy (0.69) and narcissism (0.59).

Of course genetic factors do play a role, but Machiavelliniasm seems to be more a product of environmental effects.

One study found an important correlation between Machiavellianism and quality of parental care.

low-quality maternal care is one of the most important factors contributing to the development of a Machiavellian personality

Machiavellians’ childhood is characterized by insecure attachments, low levels of parental care, and poor communication.

Also read more in:

The life-history theory postulates that experiences acquired in crucial areas during the sensitive period of early life may have a large effect on the individual’s subsequent course of life.
Those “crucial areas” include models for sexuality, dating, and relationships, accessibility of resources, quality of attachment to the parents, and predictability of the social environment during childhood.

Dark Triad VS Machiavellianism

The main commonalities in the dark triad are callousness, which essentially means a lack of concern for, and empathy towards others.
And manipulation, closely related to lying, derogating, remorseless self-seeking.

Common features among Machs, narcissists and psychopaths also include:

Beyond these common features, however, all three members of the Dark Triad possess specific traits that are built on the basic structure.
Machiavellians are primarily characterized by strategic planning, psychopaths by extreme antisociality, and narcissists by an egocentric outlook on life.


  • Big 5 model: except for agreeableness, there is no consistency
  • Lying: Psychopaths, similarly to Machiavellians, are incurable liars whereas narcissists are not
  • Short-term / long-term relationships: Machiavellians don’t avoid long-term relationships as strongly as the other two members of the Dark Triad do (Jonason, Luevano, & Adams 2012).
  • Fairness and altruism: psychopaths lag far behind the other two groups
  • Realism VS self-greatness: psychopaths and narcissists claim their own greatness and superiority, while Machiavellians are characterized by a certain kind of realism
  • Coping strategies for problems: narcissists used coping strategies to alter stressful situations, with deliberate efforts to change the effect of stressors. Machs and psychos neglect of social support, do not seek informational, emotional or tangible support from others for solving their personal problems (Birkás, Gács, & Csathó 2016)
  • Materialism: A Polish study investigated the tendency to place material possession very high in an individual’s hierarchy of values. Higher narcissism and Machiavellianism were strongly connected with materialistic orientation but psychopathy did not
  • Drug & Alcohol: High psychopathy showed strong addictive tendencies regarding either drug use, smoking or alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption was positively correlated with narcissism. There is little or no relation between Machiavellianism and alcohol consumption, drug use, or smoking (Jonason, Koenig, & Tost 2010).

The author says that “Machiavellianism shows specific or typical features such as a rational mode of thinking, flexible decision-making, and cost/benefit calculation concerning behavioral output”.

Several authors suggested that narcissism does not belong to the cluster of malevolent personality traits (Egan, Chan, & Shorter 2014; Kowalski, Vernon, & Schermer 2017) and proposed instead a “dark dyad” with psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

Machs VS Psychopaths

The closest relationship in the dark triad is between Machs and psychopaths.
Both have a poor sense of responsibility and low moral commitment.
Narcissism might be the “odd one out” because studies found that it’s loosely related to the other two components (Rauthmann & Kolar 2013; Vernon et al. 2008).

Psychopaths are more:

  • Impulsive: with especial regard to the dysfunctional impulsivity that includes inattention and risk-seeking. Machs might seem impulsive as they sometimes “strike first”, but there is no significant relationship between Mach and impulsivity
  • Reward-driven (including short term): psychos strive after profits at any price even if it entails punishment Machs love rewards, but they look for the best strategy to get them, rather than plunging in head-first
  • Antisocial personality: there is overlap as Machs disregard ethical norms, deceive others, and are cynical and cold-blooded. Machs also score higher than low Machs (McHoskey 2001).
    • Norm violation: Machs are most likely to break “grey area” norms, norms that are less likely to cause troubles, or break norms when they’re less likely to be caught
    • Violence: Machs self-reported (slightly) fewer acts of violence than psychopaths (Pailing, Boon, & Egan 2014). The author speculates Machs only consider violence when all else fails
    • Brutality and cruelty: psychos often assault others and are ready to take immediate revenge for any harm they suffer (Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus 2013; Pailing, Boon, & Egan 2014). Although Machiavellians also commit antisocial acts, they remain far behind psychopaths in brutality and cruelty, which probably originate in a lack of control of aggressive impulses
  • Short-term focused (including at the detriment of self and/or of future self)
  • Coping & emotions: Machiavellians can ruminate or become emotional in response to stress; psychopaths show no sign of making emotional control in stressful situations (Birkás, Gács, & Csathó 2016)
  • Anxiety: psychopaths feel no anxiety. Machiavellians do, but can control their emotions and conceal their anxiety from others

A gambling experiment involving the calculation of risks showed that psychopaths kept playing and losing, while Machs were more strategic and successful.

The author is surprised by the overlap between Machs and psychopaths. He says that Machiavellianism could be considered as the “basic level” of psychopathy, to which psychopaths develop further characteristics such as antisocial, violent and cruelty that enjoys harming others.

My Note:
I feel the misunderstanding might partially stem from the author considering psychopaths as sadists

Machiavellianism Downsides

Both Machiavellians & Their Bosses Are Dissatisfied at Work

Says Tamas:

However, irrespective of their working activities, employers are dissatisfied with the attitude and behavior of Machiavellians. Maybe more importantly, neither are Machiavellians satisfied with the job and role they fulfill in everyday life (Ali & Chamorro-Premuzic 2010).

Higher Dissatisfaction in Sex Life

The higher partner count that comes from seeking diversity doesn’t seem to be accompanied by personal satisfaction.
Says the author:

Probably not surprisingly, however, it is also Machiavellians who are dissatisfied with their sex life, always seeking for something different, something new.

Fatalism, External Locus of Control, & Alienation

Says the author:

High Machs are firmly convinced that external circumstances have a stronger infl uence on their life than internal drives. This probably lies at the core of their strong feeling of alienation in their personal relationships as far as they believe that they live in isolation and their life is essentially meaningless

It might seem contradictory that Machiavellians are more fatalistic and have a higher external locus of control than low Machs.
The author explains it with Machiavellians’ cynicism and distrust of others. Such as, Machiavellians see a dog-eat-dog world where you’re basically forced to defend yourself and strike first.

Past-Negative Perspectives

Birkas & Csatho analyzed the time perspectives of dark-triad individuals.
People differ in their time-perspective along the variables of:

  • Present
    • Present hedonistic strives for immediate satisfaction, takes risks, seeks exciting stimuli, and ignores future consequences
    • Present fatalistic believes in the fatefulness and predestination of life events
  • Past
    • Past positive takes a rather sentimental and nostalgic perspective on past events
    • Past negative focuses on previous failures and misfortune
  • Future-oriented set goals and make plans that they strive to realize by persistent efforts (note: the original model of time perspective has only one future orientation, while Carelli et al (2011) argued it can be split into positive and negative as well)

Machiavellians have a present-fatalistic attitude (remember the Machs’ external locus of control) and, same as psychopaths, a past-negative perspective.

Past-negatives tend to recall bad rather than good memories from the past.
The author says that is probably related to their negative childhood experiences and that “their time perspective is influenced by their shadows and ghosts of the past”.

People Can “Find Out” & Dislike the Machiavellian Attitude

Says the author:

Machiavellians often have to pay the price of manipulation, often becoming isolated, especially in a close-knit community such as a company of friends, a workplace community or a sports club.

In the long term, they may lose the social capital previously acquired through a charming demeanor

Personally, I’m skeptical on what that “often” means, but it’s certainly possible.

Competitive Disadvantage

Finally, there might be a competitive disadvantage in environments where low Machiavellianism provides an advantage.

Says the author:

Low Machs outdo Machiavellians in most social situations that require coordinated actions. Cooperation usually requires some form of empathy, mutual attunement and understanding, which Machiavellians generally lack. Moreover, low Machs may also gain advantages in environments where social norms are observed and noncompliance is sanctioned.

Ultimately, the author says that probably the most effective positioning in the Mach scale is around the middle: manipulative enough to acquire sufficient resources, but not so much as to risk losing them.

I’m not sure I agree, since the author himself repeated over and over that Machs don’t necessarily sacrifice short-term for long term.
So higher levels of Machiavellianism don’t necessarily mean being more impulsive and more “psychopathic behavior”.
I might agree in terms of “loss of human connection” in cases of extremely high Mach scores, but not necessarily in terms of “life efficiency”.


  • Much of Machs’ success is about picking the right market

Machiavellians gain the most in certain specific environments and situations.
A study for example found out that an environment where everyone is in heavy competition for resources reduced the scope of Machiavellians’ outsized payoffs.

The paper, titled “Abusing Good Intentions: Machiavellians Strive for Exploiting Cooperators” gives you hints already for which environments are ripe for Machiavellians: environments with lots of suckers.

  • Defectors Are Bad for All

Says the author on the effect of defectors in a Public Goods Game (redacted for brevity):

The presence of defectors (selfish players who contributed 20% or less of their funds to the group’s account) influenced the behavior of both low and high Machs to substantially reduce their contributions.
Defectors pose a danger to all players since they make money from the others’ public contributions. Defection in most cases elicits counteraction and provides justification for other players, even for altruists, to shift away from their initial cooperative attitude to a selfish strategy. This is especially true when there is no external punishment to restrain defection. In such a case, there is no other option than to withdraw cooperation.

  • Don’t give without making sure you’re getting

As the author cautions, some Machiavellians take without feeling the obligation of giving back.
I actually don’t think that’s the case with most Machiavellians, who are smarter than that. But it’s because such people exist that on this website we caution against strategies of “giving” without making sure you’re getting back.

  • Low Machs sometimes cheat more than high Machs (emotions VS rationality)

In an experiment low Machs cheated more than high Machs during personal competition. The authors say that the high Machs deemed the situation at too high risk of being found out, while the low Machs got too emotionally involved.

  • Machiavellians are motivated by rational self-interest: they accept small sums of money in Ultimatum Games

People usually don’t play rationally and refuse sums they consider unfairly low (Gintis et al. 2003; Heinrich et al. 2005).
High Machs instead are more rational, and were more likely to accept the small offers that low Machs refused because “unfair” (Meyer 1992).

  • More likely to use negative humor

Martin and Lefcourt developed the “Human Response Questionnaire” to categorize the different types of humor.
Machiavellianism (and psychopathy) were only correlated with negative humor (Veselka et al. 2010).

  • Machiavellis target those who are easy to take advantage of

Machiavellis pick people who are easier to manipulate. That includes those who are willing to cooperate and who have concern for others.

Says the author:

They gained significantly higher profits when their partners were willing to cooperate than in the case where the partners engaged in rivalry.
Machiavellian behavior may reflect the following algorithm: “Pick the dupe and then adjust your decisions to their behavior”.

  • Agreeable people are more likely to be manipulated

People who are low extraversion, high neuroticism, and high agreeableness are highly vulnerable to social manipulation (Chung & Charles 2016).
“Implying trustfulness, forgiveness and temperate manner, these traits on the Big Five scale may make people especially good target of exploitation.”


Both instructive and very entertaining to see how low and high Machs differently described the same situation:

Examples of typical accounts of the shipwreck situation:

1 Low Mach male author: We are all together in this plight. We realize that we must all cooperate, and John, Peter and I decide to equally distribute the limited supplies.

2 Low Mach female author: Mary, Jane and I seem to be getting along pretty well . . . It’s funny how we immediately began to trust each other.

3 High Mach male author: I didn’t particularly care for John and Peter, and I suspected that there were going to be problems real soon. . . . They are two and I am one. . . . I hope that I can get rid of the human threat soon.

4 High Mach female author: Mary and Jane are cold bitches who constantly complain . . . when I got really hungry I wondered how I could cook them with the limited cooking equipment we had.


I’m super grateful to Tamás Bereczkei and the wonderful job he’s done.

He informed me like few others, and I will be quoting him and his work on his website many times over.

Also, keep in mind I’m always more critical of great work.

There is personal dislike against Machiavellianism

On this website, we aim at being value-adding individuals who generally do good. However, this website also believes that there are plenty of situations in life when being Machiavellian is good.

As a matter of fact, this website makes the case that being able to operate as a Machiavellian is an important life skill.

The author instead seems to take a stronger and more moral stance against Machiavellianism, for example saying that they “pose danger to others”.
They might, but it’s also true that overly naive folks pose a danger to themselves and those who count on them.

  • Sometimes frames Machs unnecessarily poorly

When Machs contributed more to public accounts the author says it was “yet another example of pretended altruism, for unselfish behavior served to increase private gains in this case as well”.

I don’t see it that way at all: Mach’s behavior still resulted in win-win.

The author says that the ultimate proof of the selfish behavior is that Machiavellians earned larger sums at the end of the five rounds than did others.
Well, you can’t blame one for winning at the game, can you?

Psychopaths sadists?

The author says that psychopaths enjoy harming others.

That’s true sometimes, as described for example in MacKenzie account of his relationship with a psychopath, or as shared in Thomas’ autobiography.

However, I also find it a generalization and I don’t remember having ever read that “enjoying other people’s harm” was a key feature of psychopathy.

Some jump to conclusions on Machs’ long-term relationships

The author discusses a study in which subjects were asked to read a story and “project themselves into it”.
Based on the results, the author added that “Findings clearly led to the conclusion that Machiavellianism has a serious price, namely, deprivation of social relationships in the long term”.
I disagree that a study based on reading a story and projecting into it can warrant making clear real-life inferences.

The author also says that the “fear of fusion” aspect of Machs leads to loneliness and the loss of social support.
That also felt like a jump to conclusion, and in my opinion, it’s very possible Machs don’t feel lonely at all.

  • Contradictory conclusions on income

The author first introduces a meta-analysis lower average income for Machs and then comments that “it’s not surprising because Machs cannot hide their true selves”.

Then, he introduces other studies suggesting the opposite, and he gives reasons why Machs could earn more -their drive to achieve, and their charisma/leadership-.

So… Which one is which?
And if there is no clear-cut conclusions, as it seems like, then we shouldn’t say “that’s not surprising”.

Temperament and Character Inventory had poor constructs

The TCI measured “cooperativeness” as “acceptance of others, empathy, conscientiousness. High scorers are helpful, merciful, tolerant, empathetic, while low scorers are socially uninvolved, self-seeking, and unconscientious.

To me, that doesn’t properly measure cooperativeness. From a Mach point of view, it might as well measure the “likelihood of being conned”.

A couple of times a study seemed misquoted

Of the dark triad, the author writes that “They also overlap in their negative relationship with cognitive empathy (Wai & Tiliopoulos 2012; Jonason & Krause 2013)”.

I had to check that because as far as I know from other sources, psychopaths and Machs are OK with cognitive empathy.
The author himself later in the book says as much.

And indeed, Wai & Tiliopoulos’s study says that “All dark triad personalities were associated with deficits in affective empathy, but showed little evidence of impairment in cognitive empathy”.

In another case, the author mentions two studies by Rauthmann & Kolar 2013. He says that the two experiments involved groups of people interacting in real-time. The result was that people tended to dislike the high Machs in the first one. In the second experiment, people only conceived a short-term relationship with high Machs but not a long-term one.
However, when I checked the references there was only one study, and it involved the assessment of a fictitious character, not a real-life one.

A few other times I couldn’t find a study.
But I must say, these were the exceptions.


The best overview of the empirical evidence on Machiavellianism at the time of writing (2021).

It’s not a “how to” guide, of course, so people searching for self-development in the area of social skills, strategies, and Machiavellian intelligence might be best served with this website.

And those who are looking for a more academic approach, or an overview of the available research and literature, “Machiavellianism” is gold.

See the:

Or get the book on Amazon.

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