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What Is Machiavellianism?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 23 June 2014
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Machiavelli was a diplomat in Florence, Italy, who was born in 1469. He was also a writer of both fictional works and philosophical works, some of which display his attitude toward diplomacy, which still bears his name. Machiavellianism is a form of interaction with other people that has, at its core, the idea that unscrupulous means are acceptable if those means result in personal gain.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Machiavelli rejected the concept that authority is inextricably linked to morality. Instead, whoever has the power at the time, no matter how he or she wields that power, still has the authority. For this reason, people who try to gain power do not necessarily require morals, which may, in fact, get in the way of acquiring that power.

Famous books that Machiavelli wrote include The Prince and Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy. These books focus on political theory, and The Prince, especially, focuses on Machiavellianism as a form of political practicality. His views promote the use of means other than the psychological authority of a moral right for the acquisition of power and for the person in power to then hang onto that power. These means include lying, keeping information back, manipulation, and violence. Although primarily associated with political systems, Machiavellianism may also be used by regular people in everyday situations.

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Psychologists use a system of questionnaires to identify someone's Machiavellianism, or "Mach" score. A subject fills in attitudes toward statements such as "Keep the reason for what you do to yourself unless it helps you to say why you do something." A high score correlates with the ability of the person to manipulate others. These people may also be perceived by others as charming and smart. They also tend to be less helpful than low Mach scorers, unless it suits their purposes at the time.

An example of Machiavellianism in politics is the coercion of a population through the threat and use of force. This may occur in situations such as military coups. Another example of Machiavellianism is to deceive voters in a democratic system as to a politician's character in order for that politician to gain power, in which position he or she can then manipulate the system for his or her own gain.

Outside of formal politics, people engage in personal politics, and here, too, Machiavellians can improve their circumstances through deceit and actions outside what is considered moral. Research studies on the Machiavellian tendencies of the general population have used various situations to figure out the manner in which Machiavellians promote their own welfares over the welfare of others. Machiavellian kids who were told they would get money for each bad-tasting cracker their partners ate attempted to manipulate their partners through lies and neglecting to mention the crackers were disgusting despite the fact that their partners would feel bad after eating them. Adults with high Mach scores may be more persuasive and more likely to steal and cheat in order to gain money and power at the expense of others.

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