The Dark Side of Political Ambition

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Machiavellianism is named in honor of famed political philosopher Niccolo MachiavelliSource: Wikimedia commons

Machiavellian personalities may enjoy political campaigning more than others.

by Scott A. McGreal MSc.

In personality psychology, Machiavellianism refers to a cynical and manipulative approach to interpersonal relationships that embraces “moral flexibility” for personal gain. People high in Machiavellian traits, or “Machs,” place a high priority on money, power, and competition, and are said to pursue their goals at the expense of, or at least without regard for the welfare of, others (Jones & Paulhus, 2009).

Machiavellianism has also been identified as a member of the “dark triad,” a group of socially aversive, self-centered traits that also includes narcissism (a grandiose sense of one’s own superiority to others and feelings of entitlement to special treatment) and psychopathy (callous disregard for the rights of others combined with reckless impulsivity) (Jones & Figueredo, 2013).

Although all three members of the dark triad share a common core of interpersonal antagonism, there has been debate about to what degree they are distinct from each other. In particular, there have been concerns that existing measures of Machiavellianism essentially tap the same traits as psychopathy, and therefore may be redundant (Miller, Hyatt, Maples‐Keller, Carter, & Lynam, 2017). However, a recent study (Peterson & Palmer, 2019) suggests that Machs are notable for their political ambition, whereas psychopaths do not care much for politics. Hence, there may be a meaningful and theoretically relevant distinction between Machiavellianism and psychopathy after all.

Although the concepts of Machiavellianism and psychopathy share common elements, such as willingness to use manipulation and deceit to achieve one’s goals, psychopathy is also associated with impulsivity, whereas, in theory, Machs should be more planful and oriented to long-term rather than short-term goals. Additionally, it has been suggested that, unlike psychopathy, Machiavellianism is associated with less violent, less overtly aggressive forms of misconduct, such as cheating, lying, and betrayal, especially when retaliation is unlikely or impossible (Jones & Paulhus, 2009). For example, Machs are more likely to cheat on term papers than multi-choice tests. Hence, their cheating tends to be strategic, rather than recklessly impulsive.

On the other hand, some research suggests that, contrary to theoretical expectations, current measures of Machiavellianism are associated with impulsivity and excitement-seeking. Additionally, although all members of the dark triad are associated with low agreeableness (a personality trait reflecting concern for the well-being others), in theory, Machiavellianism, unlike psychopathy, should theoretically be associated with high conscientiousness, a trait associated with impulse control and long-term planning.

However, a review of studies (Miller et al., 2017) found that both psychopathy and Machiavellianism are associated with low conscientiousness instead, suggesting that both Machs and psychopaths are likely to be poor at long-term planning and thinking before they act. To be fair though, the same review found that psychopathy had significant positive associations with conduct problems including antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and gambling, whereas Machiavellianism did not. This is somewhat in line with the view that Machs are more likely than psychopaths to be selective and strategic in their behavior rather than taking impulsive risks in general.

Despite this, the authors argue that current research using existing measures of Machiavellianism is really measuring psychopathy, and that better measures of Machiavellianism that capture the ability to engage in long-term planning while also tapping the selfish, manipulative nature of the concept are therefore needed.

Despite the apparent shortcomings of existing measures, there is evidence that shows interesting differences between Machs and psychopaths that are relevant to the theoretical core of Machiavellianism. A study (Peterson & Palmer, 2019) on the dark triad and political ambition found that there were differences between each of the three dark traits in how they were related to specific interest in specific activities relating to working in politics. Specifically, they found that both narcissism and Machiavellianism were related to interest in running for office and feeling qualified to be in power, whereas psychopathy was not. Furthermore, Machiavellianism alone was related to having a positive view of specific activities related to activities involved in running for elected office, including fundraising, working with party officials, interacting with the press, and taking the time needed to run for office. Narcissism was unrelated to interest in any of these activities, whereas psychopathy was related to an active dislike of all of these activities…


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