550 Years Since Niccolo Machiavelli Was Born—How to Check How Machiavellian You Are

Niccolo Machiavelli
A portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Florentine statesman and diplomat, author of "Il Principe" (The Prince). Imagno/Getty Images

While many political philosophies are doomed to be consigned to history, over five centuries since Niccolò Machiavelli was born, his vision of a ruthless, manipulative leader is as relevant as ever.

Born on May 3, 1469, the 16th-century Florentine statesman and political philosopher is best known for his 1513 work The Prince, in which he argued that new princes shouldn't be afraid of being ruthless in order to achieve their aims.

In the centuries following his death, Machiavelli's name became synonymous with the ideas outlined in The Prince, and by the mid-20th century psychologists had used his enduring theories as the basis for a test named after him. You can take the Machiavellianism test here.

To find out more about how Machiavelli influenced political theory, Newsweek spoke to Dr. Loren Abell, a psychology lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Abell is an expert in Machiavellianism in social behavior and relationships, including aggression and emotional manipulation.

What is a Machiavellian personality characterized by?
Machiavellianism is characterized by emotional detachment, cynicism, lack of concern with morality and the manipulation of others. Individuals higher on Machiavellianism are focused on strategic behavior that enables them to achieve their goals.

When did psychologists first explore the idea of the Machiavellian personality?
Although a historical figure, Machiavelli's work was used as a model to characterize individuals who manipulated others, and this was explored as a personality construct by professor Richard Christie [a social psychologist at Columbia University] and Dr. Florence L. Geis [a psychologist at the University of Delaware] in the seminal book Studies in Machiavellianism, published in 1970.

Christie and Geis developed the Mach IV, a questionnaire that contained statements that were based on Machiavelli's The Prince or congruent with Machiavelli's ideas, enabling measurement and subsequent investigation of how this personality construct may influence people's behavior.

Is this personality type wholly bad, or can it be useful in some ways?
It is not a "bad" personality to have, but an adaptive response. The developmental literature suggests individuals who are higher on Machiavellianism may have had a more stressful childhood, such as poor attachment with parents. Machiavellianism is then an adaptive personality trait which enables those individuals to protect themselves from getting exploited or manipulated by others.

Indeed, research has shown that individuals higher on Machiavellianism are sensitive to rejection, and being emotionally detached from others may help to protect them from being exploited or manipulated by other people. Ultimately, individuals higher on Machiavellianism are strategic and focused on achieving long-term goals, and manipulating others may be a way to achieve that goal.

Is there any association between Machiavellianism and intelligence?
The Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that those who can manipulate others (i.e. individuals higher on Machiavellianism) are at an advantage in comparison to people who cannot skilfully manipulate others (i.e. lower on Machiavellianism).

Indeed, being able to strategize (rather than being impulsive like people higher on [the] psychopathy [scale]) allows selective manipulation of others to achieve long-term goals and success. Importantly, individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism can manipulate others using strategies which are more covert and less likely to be found out.

This may be methods such as getting other people to self-disclose information, or using strategies such making someone feel ashamed or embarrassed, or using gossip or rumors. In this light, Machiavellianism is seen as a form of social intelligence. Research often focuses on Machiavellianism and the relationship to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to how we perceive, regulate and use our emotions, and how we do this with regard to the emotions of others.

Research has found that Machiavellianism is negatively related to emotional intelligence, though Machiavellianism is related to using emotional manipulation (i.e. making another person feel embarrassed, ashamed or feel guilty). However, emotional intelligence is often associated with pro-social behavior. Therefore, people with Machiavellianism may use a "darker" aspect of emotional intelligence to manipulate others for their own gain.

Niccolo Machiavelli
A portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Florentine statesman and diplomat, author of "Il Principe" (The Prince). Getty Images

Are there any world leaders who are particularly Machiavellian?
I imagine there's a few! But unless we get them to complete a measure on Machiavellianism, we will never know. However, some research has been conducted using experts' rating leaders' personalities, which found that ratings for Hillary Clinton were consistent with Machiavellianism, and ratings for Donald Trump were consistent with narcissism and psychopathy.

What is the Dark Triad, and where does Machiavellianism sit in this theory?
The Dark Triad is a constellation of three "socially aversive" personality traits (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism), coined the Dark Triad in 2002 by [Professor Delroy L.] Paulhus and Dr. Kevin M. Williams [both of the University of British Columbia at the time].

Before this paper, researchers focused on investigating the personality traits separately. Psychopathy is characterized by lack of empathy, impulsivity and charm. Narcissism is characterized by attention-seeking, grandiosity, and entitlement. They are (largely) viewed as separate constructs but overlap in some characteristics and behaviors. Machiavellianism is more closely related to psychopathy than narcissism. These three personality traits allow the exploration of darker or more negative interactions that occur in human behavior.

Why is it useful for psychologists to understand these types of behaviors?
Often, researchers focus on the more positive side of human interaction and behaviors and the factors that predict these. However, it is also important to explore all aspects of human behavior, including the more negative behavior or interactions that may take place in our everyday lives and social interactions.

These personality traits allow us to see how human behavior and social interactions and relationships may be influenced by individuals who are more cynical, distrustful and emotionally detached from others. Importantly, the role of well-being in relation to Machiavellianism/the Dark Triad is now being explored.

What is the consensus in the academic community on the importance of Machiavellianism, and how is the debate changing?
There is debate about the similarity of psychopathy and Machiavellianism and whether Machiavellianism is essentially the "less dark" or "brighter" part of psychopathy. The most important debate in the literature at the moment is about the Dark Triad. Research is discussing more whether rather than having these three separate dark traits they are actually just low levels of honesty-humility (i.e. being low on modesty, sincerity, fairness, cooperation).

Additionally, researchers are debating whether the Dark Triad is too simplistic, and criticizing that much of the research looking at the Dark Triad is focused on undergraduate students (often psychology students), which makes results hard to generalize.

What is the best way to deal with a Machiavellian person?
Someone who is higher on Machiavellianism is not a bad person. They are using strategies them help to protect themselves and achieve their goals. However, individuals higher on Machiavellianism are more likely to use more indirect strategies, which may be getting other people to reveal information (which they can use to their benefit) or manipulate others so they may feel ashamed or guilty.

Therefore, it may be helpful to be aware of these strategies—although it's always good to be aware of these strategies that people may use in social relationships and to try and protect yourself from being manipulated, whether the person is higher in Machiavellianism or not.