The notion of Machiavellianism is based on the writings of the sixteenth-century writer Niccolo Machiavelli. In his most famous work, The Prince, Machiavelli describes an Italian prince who is willing to do anything, no matter how unscrupulous, to gain and maintain political power. Furthermore, in his writings, Machiavelli argued that successful leaders need to be cold and calculating and must never be bound by feelings of guilt or shame. Building on this idea, Richard Christie and Florence Geis introduced the construct of Machiavellianism and conceptualized it as a measurable, individual-difference variable. In their work, these researchers made a distinction between high “Machs,” who tend to agree with the ideas that “the best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear,” “anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble,” “sometimes you have to cheat a little to get what you want,” and “it hurts more to lose money than to lose a friend,” and low Machs, who tend to disagree with such assertions.
In short, Machiavellianism is the extent to which individuals are willing to behave in ways that are manipulative, believe that the ends justify the means, are emotionally detached from others, view others as dishonest and untrustworthy, and have disregard for traditional moral standards and ethics. Since its introduction in the late 1960s, a great deal of research has sought to learn more about this trait.
Given that Machiavellianism is associated with a lack of concern for conventional morality, several studies have sought to understand how this trait might relate to unethical behavior. The findings of such investigations seem to suggest that high Machs tend to behave less ethically than low Machs but only in certain situations. For example, researchers have found that Machiavellianism is not associated with cheating in general but that high Machs are more likely (than low Machs) to cheat when there is a low probability of being caught. Along the same lines, research suggests that the tendency for low Machs to steal from others is influenced by their affect for those from whom they are stealing; in contrast, high Machs seem to be less discriminating in their stealing behavior. Also, while Machiavellianism appears to be unrelated to the actual frequency of lying, high Machs tend to be more convincing liars than low Machs. Surprisingly, perhaps, high Machs and low Machs do not seem to differ in the frequency or degree to which they engage in impression management. Relative to low Machs, though, those with Machiavellian personalities do seem more willing to engage in more deceptive and self-serving forms of impression management and have the ability to project an image of confidence even when they might lack certainty or resolve. Moreover, high Machs are more likely to advocate the use of ingratiation in organizational settings and tend to be very persuasive as well.
In terms of career choice, organizational scholars have found that those who are more Machiavellian tend to prefer careers in business-related fields and to avoid professions that involve helping others. Several studies have also sought to understand the link between Machiavellianism and leadership styles. The principal findings of this line of inquiry are that high-Mach leaders tend to be more autocratic and initiate more group interaction than do low-Mach leaders. The data also suggest that Machiavellianism is unrelated to leadership effectiveness or to the emergence of group leadership. In studies of U.S. presidents, though, it has been argued that Machiavellian presidents tend to have greater legislative success during their presidencies, are more likely to be seen as charismatic leaders, and are rated as more effective presidents overall.
With regard to job performance and career success, high Machs generally seem to fare no better than low Machs; however, there is some evidence that high Machs are more successful than low Machs when they are working in organizational environments that are less regulated or structured. Some research also suggests that high Machs often do well in settings that encourage employees to act opportunistically. With regard to other work outcomes, researchers have consistently found that Machiavellianism is positively related to job stress and inversely related to job satisfaction. In terms of these findings, it has been argued that high Machs are often dissatisfied because they tend to be more anxious in general and typically dislike settings that might constrain their ability to be manipulative.
A great deal of research on Machiavellianism has actually focused its attention on the instruments and specific items commonly used to measure the construct. By and large, such studies have emphasized the weaknesses of these instruments and have been especially critical of the Mach-IV and Mach-V scales. The principal criticisms here are that these measures of Machiavellianism are too highly correlated with measures of socially desirable responding, that these instruments lack adequate internal consistency or reliability, and that these Machiavellianism scales are, in fact, multidimensional and thus tap several different constructs rather than just one. Nevertheless, researchers continue to use the Mach-IV and Mach-V scales in their research, and these instruments have been vigorously defended by some scholars.
According to citation counts, it appears that research on Machiavellianism has generally been declining since 1982, when it reached its peak. Indeed, more recent research on Machiavellianism has been less focused on identifying differences between high Machs and low Machs and more concerned with understanding how this construct may fit in with theories and constructs that have been more commonly examined outside of the organizational and social psychological literatures. For example, clinical psychologists have sought to learn more about the potential overlap between Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Evolutionary psychologists and biologists are interested more generally in the link between Machiavellianism and the ability to manipulate others as an important aspect of human evolution. Researchers have also called for more cross-cultural investigations of Machiavellianism as, by and large, most of the research in this area has been conducted within the United States.
- Christie, R. and Geis, F. L. 1970. Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.
- Corzine, J. B. 1997. Machiavellianism and Management: A Review of Single-nation Studies Exclusive of the USA and Cross-national Studies. Psychological Reports 80:291-304.
- Fehr, B. Samson, D. and Paulhus, D. L. 1992. The Construct of Machiavellianism: Twenty Years Later. Pp. 77-116 in Advances in Personality Assessment, D. Spielberger and J. N. Butcher, editors, Vol. 9. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- McHoskey, J. W., Worzel, W. and Szyarto, C. 1998. Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74:192-210.
- Vleeming, R. G. 1979. Machiavellianism: A preliminary review. Psychological Reports 44:295-310.
- Wilson, D. S., Near, D. and Miller, R. R. 1996. Machiavellianism: A Synthesis of the Evolutionary and Psychological Literatures. Psychological Bulletin 119:285-299.