Why Are Some People More Machiavellian Than Others? They're Just Hardwired That Way, Says Science
We all know somebody (or many somebodies) who are just a bit more cunning and calculated than the rest of us. Maybe this gets them ahead in life; or maybe it just serves to render them friendless. Either way, these aren't exactly endearing qualities, but they're still pretty common. So just why are people are more Machiavellian than others to begin with? As my sister would say, "People are just total d*cks sometimes." But researchers, it seems, finally have a more scientific answer to that one. According to a new study from the University of Pécs, some people are just biologically hardwired to be that way. And Machiavellians — so named after Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian writer and diplomat who was known for his clever tricks and duplicitous nature — are just really good at exploiting situations for their own personal gain.
Of course, the long answer to this one is a little more nuanced. Using a mix of participants who scored high and low on the Machiavellian scale, researchers asked students to play a computer game with another student. In reality, the "student" wasn't really a person, but a computer that was programmed to either play fairly or unfairly. Participants were given around $5 in Hungarian currency, which they could choose to invest in their partner. Depending on how the computer was programmed, the return was either approximately the same as the initial investment, or a blatantly unfair amount.
The catch? The roles were then switched, so the students could choose how much to give back to the computer. Depending on the computer's earlier behavior, this allowed participants to either reciprocate or punish their partner... unless they were particularly Machiavellian, that is. According to researchers, participants with Machiavellian-like personalities neither punished nor rewarded their partners. Instead, they went with a third option: being total jerks. Unsurprisingly, they ended up with more money at the end of the game than their non-Machiavellian counterparts.
Interestingly enough, researchers noted that there was a difference in neural activity between participants as well. Although non-Machiavellian students showed an increase in brain activity when their partner was unfair, Machiavellian brains did exactly the opposite, exhibiting more neural activity when their partner was fair. According to researchers, this could mean that Machiavellian participants immediately began calculating how to take advantage of their partner's fairness.
As New York Magazine's Science of Us points out, this isn't necessarily the gospel truth — brain activity is difficult to interpret, and reading too much into neural patterns is a pitfall most neuroscientists try to avoid. However, the study joins several others in indicating that there's something different going on in Machiavellian brains.
If you're anything like me, you've probably spent the last few minutes wondering whether or not you're secretly a Machiavellian jerk and just didn't know it — which is a pretty good indication that you're probably not Machiavellian at all. (Of course, for a slightly more definitive answer, you can take the MACH-IV test right here.)
On the other hand, if you've been rolling your eyes and wondering what all the fuss is about, well then, congratulations! You take after Mr. Niccolo himself. Leslie Knope sum up my feelings on the matter: