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Machiavellianism, Cognition, and Emotion: Understanding how the Machiavellian Thinks, Feels, and Thrives

Close up Blue PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION Text at the Center of WMachiavellianism 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.

Theory of mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand and appreciate why people think in the unique ways that they do. Theory of mind differs from empathy, in that it more broadly refers to the goals, aspirations, desires, and contents within an individual’s mind, rather than their moment-to-moment changes in thinking and feeling. In theory, Machiavellians must have a reasonably good theory of mind in order to be able to understand what drives the behaviors of others, so that they can manipulate these others. Research has shown however that Machiavellianism is negatively associated with social cooperative skills and theory of mind; which suggests that these individuals may not be as successful in understanding and manipulating others as they purport to be. Thus while the trait of Machiavellianism may comprise a set of beliefs and attitudes about manipulating others, there is no guarantee that this manipulation will be successful.

Behavioral inhibition

According to Grey’s reinforcement-sensitivity theory, behavior is driven by two separate neurological systems: the behavioral activation system, and the behavioral inhibition system. The behavioral activation system is associated with ‘approach’ tendencies including extraversion, social behavior, and taking action. Comparatively, the behavioral inhibition system is associated with ‘avoidance’ tendencies such as introversion, withdrawn behavior, and ‘thinking rather than doing’. Recent evidence suggests that psychopathy and narcissism are associated with higher levels of activity within the behavioral activation system, while Machiavellianism is associated with greater activity within the behavioral inhibition system. Thus narcissists and psychopaths are more likely to engage in approach behaviors involving action and socializing, while Machiavellians are more likely to engage in withdrawn behavior and rely on their thinking and intuition. This is consistent with the profile of Machiavellians as cunning, calculating manipulators who plot against others, rather than actively violating their rights, such as a psychopath would.

Alexithymia

Machiavellianism is associated with alexithymia, which describes a deficit in naming and understanding one’s emotions. Individuals who are alexithymic have been described as cold and aloof, and out of touch with their emotional experiences. Alexithymia in Machiavellians may be a product of a reduced understanding of emotions, that arises from a shallow experience of these emotions, or deficits in empathy and theory of mind. Regardless of the cause, evidence suggests that Machiavellians are individuals who are overly cognitive in their approach toward others and themselves, and who are out of touch with emotions generally.

Conclusion

Machiavellianism is a personality trait involving a cold, calculating view toward others, and the use of manipulativeness and deceit to achieve one’s goals. Machiavellians have limited empathy for others, both on a cognitive and emotional level, and appear to have a reduced theory of mind. Machiavellians are more inhibited and withdrawn than psychopaths and narcissists, which fits with their profile as being cunning individuals who strategically plot against others in order to get ahead in life and achieve their goals. Due to the limited emotional resonance and emotional experience displayed by Machiavellians, these individuals may possess an evolutionary advantage, in the sense that they will not consider the harm they may cause to others in the pursuit of their goals. This lack of moral conscience may be dangerous, and is part of the reason why Machiavellianism is so interpersonally aversive, and considered one of the three ‘Dark Triad’ personality traits. Although a Machiavellian worldview may be associated with numerous perceived advantages, one must question the extent to which Machiavellians can live happy, emotionally fulfilling lives. The question also arises as to how Machiavellians are able to develop and sustain lasting and fulfilling relationships, in the event that they continue with their cold, manipulative ways. Thus in bypassing empathy, the Machiavellian also bypasses human nature.

References

McIlwain, D. (2008). Cascading constraints: The role of early developmental deficits in the formation of personality styles. Personality down under: Perspectives from Australia, 61-80.

Neria, A. L., Vizcaino, M., & Jones, D. N. (2016). Approach/avoidance tendencies in dark personalities. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 264-269.

Paal, T., & Bereczkei, T. (2007). Adult theory of mind, cooperation, Machiavellianism: The effect of mindreading on social relations. Personality and individual differences, 43(3), 541-551.

Wastell, C., & Booth, A. (2003). Machiavellianism: An alexithymic perspective. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 22(6), 730-744.

Machiavellianism, Cognition, and Emotion: Understanding how the Machiavellian Thinks, Feels, and Thrives


Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor is a psychology researcher and tutor within Sydney, Australia. Ben has published peer-reviewed research in the area of cognitive psychology, and has recently worked on several review papers focusing on mental health among North Korean refugees. Ben is interested in all areas of psychology.

APA Reference
Taylor, B. (2018). Machiavellianism, Cognition, and Emotion: Understanding how the Machiavellian Thinks, Feels, and Thrives. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/machiavellianism-cognition-and-emotion-understanding-how-the-machiavellian-thinks-feels-and-thrives/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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