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What is Machiavellianism?


Machiavellianism is an anti-social personality trait. Machiavellianism is characterized by a lack of emotion and a belief that the end justifies the means. Psychologists recognize Machiavellianism along with narcissism and psychopathy as one of the three traits belonging to the “dark triad” model of personalities. These personalities are maladaptive and are usually marked by a lack of empathy and a disinterest in morality, or the sense of being “above” morality. People with dark triad traits like Machiavellianism are often deeply manipulative and are easily able to control people who feel normal levels of empathy.

The term Machiavellianism is based on a sixteenth-century political figure named Niccolo Machiavelli, who promoted an amoral, ends-justify-the-means philosophy of political strategy. He reasoned that politicians and rulers should behave as if playing a game, rather than according to moral laws, if they want to win. His book The Prince is full of recommendations about how to play these unscrupulous political games.

In the 1960s, two psychologists, Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis, set about to better understand manipulative behavior in humans. In their testing, they used some statements from Machiavelli’s writings and evaluated their subjects based on what they called a “Mach” scale. People who scored high on the scale were those who agreed with the statements drawn from Machiavelli’s philosophies. This gave rise to the term Machiavellianism to describe people whose behavior is pathologically manipulative.

Queen Jezebel would probably have scored high on the Mach scale, as she showed no scruples about lying and manipulating others for her own personal benefit. In 1 Kings 19, King Ahab coveted a vineyard that he could not obtain through legal means. His wife, Jezebel, took action, forging letters (verse 8); proclaiming a sham “day of fasting” and pretending to honor Naboth, the owner of the vineyard (verse 9); hiring two “scoundrels” to bring false charges against Naboth (verse 10); and having Naboth stoned to death (verse 13). As soon as the wicked deed was done, Jezebel told Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead” (verse 15). It was a cold Machiavellian plot, involving deception and murder, but all in a day’s work for the cold-hearted Jezebel.

The Bible speaks against philosophies that encourage lying, manipulation, or an end-justifies-the-means mentality. Using others’ trust and love to gain an advantage is wicked, according to Scripture. We should not listen to those who engage in or encourage this kind of behavior, for by listening to them we will become like them. “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Proverbs 17:4, ESV). That is not to say that the study of Machiavellianism or manipulative traits, for the purpose of understanding psychology, is wrong. However, the study of Machiavellianism in order to learn and put into practice self-seeking political tactics would definitely be wrong in God’s eyes. Machiavellianism has no place in interpersonal relationships.

The Bible calls the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, ESV), and there are those who imitate Satan, the original liar, in order to unfeelingly control and manipulate the weak. Scripture warns against those who follow “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1–5, ESV). This is a biblical picture of what we might call Machiavellianism today.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022