The Dark Side of Political Ambition

Scott McGreal
6 min readSep 27, 2020

Machiavellian personalities may enjoy political campaigning more than others.

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…

Scott McGreal

Blogging about psychology research, especially in personality and individual differences, as well as psychedelic drug research, and whatever else takes my fancy