Chances are, you have crossed paths with a Machiavellian personality at some point. Maybe it was through a romantic relationship, a workplace encounter, or while listening to a political leader. When confronting a true Machiavellian, adjectives like devious, manipulative, selfish, and unscrupulous may come to mind just as easily as words like charming, ambitious, and inspiring. Admirable qualities are often cloaked by less desirable behaviors, making it hard to know how best to navigate enduring relationships with people who are largely driven by their own personal gain.
Below, mental health experts share how to spot and how to cope with the Machiavellian in your life.
What is Machiavellianism?
Machiavellianism is a personality trait describing someone who is deeply manipulative, prone to lying, and cynical. The term is derived from Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance diplomat and political philosopher best known for his work The Prince, which is a political road map for achieving goals by any means necessary. In modern psychology, Machiavellianism is considered part of what's referred to as the "Dark Triad1" together with psychopathy and narcissism, all of which are personality traits associated with malevolence.
"Machiavellianism, while not an actual clinical term, is used to describe an individual with manipulative tendencies," says therapist Anim Aweh, LCSW. According to Chaye McIntosh, M.S., LCADC, an addictions counselor and clinical director of outpatient services at ChoicePoint, Machiavellians are "deeply centered on cunningness, selfish behavior, manipulativeness, and indifference to morality." She says that at their worst, Machiavellians are attracted to power, money, and control and would do anything to gain all three.
The 1970 book Studies in Machiavellianism by psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis mainstreamed the term "Machiavellianism" in the field of psychology. According to Christie and Geis, Machiavellians do not form real bonds or true relationships with others, and they show a lack of concern for conventional morality. Yet, they typically show no signs of gross psychopathology or cognitive deficits.
Over the decades, researchers have struggled to grasp a theoretical foothold on this trait. Machiavellianism is the only leg of the Dark Triad to be nonclinical, and some researchers have debated whether it is in reality just a less severe and subclinical manifestation of psychopathy. Christie and Geis also posited that Machiavellianism may not be a singular trait but several connected components, including interpersonally manipulative tactics and a cynical view of human nature.
Signs you're dealing with a Machiavellian.
Aweh says that while there are assessments that help validate licensed mental health professionals' existing inklings about their clients' personality types—including a Machiavellianism test developed by Christie and Geis themselves—she warns nonprofessionals about the dangers of trying to label people. "But what I will say is to look out for the pervasiveness of the said behavior."
Among a myriad of individual characteristics, Machiavellians generally share the following behaviors and traits:
Machiavellians lie, cheat, and flatter to get their way. They are long-term planners and calculated strategists, able to read people and to use their fears or weaknesses against them. They will bend rules, trick people, and fake sympathy to gain favors, McIntosh says. They can be charming at first but later resort to more aggressive tactics like bullying. Overall, they lack morals and are more than willing to cause harm to get what they want. (Here is how to recognize manipulation, for what it's worth.)
Ever the cynic, Machiavellians believe that everyone is acting in their own self-interest, so they do not form close relationships and do not trust easily. Money and power mean more to them than relationships with people. They can be incredibly disloyal, as their determination can lead them to ignore social pacts or bonds of trust. This trait also distinguishes them from the other two Dark Triad types (narcissists and psychopaths), as they do not necessarily have to be the center of attention.
Machiavellians understand that having information is useful. They often do not share information with others unless it is in their favor to do so. They may manipulate otherwise innocuous information and can be very crafty about taking information out of context.
Machiavellians lack empathy and compassion. Generally, they are neither able to identify their own emotions nor recognize those of others, which is part of what enables them to be so willing to do truly anything they deem necessary to achieve their goals, even at other people's expense. Despite their strength in manipulating others, past research suggests Machiavellians actually tend to be less emotionally intelligent.
Machiavellians are highly ambitious, and they'll use control and manipulation to achieve those ambitions. A 2016 study evaluating Machiavellianism among supervisors found these personality types make abusive and aloof managers, with the abuse becoming most prevalent when in a perceived position of power in the workplace. The researchers consider that power may be an amplifier that draws out the Machiavellian's preexisting behavioral predispositions, emotions, and beliefs.
Machiavellians are highly competitive, so they view everyone as adversaries. They are willing to take a back seat or be a team player at times when doing so is to their advantage. Machiavellians are sensitive to the power dynamics in social contexts and can switch between cooperative and competitive tactics.
High Machs vs. Low Machs.
In Studies in Machiavellianism, Christie and Geis formulated a test called the Mach IV, loosely based on excerpts from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, to determine high or low Machiavellian traits. The Christie and Geis Mach IV test consists of 20 questions with a total score of 100. People who score over 60 (more affirmative responses to cynicism, deceitfulness, or manipulation) are said to be "High-Machs." They are more likely to demonstrate more deceitful and less empathic traits. Those with lower scores are called "Low-Machs." They can be honest and caring, even characterized as pushovers. However, they might perceive these behaviors to be to their advantage in gaining favor or opportunities to later earn power. Low Machs might also be in situations where they lack power; should those circumstances change, so might their traits.
It might be hard to believe that high and low Machs are actually along the same behavioral spectrum. Aweh says that "High Machs flourish in face-to-face settings, where there are limited rules and structure—also, when emotions hold little value in goal achievement. Low Machs are on the opposite side of the spectrum and are characterized as being highly submissive."
The psychology behind Machiavellianism.
"There is probably some genetic predisposition toward callous, selfish, and manipulative personality traits. However, early parental influences and home life are probably the deciding factor," writes Dale Hartley, Ph.D., MBA, a retired professor of psychology and author of Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes, in a 2017 blog post for Psychology Today.
He notes that there is a genetic predisposition toward psychopathy2, but he adds that "a bad start in life can shape even a normal child's personality in that direction. I think the same applies to Machiavellianism."
With this in mind, Machiavellianism can be seen as a maladaptive coping strategy that developed from living through experiences in which exhibiting such traits was key to survival. Although it doesn't have to begin in childhood, many ingrained traumas do start there. Clinicians use a variation of the Christie and Geis test to assess Dark Triad characteristics in children (and anyone).
How to deal with Machiavellians in your life.
McIntosh recommends avoidance, if possible. "Staying away from them is the only solution because they have a destructive mindset."
While this might work for relationships you control, like friendships and dating, avoidance might not work in a workplace, for example. In such cases, Aweh advises establishing clear boundaries with a Machiavellian boss. "Also, document the times the boss may violate them. Your boss still has rules to abide by, and you deserve respect."
Focus on your own goals, and be careful about confiding in colleagues who may relay sensitive information back to the Mach. Do not try to outwit them. Instead, practice self-care and establish clear boundaries. It is likely that anyone who is subordinated to a Machiavellian will have to toggle between both stances, picking and choosing battles until the relationship can be safely severed.
Lastly, the gaslighting and workplace bullying that arises may affect your overall performance and confidence, so it's important to also prioritize your own healing. It may not be possible to change the culprit, but therapy can offer coping mechanisms, like setting boundaries and self-care. Aweh says that recovery often requires finding a safe space to process hurtful experiences and to explore trust-building with healthy boundaries.
Can a Machiavellian be a good person?
Since Machiavellianism is associated with amoral tendencies and cynicism, it can be hard to associate a true Machiavellian personality with the word "good." Instead, it is best to consider when high-Mach traits are useful and appropriate.
Most people likely have some degree of Machiavellian characteristics or may be considered low-Machs, which means we may have these tendencies but choose not to act on them—or when we do, we feel remorse. Other people may find themselves in difficult circumstances for prolonged periods, which might justify demonstrating Machiavellian tendencies to survive. The continued demonstration of those behaviors in situations that do not merit it, however, is typically when these traits are truly revealed as harmful rather than admirable.
True Machiavellians (i.e., High Machs) need to seek therapy, even when they think they don't need it. Depression or anxiety may lurk under the surface, as well as unresolved trauma from events that might have triggered the need for some of these behaviors in the first place. High Machs should listen to feedback and reactions from family members or co-workers, as they are most likely to express concern and demand corrective action.
The bottom line.
Machiavellians can be deceitful, manipulative, competitive, and cynical. They are excellent long-term planners and strategists. For them, there is no other favorable outcome other than their "win." Their ambition can initially be perceived as admirable but can later turn dark.
As with any situation of harm, if you find yourself on the wrong end of a Machiavellian, it is less important to diagnose the person who is demonstrating these behaviors. Instead, focus on the ways that you can protect your mental health for the duration of the relationship—and get out as soon as you can if necessary.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.