Machiavellianism is one of the traits in the dark triad model, along with psychopathy and narcissism.
SpecialtyPersonality psychology
CausesGenetic and environmental[1][2]

In the field of personality psychology, Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by interpersonal manipulation, indifference to morality, lack of empathy, and a strategic focus on self-interest.[3][4][5][6] Psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis named the trait after Niccolò Machiavelli, as they used edited and truncated statements inspired by his works to study variations in human behaviors.[7][8][9][10] Their Mach IV test, a 20-question, Likert-scale personality survey, became the standard self-assessment tool and scale of the Machiavellianism construct. Those who score high on the scale (High Machs) are more likely to have a high level of deceitfulness and a cynical, unemotional temperament.[11][12]

It is one of the dark triad traits, along with the subclinical versions of narcissism and psychopathy.[13][14][15]

Origin of the construct

Richard Christie was inspired by the works of Niccolò Machiavelli in studying the behaviors of those who manipulate others.

Inspiration from Machiavelli

In the early 16th century, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote several works on politics, including The Prince and The Discourses on Livy. These works were to bring Machiavelli everlasting fame, as they provided controversial statements regarding how monarchs should conduct themselves, such as deceiving enemies, and breaking pacts.[16] Although the word "Machiavellianism" originated in the late 16th century as a political term,[17] it would not become a concept in psychology until the 1960s, when Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis set out to study the thought processes and actions of those who manipulate others, such as political ideologues and religious extremists.[18] Christie was inspired by Machiavelli's writings, so he and his colleagues developed a test using a selection of statements, including truncated and edited sentences from Machiavelli's works as test items, naming the construct "Machiavellianism" after him.[19][4] They wanted to assess whether or not those who were in agreement with the statements would behave differently than others who disagreed, specifically in regards to manipulative actions. They published their results in their book, titled "Studies in Machiavellianism".

Though Christie named the trait after Machiavelli, he makes clear that he used sentences from Machiavelli's works only as a sort of litmus test to study deceptive and manipulative behavior, and that he was not concerned with their historical or philosophical significance, stating specifically that:[20]

Historians disagree as to whether Machiavelli was a cynic who wrote political satire, a patriot, or the first modern political scientist. The present concern is not with Machiavelli as an historic figure, but as the source of ideas about those who manipulate others.

Researcher and Psychology Today author Dale Hartley made this point more clear in his book, Machiavellians: Gulling The Rubes:[21]

When psychologists refer to the terms, Machiavellian or Machiavellianism, they do not mean Machiavelli's political advice. They refer instead to the underlying personality traits of cynicism, duplicity and scheming by which master manipulators conceive and execute their agendas.

Mach IV

Their Mach IV test, a 20-question, Likert-scale personality survey, became the standard self-assessment tool of the Machiavellianism construct.[8] Using their scale, Christie and Geis conducted multiple experimental tests that showed that the interpersonal strategies and behavior of "high Machs" and "low Machs" differ.[22] Those who score highly on the scale are classified as high Machs, while those who score low are classified as low Machs. People scoring high on the scale (high Machs) tend to endorse manipulative statements, and behave accordingly, contrary to those who score lowly (low Machs).[23] People scoring high on the scale (high Machs) tend to endorse statements such as, "Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so," (No. 1) but not ones like, "Most people are basically good and kind" (No. 4), "There is no excuse for lying to someone else" (No. 7) or "Most people who get ahead in the world lead clean, moral lives" (No. 11)[24] Their basic results have been widely replicated.[25] Measured on the Mach IV scale, males score, on average, slightly higher on Machiavellianism than females.[22][26]

The Mach IV test influenced the creation of an assessment called the Dirty Dozen, which contains 12 items, and the Short Dark Triad, composed of 27 items.[27]

Core features

In developing the construct studying manipulators, Christie theorized that they would possess the following characteristics:[28]

1. A relative lack of affect in interpersonal relationships: Manipulators do not empathize with their victims. The more empathy one has, Christie says, the less likely one will manipulate a person to do their bidding.

2. A lack of concern for conventional morality: Christie asserts that the manipulator is not concerned with the morality of behaviors such as lying and cheating.

3. A lack of gross psychopathology (mental illness): Christie states that manipulators usually have an instrumentalist view of the world, which shows a lack of psychosis or other mental impairments.

4. Low ideological commitment: Manipulators prefer to focus on getting things done pragmatically rather than focus on ideological allegiances. Christie states that while manipulators are to be found in organizations of differing ideals, they are more likely to be involved in tactics that achieve individual ends than inflexible idealistic ones.[29]

Five-Factor Model

Under the recently devised Five-Factor Model of Machiavellianism, three characteristics underlie the construct:[30]


Genetic and environmental

Several behavioral genetics studies on the dark triad have shown that Machiavellianism has both significantly genetic and environmental influences.[31][32][33][34] One of the studies noted that while Machiavellianism is heritable to a substantial degree, it can also be influenced by the shared-environment (i.e. sibling groups) slightly more than narcissism and psychopathy.[35][36][37] Other traits associated with machiavellianism are influenced by genetics as well, as one study notes that "The co-occurrence of alexithymia and Machiavellianism was most heavily influenced by genetic factors, and to a lesser but significant extent by non-shared environmental factors."[38] Machiavellianism is also heavily correlated with primary psychopathy which is itself strongly heritable.[39] A study on the "core" of dark triad traits also emphasized that the residual traits of Machiavellianism had "significant genetic components".[2] One particular study found a gene responsible for dopamine reception was positively associated with individuals who scored high on the MACH IV, but it is unclear what specific mechanisms cause this effect.[40][41]: 92 

The environmental causes (such as shared, and non-shared environment) that contribute to the development of machiavellianism were childhood maltreatment and neglect, social reinforcement of manipulative behaviors from an early age, and poor family functioning.[35][42] One study even stated that "the etiology of Machiavellianism, similarly to the development of a dismissing-avoidant pattern, partly originates from childhood experiences obtained in relationships with unexpressive, less understanding, highly punitive or restrictive caregivers".[43][44]

Machiavellianism in children

Ever since the creation of the construct in the 1960s, there has been extensive research on Machiavellianism in young children and adolescents, via a measure dubbed the "Kiddie Mach" test.[45][46] The first study was done in 1966 as a part of Dorothea Braginsky's doctoral dissertation, with the subjects being as young as 10 years old.[47] Studies have shown that traits of Machiavellianism and other dark triad traits were already present in adolescents aged 11–17.[48] Deceptive behaviors by children even as young as 3 were also investigated heavily.[49][50][51] Peer reports suggest that children higher in Machiavellianism exhibit behaviors such as using both prosocial and coercive strategies based on how much is to be gained in a situation, and they tend to manipulate indirectly.[52] Children who score highly on the Machiavellianism scale tend to be more successful in manipulation, do it more frequently, and are judged as better at manipulation than those who score lower.[53] Parental levels of Machiavellianism seem to have a slight effect on the child's own level. Machiavellianism levels in fathers was positively correlated with the Machiavellianism levels of their children, but the mother's level had no significant effect. One study concluded that "parental Machiavellianism is a predictor and perhaps a cause of children's Machiavellian beliefs and their manipulative success".[54] Machiavellianism is also correlated with childhood aggression, especially concerning the control of social hierarchies.[55] One study found a trend upwards with respect to Machiavellianism from late childhood to adolescence, when levels of Machiavellianism are thought to peak. From adolescence throughout adulthood there is a significant and steady downward trend with regard to levels of Machiavellianism, until the age of 65 where an overall lifetime minimum is reached.[56]

Peer ratings of Machiavellian children are inconsistent, with some researchers reporting that Machiavellian children are rated as popular,[57] and some reporting that they are less well liked by peers.[58][59]

Dark triad

Main article: Dark triad

In 1998, John McHoskey, William Worzel, and Christopher Szyarto proposed that narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are more or less interchangeable in normal samples.[60][61] Delroy L. Paulhus and McHoskey debated these perspectives at an American Psychological Association conference, inspiring a body of research that continues to grow in the published literature. Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams found enough differences between the traits to suggest that they were distinct despite their similarities, thus the concept of a "triad" of offensive personality traits was conceptualized.[62] There has been research on Machiavellianism using various dark triad measures, including the Short Dark Triad (SD3), and the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen test.[63][64]


Many psychologists consider Machiavellianism to be essentially indistinguishable from psychopathy, as they both share manipulative tendencies and cold callousness as their primary attributes.[65][66][67][68] According to John McHoskey, the MACH-IV test is merely "a global measure of psychopathy in noninstitutionalized populations".[69] Both psychopaths and Machiavellians score low on conscientiousness and agreeableness, and they often are dismissive of social norms and ethics.[70] On the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, created by Scott Lilienfeld and Brian Andrews, there is even a subscale similarly named "Machiavellian Egocentricity".[71][72][73] The subscale is said to assess "ruthless attitudes in interpersonal functioning".[74]

Many other psychologists state that while Machiavellianism and psychopathy overlap heavily, there is much evidence to suggest that they are distinct personality constructs.[75][76][77] Psychologists who stress the differences between Machiavellianism and psychopathy state that, in total contrast to high Machs, psychopaths are impulsive, tend to be reckless, and lack long term planning skills.[78][79][80] Delroy Paulhus and others have stated that this difference between the two traits is often underappreciated.[81] High Machs have been described as "master manipulators" and far better at manipulation than psychopaths and narcissists.[82][83][84][85]


Individuals high in Machiavellianism and narcissism both manipulate to improve their reputations, and how they appear to others.[86][87] Individuals high in the two traits do this as a form of self aggrandizement to help their chances of success in a given situation.[88] Machiavellianism scores were positively associated with aspects of narcissism such as entitlement and exploitativeness, and inversely associated with adaptive narcissistic tendencies, like self-sufficiency.[89] Studies have also shown that Machiavellians are more realistic about their character, while narcissists are less realistic about theirs.[90] Compared to High Machs, narcissists are less malevolent and show a more socially positive personality. They also have higher levels of self-rated happiness.[91]

White collar crime

Research has shown that individuals high in Machiavellianism may be more willing to engage in white collar crimes.[92][93][94] Psychologist Daniel Jones has stated that "individuals higher on Machiavellianism are well suited for crimes in the financial world, especially crimes that skirt the legal system".[95] Delroy Paulhus has stated that Machiavellianism is the main trait for con artists, and not psychopathy, stating that:

Although direct research on this topic is difficult, it seems clear that malevolent stockbrokers such as Bernie Madoff do not qualify as psychopaths: They are corporate Machiavellians who use deliberate, strategic procedures for exploiting others. A genuine psychopath, even at the subclinical level, lacks the self-control to orchestrate the schemes of a shrewd stockbroker.[96]

DSM: Trait, not disorder

Machiavellianism has never been considered a disorder, nor has it been referenced in any version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.[97][98] It has been treated as strictly a personality construct. It is primarily studied by personality psychologists, as it is a non-clinical personality style.[99]

Relations with other personality traits

Big Five

Mach-IV scores are negatively correlated with agreeableness (r = −0.47) and conscientiousness (r = −0.34), two dimensions of the "big five" personality model (NEO-PI-R).[79] The FFMI corrects for this by including aspects of high conscientiousness in the scale (e.g. order, deliberation).[30] Additionally, Machiavellianism correlates more highly with the honesty-humility dimension of the six-factor HEXACO model than with any of the big five dimensions.[75] Machiavellianism has also been located within the interpersonal circumplex, which consists of the two independent dimensions of agency and communion.[100][101][102] Agency refers to the motivation to succeed and to individuate the self, whereas communion refers to the motivation to merge with others and to support group interests.[103] Machiavellianism lies in the quadrant of the circumplex defined by high agency and low communion.[75] Machiavellianism has been found to lie diagonally opposite from a circumplex construct called self-construal, a tendency to prefer communion over agency. This suggests that people high in Machiavellianism do not simply wish to achieve, they wish to do so at the expense of (or at least without regard to) others.[75][104]

Hot and cold empathy

There are two distinct types of empathy which people use to relate to each other which are referred to as hot and cold empathy. Cold empathy refers to the understanding of how others might react to one's actions or a certain event. Hot empathy refers to the emotional reaction others might have to the emotions of another person. People high in Machiavellianism tend to have a better understanding of cold empathy and do not feel hot empathy which explains why they seem cold and uncaring.[105][106] Some studies have suggested that Machiavellians are deficient only at the level of affective empathy (sharing of emotions), whereas their cognitive empathy is intact, even high.[107][108][109][110] Another study suggested that high Machs are deficient at both kinds of empathy.[111] Studies also assert that high Machs do not feel guilt over the consequences of their manipulations.[112] High Machs are less likely to be altruistic, and they are less likely to be concerned with the problems of others.[113]


One of the core traits of machiavellianism is a detached, unemotional attitude and lack of affect in regards to others.[114] Research has been done on the extent of the low emotionality of those who score high on the Machiavellianism scale.[115] A study done by Farah Ali and others noted that Machiavellianism seems to have emotional reactions to stimuli similar to primary psychopathy, differing only in higher levels of anxiety, which those who score highly on machiavellianism may be prone to.[116][117]

Alexithymia is also considered a key trait that is correlated heavily with Machiavellianism.[118][107][119] It is the lack of awareness of one's own emotions as well as the emotions of others.[120] When tested, healthy alexithymic individuals have been found to obtain high Machiavellianism scores.[121][107] This was not surprising to researchers, seeing as one of the core traits of Machiavellianism is unemotionality, similar to what alexithymics experience.[122]


A 1992 review described the motivation of those high on the Machiavellianism scale as related to cold selfishness and pure instrumentality, and those high on the trait were assumed to pursue their motives (e.g. sex, achievement, sociality) in duplicitous ways. More recent research on the motivations of high Machs compared to low Machs found that they gave high priority to money, power, and competition and relatively low priority to community building, self-love, and family commitment. High Machs admitted to focusing on unmitigated achievement and winning at any cost.[75][123][124]: 93 

The research on behaviors which high Machs engage in suggest that they are willing to achieve their goals by bending and breaking rules, cheating, and stealing.[125] People high in Machiavellianism are able to easily switch between working with others to taking advantage of others to achieve their goals, and they are more willing to do things others see as terrible or immoral.[105][126][127]

Mental abilities

Due to their skill at interpersonal manipulation, there has often been an assumption that high Machs possess superior intelligence, or ability to understand other people in social situations. Recent research provides some support for this assumption.[128] However, other research has established that Machiavellianism is unrelated to IQ.[129][130]

Furthermore, studies on emotional intelligence have found that high Machiavellianism is usually associated with low emotional intelligence as assessed by both performance and questionnaire measures.[131] Both emotional empathy and emotion recognition have been shown to have negative correlations with Machiavellianism.[132][133] Additionally, research has shown that Machiavellianism is unrelated to a more advanced theory of mind, that is, the ability to anticipate what others are thinking in social situations.[134] However, some studies have suggested the contrary viewpoint that high Machiavellianism is associated with excellent theory of mind skills.[135][136][137][107]

When it comes to manipulation, individuals high in Machiavellianism may, according to Bereczkei, "have certain cognitive and social skills that enable them to properly adapt to the challenges of environmental circumstances".[138] They also are incredibly perceptive to the presence of others, and are able to feign altruism to enhance their reputation.[139]

Social relationships

The effects that one's level of Machiavellianism has on a person's socialization and interpersonal relationships, such as friendships and romantic relationships, has been studied extensively. High Machs are highly likely to ingratiate themselves within social groups via compliments and conforming their opinions to those around them.[140] High Machs are more than likely to choose better quality friends, as they can guess better who is a good person and thus more pliable for manipulation.[141] Machiavellianism was also correlated with withdrawal and avoidance in romantic relationships.[142] Individuals high in all dark triad traits find it easy to end relationships, and tend to prefer short-term relationships over long term ones.[143] Studies done on courtship showed that women higher on machiavellianism tend to go on dates not for sexual reasons but for free food, a phenomenon known as a "foodie call".[144][145][146] Because a lack of empathy and affect with regards to others is one of the main features of Machiavellianism, individuals high on the trait tend to act in a utilitarian, self interested manner, prefer emotionally detached relationships, and are not concerned with the other person's needs.[147][148] High machs report lower relationship satisfaction than those lower on the scale.[149] Though there has been research on the potential "attractiveness" of the dark triad traits,[150] out of all of the traits in the dark triad, Machiavellianism was the least attractive to the opposite sex.[151][152][153] One of the studies concluded that "The third DT trait, Machiavellianism, was significantly negatively associated with being chosen and mate appeal for STR [short term relationships] in women."[152] Another study claimed that this was because high Machs tend to be way less extroverted than narcissists and psychopaths, and that "it is possible that individuals do not like cynical, manipulative, aggressive, remorseless, and duplicitous people such as Machiavellians and psychopaths".[153]

Like the other dark triad traits, those high on Machiavellianism may be more willing to troll or flame others on the internet, however a 2021 study found no particularly strong connection between trolling and dark personality traits.[154][155]

Cross-cultural studies

There have been many studies on Machiavellianism and how the trait is presented in people from different countries and with different cultures. Multiple studies found that in nearly all countries, men scored higher than women in Machiavellianism, and that the gender differences were notable.[156] The populations of many other countries varied from their western counterparts in their levels of dark triad traits overall, which the authors of one study attributed to sociopolitical factors and levels of economic engagement.[157] In another cross cultural study, Machiavellianism also showed associations with limited interactive or normative values.[158] A study investigated the relationship between emotion recognition and dark personality traits (including Machiavellianism) across cultures. The effects were gender- and culture-dependent. Among both German males and females, Machiavellianism showed strong positive associations with emotionally manipulative tactics.[159] Some scholars noted an issue with many cross cultural studies on machiavellianism, primarily that "researchers have used measures of Machiavellianism (Mach IV) which were derived from Western concepts and which may not have similar meanings when applied to non-Western groups."[160]

In the workplace

Main article: Machiavellianism in the workplace

Machiavellianism is also studied by organizational psychologists, especially those who study manipulative behaviors in workplace settings.[161][162][163] Workplace behaviors associated with this concept include flattery, deceit, coercion, and the abuse of others through one's position of leadership.[164][165][166] These behaviors in the workplace are ultimately done to advance personal interests.[167][168][87] Research has shown that one's level of Machiavellianism can be a major factor in situations where workplace manipulation is involved because this trait can have an effect on the ability for an individual to "fit" into a highly political work environment.[169] Research has found individuals with Dark Triad traits are drawn to entrepreneurship. Certain qualities found in the Dark Triad are similar to traits needed for effective entrepreneurship, such as confidence, charisma and risk taking.[170][171]

Career advancement

Individuals high in machiavellianism tend to gravitate towards particular careers, especially those that require a high degree of competitiveness needed to succeed.[172] High Machs are ambitious enough to cut corners and use aggressive means if it is necessary to get ahead in their careers.[172] One study found that "Machiavellianism was positively related to leadership position and career satisfaction".[173] Individuals high in machiavellian traits are especially drawn to leadership and management positions, which became an important subject in the primary literature. Sales careers also attract dark triad individuals, with one study stating that such individuals are "prevalent" in the industry.[174] One study noted that those who possess machiavellian traits "are more productive but received lower overall managerial ratings", and that "Machiavellianism may in certain circumstances, be somewhat advantageous for long-term sales performance."[175] Machiavellianism was also associated with the use of "hard" (i.e. aggressive and hostile behavior) and "soft" (i.e. joking/kidding, offering compliments) tactics in the workforce.[176] One's political skill in the workplace and elsewhere may even mask the behaviors and characteristics associated with machiavellianism.[177]

Dimensions of the MACH scale

Although there have been a myriad of proposed factor structures, two dimensions emerge most consistently within factor-analytic research – differentiating Machiavellian views from behaviors.[178] Although many posit that the Mach IV scale is unable to reliably capture the two dimensions, a 10-item subset of the scale known as the "two-dimensional Mach IV" (TDM-V), reproduces the views and tactics dimensions across countries, genders, sample types, and scale category length.[179][180] The "Views" dimension appears to capture the neurotic, narcissistic, pessimistic, and distrustful aspects of Machiavellianism, while the "Tactics" component captures the more unconscientious, self-serving, and deceitful behavioral aspects. More recently, in response to criticisms of the Mach-IV, researchers developed the Five-Factor Machiavellianism Inventory (FFMI), which attempts to include concepts (like being calculated and planful) that are not adequately captured by the Mach-IV.[30]

Scale Evaluation

Psychologist John Rauthmann and others have stated that, while the MACH-IV is "a generally reliable and valid scale", it has its shortcomings. These include the response styles of the test takers, the varying factor structures, and " insufficient content and construct validity". The researchers developed their own scale instead to study Machiavellianism multidimensionally instead of unidimensionally to prevent the construct from becoming hard to study effectively.[181] Psychologist Jason Dahling and others have created another measure of Machiavellianism, dubbed the Machiavellian Personality Scale (or MPS for short).[182]

Game theory

In 2002, the Machiavellianism scale of Christie and Geis was applied by behavioral game theorists Anna Gunnthorsdottir, Kevin McCabe and Vernon L. Smith in their search for explanations for the spread of observed behavior in experimental games, in particular individual choices which do not correspond to assumptions of material self-interest captured by the standard Nash equilibrium prediction.[26] It was found that in a trust game, those with high Mach-IV scores tended to follow Homo economicus' equilibrium strategies while those with low Mach-IV scores tended to deviate from the equilibrium, and instead made choices that reflected widely accepted moral standards and social preferences.[183]

A study done by David Wilson and other researchers noted that while High Machs tend to defect from their groups, they are also unlikely to succeed in the long term simply by manipulating others, and that some cooperation is necessary for further success and to avoid a situation in which they are retaliated against.[184][185]

See also


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Further reading