Machiavellianism, Cognition, and Emotion: Understanding how the Machiavellian Thinks, Feels, and Thrives
Machiavellianism is a personality trait involving manipulativeness and deceit, cynical views toward human nature, and a cold, calculating attitude towards others. The trait was conceptualized in 1970 by Christie and Geiss, and describes the extent to which individuals adhere to the political philosophy of Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who advocated views involving cunning, deceit, and the notion that “means justify the ends.”
Machiavellianism is one of three interpersonally aversive personality traits that collectively constitute what is known as the “Dark Triad”; the other two traits being narcissism and psychopathy. Relative to Machiavellianism, narcissism involves a grandiose, inflated view of oneself, superficial charm, and deficits in the consideration of others. Comparatively, psychopathy is a personality trait involving reckless, antisocial behavior, lying, cheating, and a callous disregard of others that may border on aggression and violence. Machiavellianism, along with narcissism and psychopathy, share a constellation of features which have been referred to as the “core of the Dark Triad.” These features include shallow affect and a poor emotional attachment to others, an agentic self-focused approach to life, deficits in empathy, and low levels of honesty and humility. Machiavellianism is a distinct trait on its own however, and the distinctiveness of this trait will be discussed below. The trait of Machiavellianism is normally measured with the MACH-IV questionnaire, and for the purposes of this article, individuals who would score highly on this questionnaire are referred to as “Machiavellians.”
A cold, calculating view of others
Machiavellians are strategic individuals who are willing to lie, cheat, and deceive others in order to achieve their goals. Due to the Machiavellian’s lack of emotional attachment, and shallow experience of emotions, there may be little that holds these individuals back from harming others in order to achieve their goals. This in fact is one of the reasons why Machiavellian views and attitudes are so aversive and problematic. Indeed, similar to psychopaths who may harm others for enjoyment, or narcissists who may harm others due to their lack of empathy, Machiavellians may manipulate or deceive others in order to advance themselves, with little consideration of the emotional collateral.
Cold empathy vs. hot empathy
A distinction has been made between empathy that is cognitive and ‘cold’, and empathy that is emotional and ‘hot’. Specifically, cold empathy refers to our understanding of how others may be thinking, how others may act in particular situations, and how events may unfold involving certain individuals. For example, a manager may rely on cold empathy to understand the sequence of actions that may occur when they provide negative feedback to their employee: which could involve defensiveness, disagreement, and eventual acceptance of the feedback. The very same manager may also recruit hot empathy to resonate on an emotional level with their employee; e.g, “Sarah will feel frustrated and embarrassed as I tell her this feedback, so I want to be as friendly and constructive as possible.” In the latter case, the manager’s emotional resonance enables her to shape the way she talks in order to avoid emotionally harming her employee. Comparatively, a Machiavellian manager may have a good understanding of the manner in which her employee will react, yet fail to resonate with her employee on an emotional level. The result of this might be that the manager comes across as harsh and unfriendly, and may fail to realize or care about any emotional harm she might have caused.
An evolutionary advantage?
Research has shown that while some Machiavellians display deficits in hot empathy, others have a good ability to understand the emotions and feelings of others, yet simply do not care. Specifically, a subgroup of Machiavellians have been found to ‘bypass empathy’; that is, they have a good understanding of the thoughts and feelings that may arise in others as a result of deceit, manipulation or other ill treatment, yet fail to curtail their actions in response. This lack of a moral conscience in Machiavellians has been seen by evolutionary psychologists as “evolutionarily advantageous,” in the sense that these individuals may not held back by a consideration of others, in the pursuit of their goals. The question arises however, regarding how Machiavellians are able to develop and maintain long-lasting, emotionally satisfying relationships with others if they lack the ability to emotionally resonate, or simply have little concern for the thoughts and feelings of others.