Machiavellianism – The Little Finger stirring the pot

Most of us have met our fair share of school yard bullies, office bullies and generally unpleasant people. More insidious are the ones that you don’t see coming; the ones that play one person off another, say one thing to your face and something else to the next person. Sometimes you never even notice the effect they have, even when you have been taken advantage of. The term Machiavellianism is a homage of sorts to Niccolò Machiavelli. Nicolo’s claim to fame was to write a book called The Prince, which gave a forthright account of how to go about acquiring and maintaining political power. He wrote this book in Italy, during the Renaissance, and managed to make himself quite unpopular at the time. Apparently being honest about how wealth and power actually work doesn’t make you popular with the rich and powerful.

From a social psychology perspective, Machiavellianism is characterised by manipulation and exploitation of others, a disregard of morality and a focus on self-interest (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). You may at this point be thinking this reminds you of someone.

When I think of Machiavellianism, I think of someone who manipulates others (e.g., a LIttleFingermaster of deceit) or someone who is an opportunist. Think of your Hollywood characters such as Game of Throne’s Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) and Fargo’s Lorne Malvo (who, in my opinion was played brilliantly by Billy Bob Thornton).  In fact, we all have a little bit of Niccolo in us, but usually not to an unhealthy level.

In the work place, the art of manipulation might not be considered entirely undesirable. In some ways, it may work in our favour (unless you get the wrong end of it). For example, Machiavellianism has been associated with qualities such as drive for power and dominance (Jonason, Norman, Webster, & Schmitt, 2009), which does tend to help a business be competitive.  From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, these qualities may be necessary for survival and may therefore not be considered all undesirable (Jonason, Wee, & Lee, 2014). However Machiavellianism has also been associated with the:

  • Lower credibility by co-workers – In research undertaken by Teven, McCroskey and Richmond (2006) the more employees saw that their supervisor had Machiavellianism traits, the less they were prepared to credit their supervisor with competence, caring and trustworthiness, the less happy they were and the less motivated they were to work for their supervisor. Basically folks tend not to trust a manipulative boss.
  • Abusive supervisory style: In a study conducted in Australia and the Philippines, Kiazad and colleagues (2010) found that Machiavellian supervisors tended to be seen as more abusive toward subordinates, which leads to…
  • Bullying-typifying behaviours akin to workplace bullying (Linton & Power, 2013; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & McDaniel, 2012).
  • High on Extraversion and openness, however low scores on agreeableness and conscientious (Jakobwitz & Egan, 2006). That’s psych talk for being outgoing and keen to try new things, but kind of grumpy and unlikely to care about their commitments to other people.
  • Unattractiveness – Recent research suggests that Machiavellians were not perceived as ‘hot’ (Rauthmann & Kolar, 2013) (You can make your own mind up about Aidan Gillen and Billy Bob Thornton).
  • Lower levels of intimacy, commitment and passion in romantic relationships – People high on Machiavellianism tend to be less intimate, less committed to relationships and less passionate (Ali & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2010). One assumes they would also be less likely to admit to these relationship shortcomings.

So keep a clear head about what others are on about and, the next time you find yourself engaging in the act of manipulation, pause to consider how you may look to the next person.

 Image Source

 Image of Little Finger obtained from Game of Thrones Wiki.


Ali, F., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2010). The dark side of love and life satisfaction: Associations with intimate relationships, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 228-233. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.10.016.

Jakobwitz, S., & Egan, V. (2006). The Dark Triad and normal personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 331-339. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.006

Jonason, P. K., Norman, P. L., Webster, G. D., & Schmitt, D. P. (2009). The Dark Triad: Facilitating a short-term mating strategy in men. European Journal of Personality, 23, 5-18. doi: 10.1002/per.698

Jonason, P. K., Wee, S., & Lee, N. P. (2014). Thinking bigger and better about “bad apples”: Evolutionary industrial-organizational psychology and the Dark Triad. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7, 117-121. doi: 10.1111/iops.12118

Kiazad, K., Restubog, S. L. D., Zagenczyk, T. J., Kiewitz, C., & Tang, R. (2010). In pursuit of power: The role of authoritarian leadership in the relationship between supervisors’ Machiavellianism and subordinates’ perceptions of abusive supervisory behavior. Journal of Research in Personality, 1, xx. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.06.004

Linton, D. K., & Power, J. L. . (2013). The personality traits of workplace bullies are often shared by their victims: Is there a dark side to victims? Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 738-743. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.026

O’Boyle, E. H. J., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the Dark Triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 557-579. doi: 10.1037/a0025679

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personlity, 36, 556-563. doi: 10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6

Rauthmann, J. F., & Kolar, G. P. (2013). The perceived attractiveness and traits of the Dark Triad: Narcissists are perceived as hot, Machiavellians and psychopaths not. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 582-586. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.005.

Teven, J. J., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2006). Communication correlates of perceived machiavellianism of supervisors: Communication orientations and outcomes. Communication Quarterly, 54, 127-142. doi: 10.1080/01463370600650829

Gina Huisy, 2014. (MAPS).

Christopher Howland, 2014.

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