New research supports the idea that selfishness is programmed into Machiavellians. These individuals exploit others’ willingness to play fair and cooperate for individual gain. In the eyes of a Machiavellian, people are tools to be used as a means to an end in fulfilling their own aims.
A questionnaire that tests for this trait finds that people who are high in Machiavellianism tend to agree with statements such as: “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear” and “It is wise to flatter important people.”
A team of Hungarian researchers at the University of Pecs performed a study, published in Brain and Cognition Journal, in which they scanned the brains of people who scored high in Machiavellianism while playing a basic trust game. The researchers found that when a person possessing a high Machiavellian score encountered a person who exhibited signs of fairness, their brains went into overdrive.
Lead researcher Tamas Bereczkei and his team explained that the increase in brain activity happens because Machiavellians are imagining ways of exploiting the situation for their own benefit.
In the study, the trust game was divided into four stages and involved student participants who scored low and high for the selfish trait. Participants were given a set amount of money and allowed to decide how much of the money they wanted to invest in their anonymous partner participant. Each student thought their partner was a fellow student, but in actuality their partners were a pre-programmed computer that decided how much of the investment to return to the participant.
After the initial round of transactions, the roles were switched and the students were then able to decide how much to return on their partner’s investment. They were allowed to either punish their partner’s unfairness or reciprocate their cooperation from earlier by giving them more money.
Unshockingly, by the end of the game the Machiavellians wound up with the most money. While all of the participants punished unfair behavior, the Machiavellians did not reciprocate cooperative exchanges with their partners.
A 2012 study also from the University of Pecs supports the idea that Machiavellians constantly monitor others’ behaviors in social situations in order to find a way to come out on top.