12 Traits To Be An Effective Machiavellian

statue of Machiavelli

This article shares what Machiavellianism is, and lays the foundations for becoming more positively Machiavellian.

We teased out the best information from hundreds of studies, tens of books, and lots of experience.

Are you ready?

Let’s start.

statue of niccolo Machiavelli
Machiavelli, author of “The Prince

What’s Machiavellianism

Definition:

Machiavellianism is a personality trait peculiar to self-centered and amoral individuals who pursue personal advancement through a calculative, rational, and opportunistic approach to life

This definition is unique in a significant way: it leaves out manipulation and cheating.

It leaves them out because deception is at most a consequence of Machiavellians’ predispositions, not a primary trait.

And second, Manipulation is a human trait, and not unique to Machiavellians.
Indeed studies have shown that, when cheating doesn’t pay, Machiavellians cheat less than non-Machiavellians.

Why Learning Machiavellianism

Says Tamás Bereczkei:

Their self-assuredness and goal orientation provide them with immense advantages over others in gaining material goods and favorable positions. In contrast, low Machs are concerned with personal relationships and moral norms that often make them vulnerable.

And says Maria Konnikova:

In one series of studies, when a high Mach was placed in a situation with a low Mach, he tended to emerge ahead in most any scenario.

Konnikova, 2016

It makes sense.

Machiavellians tend to be charismatic, charming, and leaderlike.
Couple that with a strategic and opportunistic approach to life, and you get why Machiavellians win.

And “winning” is why you want to learn “how to be more Machiavellian”.

Machiavellian Traits

These are the defining traits of Machiavellianism:

1. Self-centered

Machiavellians put their self-interests first.

2014 study aptly titled “valuing myself over others” found that Machiavellians value individual pursuits over collectivist values such as “loyalty to the community”.

“What’s in It For Me” Keeps Machiavellians Goal-Focused

The Machiavellian is the ultimate “homo economics”.

He asks himself “what’s in it for me”?
And if the answer is “not much”, he sees no point in expending effort.

Non-Machiavellians are more likely to waste time and resources because they regard it as a moral obligation to do their duty.

2. Influential

Machiavellians are skilled at managing appearances and first impressions.

People consider Machiavellians as charismatic and effective leaders (Deluga 2001).
And often judge them to be intelligent even though research shows they’re no more intelligent than others.

3. Dominant

Say Christie and Geis commenting on their studies:

Machiavellians initiated and controlled the structure of bargaining interaction in the group. They were overwhelmingly the dominant, decisive, and sought-after member of the triad.

By controlling group dynamics, Machiavellians heavily influence the outcome.

The best thing?
People were happy to oblige.

Machs Are Good at Making Others Want to Follow Them

Machiavellians might use coercion, if they have the means.

But often, they don’t even need to because people look up to Machiavellians for directions.

To make people want to follow is the hallmark of true leadership, and the type of power that lasts.

Christie and Geis say it’s not possible to say if Machiavellians are charismatic, or if it’s non-Machiavellians who are UNcharismatic and socially inept.
However, the net result is the same: Machiavellians get what they want because others happily oblige.

3. Strategic

symbol of machiavellian strategic thinking

Robert Hare famously said that psychopaths see the world as a chessboard.

But later research showed that the true chess grand masters of the dark triad are the Machiavellians.

4. Calculative

Machiavellians are very calculative.

They are willing to cheat and deceive, but only when the benefits exceed the costs.
And if the risk/reward ratio is poor, they’ll act morally.

And if the Machiavellian’s calculation suggests that “prosocial giving” is best for them, then they will be altruistic.

5. Amoral

Machiavellians don’t see ethical principles as “good” per se.

For example, in social exchanges, Machiavellians don’t feel bound by reciprocity or “fairness”.
In a classic sociological experiment on trust and theft, high Machs stole from those who had previously trusted them.
By contrast, non-Machiavellians gave up substantial material gains to obey fairness and responsibility norms.

6. Opportunistic

Machiavellians are the princes of opportunism.

Indeed, it’s a major mistake to think of Machiavellians as always acting immorally.

There is a difference between amorality and immorality.

Machiavellians’ expressions of (a)morality is opportunistic.

Says Bereckzei:

In most cases, they are unwilling to help others. But they are ready to support unknown individuals when they are aware of being observed by members of the community. That way, they maintain their prestige (or its illusion) in the group (Bereczkei, Birkas, & Kerekes 2010).

Today’s Machiavellian marketers aren’t even bound by a physical audience. They’ll set up the cameras themselves:

machiavellian marketer example with tai lopez

Says the “charitable man” in the video after handing out $1.000 dollars:

Machiavellian marketer: some people say I shouldn’t do stuff like this and put the video public (…) not do it to show off (<—–raises the most likely criticism to address it and control the narrative).
And there is some truth to that (<—- strategic agree part of the agree-and-redict technique).
Although (<—- after agreeing he bridges to address the criticism and set his own frame)
I think there is so much negative media, I think it’s OK to publish some positive stuff (<— justifies his PR action as “spreading positivity”)

Nice moves.
He prevents the obvious attack as a PR stunt by raising the issue himself and addressing it.
And then frames his action as “spreading positivity against the media’s negativity”.
That gives his supporters -and the more naive people- a reason to believe his actions are well-meaning.

7. Cynic

Machiavellians are suspicious of others, and attribute negative traits to people.

Some scholars even say that Machiavellians cheat out of prevention. In their dog-eat-dog worldview, they think it’s more of a matter of “who cheats first” (McIllwain 2003).

Interestingly enough, Machiavellians are honest about their cynicism, and view non-Machiavellians as weak hypocrites.
In turn, that makes it fair in Machiavellians’ view to take advantage of them.

8. Realist

Machiavellians concentrate on what is -and how to exploit it-.

Non-Machiavellians instead easily get lost in “how things ought to be”, or “what’s fair”.

9. Pragmatic

Machiavellians aren’t motivated by appeals to higher values.

To them, that’s hot air BS for the gullible.

Instead, research shows that Machiavellians are mostly motivated by extrinsic motivation such as money, power, and influence.

10. Rational

Machiavellians are generally more rational than non-Machiavellians.

Non-Machiavellians can also be influenced by rational reasons, but they’re also more easily swayed by IRrational reasons.

11. Emotionally Cool

machiavellian-looking snowman

Christie and Geis call this the “Cool Syndrome”.

Machiavellians generally think more rationally and consider all available options and possibilities in a cold-minded manner (Pilch, 2008)”.

“Muted” empathy, but effective strategists & manipulators

Machiavellians’ emotional intelligence has been a hotly debated topic.

Here is a quck overview:

Machiavellians score lower on some types of emotional and social intelligence tests.
But many EI tests were poorly designed.
When the agreeableness effect was eliminated and when Machiavellians had something to gain, they performed well.
And when they could gain through manipulation, they were very effective manipulators.

The same goes for “mind-reading skills”.
Machiavellians may be average or poor mind readers. But they score above-average when they can manipulate others.

That’s the reason why this website has been critical of the early pop-psychology construct of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995).
This website espouses instead a more encompassing construct for “emotional intelligence” that includes the strategic, self-interested, and manipulative aspects.

Emotionally Cold Leadership

A famous cinematic moment of Machiavellian cold-bloodedness and strategic thinking:

Godfather: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business

The moment Michael Corleone showed cold detachment and superior strategic thinking was the moment he gained everyone’s respect.
That’s when he became The Godfather.

12. Fluid

Robert Greene listed fluidity as the 48th law of power:

Assume Formlessness.

That’s Machiavellian.
Machiavellians aren’t just strategic, they are fluidly strategic.

Says Bereczkei:

Machiavellians are not characterized by rigid thought patterns; they do not follow pre-existing schema they adhere at any price (…) The uniqueness of the Machiavellian character lies in (…) flexible decision-making (…) and continuous weighing-up of the situational conditions.

Fluidity has been shown in experimental settings:

Machiavellians earn large profits in social dilemma games but once the experimenters enable free-riders punishment, they restrain their profiteering and increase their cooperativeness (Spitzer et al. 2007).

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

Mach & Dark Triad

The dark triad includes Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.

The dark triad has been criticized, but for some purposes, it’s still a useful construct.

Let’s first better understand narcissism and psychopathy.

Narcissism

There are two types of narcissists:

  • Vulnerable narcissists: thin-skinned, neurotic, potentially depressed, harbors secret grandiosity but outwardly shy
  • Grandiose narcissists: thick-skinned, entitled, arrogant, low observable anxiety

Psychopathy

The two types of psychopathy:

  • Factor 1 psychopathy: (primary) selfish, remorseless, and exploitative. A subclinical, “more moderate” form that doesn’t necessarily include antisocial personality disorder.
  • Factor 2 psychopathy: (secondary) impulsive, irresponsible, sensation-seeking. Can be chronically antisocial (APD), and likely to end up -or remain- in prison

Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism overlaps most with grandiose narcissism, and type 1, subclinical psychopathy.

Says John & Paulhus:

Narcissism predicts ego-promoting outcomes, psychopathy predicts reckless and antisocial behavior, and Machiavellianism predicts a strategic orientation

In brief: Machiavellianism is the most strategic and, potentially, effective of the dark triad. Contrary to narcissists, Machiavellians disregard their egos for what’s effective. And contrary to psychopaths, they can postpone rewards and play the “long game”.

Advantages of Machiavellianism

By now the advantages of Machiavellianism should be obvious.

But for clarity:

1. Higher Odds of Life Success

We refer to “success” as defined in common parlance.

And Machiavellians are more likely to:

After all, it makes sense that a plotting, goal-driven individual who is unencumbered by ethics and morals is more successful than the average, no?

2. More Self-Reliance

Machiavellians are more resistant to both group pressure and individual pressure.

Says Christie and Geis:

Non-Machiavellians instead “are more likely to do or accept what another wants simply because he wants it”.

Interesting, eh?
When it comes to “good” or “bad”, paradoxically, it might be non-Machiavellians who are most likely to execute heinous orders.

3. Higher Internal Congruence, No Self-Manipulation

Machiavellians don’t lie to themselves.

They don’t need to: they’re far more comfortable with their dark side, and can openly admit to themselves.

That means that Machiavellians also experience little or no cognitive dissonance.

4. Most Likely to Become Leaders

As we’ve seen, Machiavellians lead newly-forming groups.

But there might also be inborn preferences for Machiavellian leaders that precede the interactions.

For example, when there are enemies or opponents, group members prefer Machiavellian leaders (Wilson et aI., 1998). 
This might be one of the reasons why some political leaders like to make up external enemies.

Another classic example is the preference for a Machiavellian as president of the United States (Deluga, 2001; Simonton, 1986).

… And potentially better leaders

Geis and Christie examined real-life leadership situations in their classes.

And they noticed that:

Groups with their highest Mach member as leader did better (…) got whatever resources they possessed organized and applied more effectively than other groups.

5. Antifragile Ego (Almost) By Default

Or, to be more accurate, “predisposition for antifragile ego”.

Machiavellians appear to have little defensive investment in both their self-image and their own beliefs.
And they also take slights less personally (Grande, 2019).

Another experiment showed that after an interviewer disapproved of the research subjects, the non-Machiavellian girls changed their self-descriptions, but high-Mach girls did not.

This generally low ego investment makes for a natural predisposition towards an antifragile ego.

6. Growth Mindset (Almost) By Default

A growth mindset is much easier to achieve when you’re not busy defending your ego.

Christie and Geis experiments indirectly tell us that Machiavellians are potentially better learners:

The non-Machiavellians are more likely to be upset or angry (…) Machiavellians are more likely to be curious (…)

Disadvantages of Machiavellianism

There are no “one-size fit all” in life.

And these are some downsides of Machiavellianism:

1. Poorer Relationships

example of machiavellian relationship failure with melania and donald trump
Melania Trump more than once refused to hold his husband’s hand

Low empathy and over-emphasis on power can make for poor relationships. And an overly callous and calculative attitude can turn people off in the long run.

Indeed, employers are dissatisfied with the attitude and behavior of Machiavellians (Bereczkei, 2017).
And research suggests that people prefer non-Machiavellians for close relationships such as confidant, good friend, or business partner.

No surprise here.
Who in their right mind would want a Machiavellian who stabs you in the back just when you needed help the most?

That’s one of the reasons this website had some concerns with the popular literature on Machiavellianism such as “The 48 Laws of Power“.

Avoided by Higher Quality People

This is more speculative, but it follows basic logic:

The better one is at reading people, the more he avoids overly scheming, overly cynical Machiavellians.

And that ultimately prevents Machiavellians from networking, making friends, or keeping partnerships with the highest quality people.

For the evidence, I’ve observed it in my life, and we’ve had further circumstantial evidence on the forums:

In another case, John spotted a value-taking, low-empathy ahole, and eventually started making inroads to disempower and isolate him.

2. Potentially Bad for Business Reputation

Manipulation and opportunism carry risks.

As David Sloan notes, even after successful manipulations, Machiavellians may suffer a reputation loss that decreases their social capital, and reduces future opportunities.

And albeit former Gambino family underboss Sammy Gravano wouldn’t feature in any research footnote, his credentials and success in both business and in one of the most Machiavellian organizations in the world lends him some credibility.
And he goes to the core of the issues when harangues his overly-scheming brother-in-law:

‘You’re right, they can’t do nothing, but you know what will happen? Everybody will hear about it (…) This will be the best two hundred thousand I’ll ever spend because people will say not only is Sammy qualified to do the job, but he’ll stay with you, win or lose.’ ’That’s important to businesspeople, Eddie,’ I said. ‘That’s why you were never successful in business. Because you scheme too fucking much.

Underboss, 1999

Gravano is referring to the importance of reputation -and the risks of a bad reputation-.

Over-scheming in the wrong settings might not even qualify as “Machiavellianism”. It’s just short-term thinking, and self-defeating behavior.
A smart Machiavellian would never cheat when repeat win-win is available.

3. Low Performance in Structured Work Environment

Say Paulhus and Delroy:

The research on career success is consistent with the original notion of latitude for improvisation (…) Machs remain cool, exploit interpersonal relationships, bend the rules, and improvise. When this flexibility is constrained, Machs are likely to incur problems.

But this is not necessarily a drawback, and more like a question of poor job fit.
Plus, jobs with no latitude for personal improvisation are more likely to be “grunt jobs”.

Where should Machiavellians go, then?

Well, Hunt and Lawrence (1984) found plenty of Machiavellians among marketers.
Not surprising, since much marketing is based on (mild) manipulation.

Also see:

4. Life Dissatisfaction & Alienation

Machiavellians are more dissatisfied in life.

They’re more dissatisfied at work, as well as with the role they fulfill in everyday life (Ali et. al., 2010).
Despite their higher partner count, Machiavellians are also more dissatisfied in their sex life.

Even deeper than “dissatisfaction”, Machiavellians are alienated.
They feel alienated in their personal relationships. They believe they are isolated, and that their life is essentially meaningless.

And the gap in life satisfaction is all the more obvious when the “dark triad” is contrasted to the “light triad” composed of “Kantianism”, “humanism”, and “faith in humanity” (Kaufman et al., 2019).

We can speculate Machiavellians are dissatisfied because of:

  1. Focus on material pursuits (“hedonic treadmill“)
  2. Overly-cynic attitude

In short: when it comes to life satisfaction, it might pay to be good (TPM note: as long as “good” doesn’t mean “naive”).

Now our question becomes:

Is it possible to combine the advantages of Machiavellianism, while avoiding the downsides?

Read on.

The “Enlightened Machiavellian”

Three Steps to Enlightened Machiavellianism:

1. Add “Machiavellian Mode” Atop Your “High-Quality Personality”

Machiavellian skills are useful.
And so are several Machiavellian traits and thought patterns.

That’s why we’re writing an article on “how to become Machiavellian”, after all.

What’s not useful is the inability to see beyond pure self-interest, to care for others, and to appreciate “higher ideals and values”.
That’s one of the reasons why Machiavellians are dissatisfied and alienated. That’s not true life success, is it?

Being the highest-quality man or woman one can also include the ability to care. And the ability to bond with other humans, and to feel happy, and accomplished.

So the best approach is to develop a “Machiavellian mode” that includes mindsets, skills, thought processes, and attitudes. And add that on top of an empathic personality capable of caring and loving.

Ironically, even from a “Machiavellian point of view” that’s the most effective approach since it’s more effective to be than to pretend.

2. Switch Between Ruthless & Loving

The quest for a life edge with the acquisition of “dark triad traits” is not a new idea.

Psychologist Kevin Dutton for example says that psychopathic traits are useful in moderation.

And I partially agree with that.
But even more than moderation, I believe it’s situational.

Sometimes, you don’t need moderation.

Some circumstances need your most ruthless and strategic coldness. And some people too.
That’s where you will don your Machiavellian hat, and go full-on “prince of darkness”.

And some other circumstances -and people- deserve our very best selves. And that’s where you will go full-on “light triad”.

So the “secret” is to take Machiavellian’s own strategic fluidity, and adapt it to Machiavellianism itself.

3. Develop the “Machiavellian Scanner” (& Keep It Always On)

The “Machiavellian scanner” analyzes situations and people looking for opportunities and risks.

In terms of risks, it scans a few crucial nodes such as:

  • Leverage: would this person be able to f*ck me up, if they wanted?
  • Power: is this person one-upping me, disempowering, social climbing, undermining… ?
  • Value: is this person taking without giving?

The “Machiavellian scanner” runs in the background.
It starts flashing orange when it sees small signs of danger, and it flashes green when it sees opportunities and/or great high-quality people.

From Naive to Machiavelli: Can You?

Red Riding Hood attacking the wolf

The 1-million dollar question:

Is it possible to become more Machiavellian?

Christie and Geis, the psychologists who first came up with the Machiavellian construct, asked that very question in their seminal book “Studies in Machiavellianism“.
And they speculate that “it’s probably possible”.

Strong of first-hand experience, we answer that it’s most likely possible to become more Machiavellian.
The evidence comes from the people who have learned, used, and achieved goals with Machiavellian strategies and mindsets they have learned.
The final “proof” would be to make sure those changes are internalized and “stick” over time. My guess is that they do.

The next question:

Can Over-Machiavellians Become More Empathic?

Question:

Can a high-Mach become more like a low-Mach?

Christie and Geis also asked themselves this question, but ultimately say they cannot answer.
I think going from Machiavellian to empath is more challenging.
But based on personal experience, I also think it’s possible -or, at least, it’s possible to improve-.

SUMMARY

Machiavellianism is a set of skills, attitudes, and mindsets.

People who want to advance in life are well-advised to work on their Machiavellian intelligence.

This website recommends learning Machiavellianism and learning to leverage some of its traits.

However, Machiavellianism also presents important drawbacks that can decrease life satisfaction.

Be careful not to turn into an overly cynical and completely amoral individual. The goal is to make Machiavellianism part of a general effort towards self-development, including the development of your ethics and morals.

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