How To Spot A Machiavellian Person In A Room?

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Do you feel like a puppet — like someone else is always pulling your strings?

You could be played by a Machiavellian, the morally decrepit self-centered personality named after Niccolò Machiavelli.

Machiavellianism is a part of the infamous Dark Triad of personality disorders, which also includes narcissism and psychopathy.

A Machiavellian may be hard to spot in a room, as they are often charming personas holding interesting conversations.

You won’t know when he starts to control the conversation, get others to agree with him, and marginalize you from your own group.

So, how do we recognize this personality in social settings?

How To Recognize A Machiavellian Manipulator

The Machiavellian person’s hallmark signs—manipulation, a lack of morality and ethical sense, and a sharp focus on self-interest—are not obvious at the outset.

1. Manipulative Behavior

Machiavellian people often display a high degree of cunning and strategic manipulation.

They are good at tricking people and using them as pawns to get what they want. Their manipulation is not always overt; it can be subtle and insidious.

For instance, a Machiavellian might take credit for a colleague’s hard work, subtly undermining them to boost their own status.

They are often also good at spreading rumors or misinformation to sway opinions in their favor.

2. Lack of Morality

Another hallmark of a Machiavellian personality is a lack of moral scruples.

These individuals often view ethical considerations as unnecessary obstacles rather than guides for behavior.

In social settings, this could manifest as exploiting others’ weaknesses for personal gain or engaging in unethical behaviors without remorse.

They are usually the first people to break rules or societal norms if they believe it will benefit them, showing little concern for the consequences on others.

3. Focus on Self-Interest

Machiavellians are typically highly focused on self-interests.

This self-centeredness makes them continually evaluate situations and people based on how they can be used for personal advancement.

In a group setting, they give priority to tasks or decisions that benefit them personally, even if they’re hurting the group’s objectives. They can easily shift loyalties or opinions if they perceive it as beneficial to their personal agenda.

They are often unbothered about altruism, and their generosity is most likely a put-up show rather than a genuine act.

In a room full of people, they think like a chess game, calculating every move for personal gain.

A Machiavellian is typically charming to approach and engaging to interact with.

They’re like social chameleons, changing colors to fit the situation — they can act as the most supportive person in one moment, then quickly shift to a critic when it benefits them.

Watch for how they might subtly shift blame onto others when things go wrong, never taking the fall themselves.

  • They are experts at forming alliances, but not the friendly kind. Their alliances are more like strategic partnerships, fully designed to level up their influence or status in the group.
  • They may appear to be a team player, but their actions are often calculated to increase their own power or status.
  • They frequently excel at reading people and situations, using these insights to manipulate outcomes in their favor.

Remember, while it’s common for most of us to act in our own interests to some extent, Machiavellians do so in a way that is often harmful to others and devoid of ethical considerations.

4. Subtle Signs of Machiavellianism

Subtler indicators include insincere flattery, a display of feigned interest in others, fake emotional empathy, or a tendency to shirk responsibility and commitment.

Machiavellians are like actors on the world’s stage, playing their roles with skill. They often use insincere flattery – it’s like giving compliments not to make someone feel good, but to get something in return.

  • Imagine someone always saying the right thing, but their actions don’t match their words. They also show feigned interest in others.
  • Think of a person who seems really interested in your life, but you later realize it was all for gathering information they could use.
  • A classic Machiavellian move is avoiding commitment and accountability. They are like magicians in avoiding responsibility, always having an excuse or a way to deflect blame onto someone else.

The key to identifying Machiavellians is to observe their behavior over time in real-life scenarios. Machiavellian traits are not usually displayed in isolated incidents; they are part of a consistent pattern of behavior.

Likely Profile of A Machiavellian Male

  • Age: 35-55. Charming, charismatic demeanor.
  • Can and will manipulate others for personal gain.
  • Shows strategic thinking, often at others’ expense.
  • Prioritizes self-interest, skilled in deceit and opportunism.
  • Lacks moral scruples, exploiting situations and people unethically.
  • In group settings, subtly undermines others to enhance own status.
  • Consistently displays calculated, self-serving behaviors, with little regard for ethical considerations.

3 Situations of Typical Machiavellian Man

Corporate Takeover

  • Using his charm, he allied with key stakeholders in his company, gaining their trust.
  • Orchestrated a strategic takeover behind the scenes, leveraging insider information.
  • Manipulated colleagues to oust a rival for a top executive position, showcasing ruthless ambition and strategic manipulation.

Social Manipulation

  • At a networking event, he expertly flattered and ingratiated himself with influential figures.
  • Later, he used the connections and information gathered to advance his business interests.
  • Spread rumors to discredit competitors, and used his skill in using charm for deceitful purposes.

Personal Relationships

  • In his personal life, he feigned deep romantic interest in a wealthy partner.
  • Once he gained access to their social and financial resources, he gradually isolated them from their support network.
  • Ultimately leveraging the relationship for personal financial gain, exemplifying his self-serving tactics and lack of genuine emotional attachment.

On the lighter side, here’s a limerick about a Machiavellian named Michael Bollocks:

There once was a man named Bollocks,
Whose schemes were as sly as a fox.
In boardrooms, he'd charm,
With a hidden arm,
Outwitting the conventional orthodox.

Historical Examples of Machiavellian Traits

Each instance below reflects the strategic manipulation, moral flexibility, and self-serving tactics typical of Machiavellian personalities.

1. Julius Caesar’s Rise to Power

Julius Caesar’s political career is a classic example of Machiavellian strategy. He formed key alliances with powerful figures like Pompey and Crassus (the First Triumvirate) to elevate his status. Caesar adeptly used these alliances to gain control, showing strategic manipulation and a focus on self-interest.

2. Catherine the Great of Russia

Catherine the Great’s rise to power showcases Machiavellian tactics. She orchestrated a coup against her own husband, Peter III, to become the sole ruler of Russia. Her strategic maneuvering, which involved forming alliances with the military and key political figures, demonstrated her ability to manipulate events and people for her own gain.

3. Joseph Stalin’s Political Purges

Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union was marked by extreme Machiavellianism. He conducted widespread purges, eliminating anyone he deemed a threat to his power. Stalin’s manipulation of the Communist Party, his strategic alliances and betrayals, and his ruthless focus on consolidating power are stark examples of Machiavellian behavior in a historical context.

4. Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal

Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal is an example of Machiavellian behavior in modern history. His administration’s attempt to cover up its involvement in the break-in and its subsequent actions were driven by a desire to protect Nixon’s political interests, demonstrating a lack of morality and a focus on self-interest.

Machiavellianism vs. Genuine Social Interaction

This table shows the main ways Machiavellian people act, think, and interact with others as compared to those engaging in genuine social interactions.

AspectMachiavellianismGenuine Social Interaction
Observation FocusPatterns over time, repeated manipulation, and self-interestConsistent sincerity and mutual respect
BehaviorOften has a hidden agenda, turning situations to personal advantageActions and words are driven by genuine care and interest
Social Games‘Winning’ in social situations, often through unfair or manipulative meansEngaging in social situations with fairness and honesty
ComplimentsCompliments used strategically to gain something in returnCompliments given out of genuine appreciation and kindness
Concern or InterestA mask of concern or interest, primarily for personal gainTrue concern and interest in others without expecting anything in return
Smile or Emotional DisplayOften insincere, used as a tool for manipulationSincere and authentic, reflecting true emotions
Ultimate GoalAdvancing personal agenda, regardless of others’ feelings or outcomesBuilding and maintaining authentic, mutually respectful relationships
Approach to Social InteractionsViewed as opportunities for manipulation and advancementViewed as opportunities for genuine connection and sharing
Table: Machiavellianism vs. Genuine Social Interaction

Coping Strategies for Handling Machiavellian Personalities

Imagine you’re playing a sport with someone who keeps changing the rules to their advantage. Dealing with a Machiavellian is similar.

So, these are some effective ways to handle them:

1. Set Clear Boundaries

Set clear boundaries with a Machiavellian.

  • You make it clear to them what of their behaviors you will and won’t accept.
  • You enforce your declared boundaries with them, even when they resist.
  • Boundaries also mean what you will do when they breach them.

This could mean saying ‘no’ when they ask for favors that make you uncomfortable, or not allowing them to dominate your time or decisions.

2. Avoid Personal Disclosures

Sharing personal information with a Machiavellian can be risky; they would most likely use it against you.

Be cautious about what you share, especially your passwords, bank account access, and vulnerable points in your past.

When you share personal information with them, be careful not to reveal too much. It’s not about being secretive, but about being selective about what you share and who you share with.

Sharing your intimate details with them can make you feel like you have handed them the key to your locker and now praying that they don’t use it.

3. Keep Interactions Professional

Even if you think you have the best friendship with them, all they have for you will be a transactional relationship.

So, you do the same. Keep your interactions with Machiavellian people professional and business-like.

You’re dealing with a wily salesman, so you talk about the product, not your life story. If you’re working on a project together, focus on the task, not personal stuff.

A measured distance helps prevent them from manipulating you on a personal level.

4. Seek Support From Others

Turn To Peers For Help: Don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends or trusted colleagues. They can offer a different perspective, a new strategy, or provide support, making it easier to handle the situation.

Reach Out To Professional Counselors: Dealing with a Machiavellian personality can feel overwhelming and complex. Seek advice from professionals, like psychological counselors. They can help you grasp the situation better and offer ways to cope effectively.

Create a Support Network: Build a support network of friends, family, colleagues, or counselors. They can support you in many ways, whether you need a listening ear for your questions, some guidance, or just being there for you.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s Book “The Prince”

Niccolò Machiavelli‘s “The Prince,” written in the early 16th century, is one of the most influential works in political theory and realpolitik. Though a short essay, it has served generations of oppressive rulers on how they can gain and maintain power with its candid, sometimes ruthless, advice.

“The Prince” recommends resorting to atrocities like oppressing minorities and terrifying the populace to quell dissent, while keeping up the appearance of a benevolent leader.

Four Key Points from “The Prince”

  1. Better to Be Feared Than Loved: One of the most famous ideas from “The Prince” is that it’s more important for a ruler to be feared than loved, as long as he is not hated. Fear, he argues, is a more reliable motivator than love or loyalty.
  2. Pragmatism Over Idealism: Machiavelli argues that rulers should focus on practical realities rather than moral or ethical considerations. He suggests ends often justify the means, and a successful ruler should not shy away from using deceit or cruelty if it’s necessary to maintain power.
  3. The Role of Fortune and Virtù: Machiavelli stresses the roles of fate (Fortuna) and personal prowess (virtù) in achieving and maintaining power. He also emphasizes the importance of a ruler’s ability to adapt and respond to changing circumstances.
  4. Realistic Views on Human Nature: He presents a cynical view of human nature, proposing that people are inherently self-interested and untrustworthy. Thus, a wise ruler should be wary and cunning to outmaneuver opponents.

Four Quotes by Niccolò Machiavelli:

“The ends justify the means.”

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”

Books On Machiavellian Themes

  1. “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (1603): Shakespeare’s play is an early example of Machiavellian themes in literature, particularly through characters like Claudius and Hamlet.
  2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas (1844): This classic revenge story highlights Machiavellian vengeance and strategy as Edmond Dantès meticulously plans his revenge.
  3. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith (1955): Tom Ripley is a quintessential Machiavellian character, always using trademark traits to achieve his ambitions.
  4. “The Manchurian Candidate” by Richard Condon (1959): This novel explores the consequences of Machiavellian schemes in politics, with intricate conspiracies at high government levels.
  5. “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin (1996): This series is filled with Machiavellian dynamics, where characters use fear and manipulation for power.
  6. “The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang (2018): This series delves into the Machiavellian journey of Rin, who is willing to go to great lengths to win.

Final Words

Machiavellianism = Manipulation + Emotional coldness + Indifference to morality

  • Machiavellianism is a live wire in political arenas, and many leaders with these traits use their power to reshape national policies and international relations.
  • We also encounter this personality disorder often playing out in many of our social interactions in our personal and professional lives.

Keeping a distance from Machiavellian people is easier than staying ready and alert to tackle them.


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