When comparing, these personality types can be difficult to tell apart.
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I have written previously about a physician assistant I once worked with who was arrested and charged with serial child molestation. At least two boys came forward with accusations and evidence.
He has since been convicted and is now serving a seven-year prison sentence. His case illustrates the difficulty in recognizing the difference between psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality types. Machiavellians are also known as “master manipulators.”
One of the key revelations in my new book, Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes, is that most Machiavellians are not psychopaths or narcissists—but all psychopaths and narcissists are Machiavellians. How can that be?
The key characteristic of Machiavellians is that they are temperamentally predisposed to be deceitful, scheming, amoral, and exploitative. Taking advantage of others is second nature to them. But you and I can also behave that way from time to time, even though we may prefer not to most of the time.
But since we’re all capable of lying, cheating, and betraying, then psychopaths and narcissists are no exception. So while most Machiavellians aren’t congenital psychopaths or narcissists, it’s equally true that all psychopaths and narcissists have the same inherent ability as you and I to be calculating and opportunistic. Because of their pathological natures, they are more likely to engage in cynical manipulation.
What then can we conclude about a medical practitioner who used his professional position to gain access to children and to win the trust of their parents? Was he a psychopath? The “gold standard” for classifying someone as psychopathic is the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R) developed by Robert Hare.
The test can only be administered by a trained practitioner and is valid only when the results are compared with personal interviews, clinical or criminal case records, or both. So even Hare would not classify someone as psychopathic based merely on random observation. Neither should we.
The best we can say is that on specific occasions an individual engaged in psychopathic-like behavior. The same general approach would apply to narcissists: Only a qualified diagnosis can determine if someone has narcissistic personality disorder (though we can certainly recognize narcissistic traits in an individual).
The same isn’t true of Machiavellians, however. They can be recognized based on behavior alone. When you observe that someone lies, cheats, betrays, and takes advantage of others in a variety of situations and over a prolonged period, you can reasonably conclude that he or she has a Machiavellian personality.
Consider the convicted serial child predator: Was he a psychopath? Maybe, but we don’t know. Was he a pathological narcissist? Based on my personal experiences with him, I’d say he was “a legend in his own mind,” but I don’t know if he was a malignant narcissist in the clinical sense.
But from observation alone, I can say that he was a master manipulator. He had to be to succeed at gaining the parents’ trust and at grooming his victims for sexual abuse.
Psychopaths vs. Master Manipulators
- Machiavellians will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back. Psychopaths will stab you, literally or figuratively, whenever and wherever it’s convenient. And you probably won’t get the smile. In other words, master manipulators are patient, strategic, and cunning. They can experience fear, and when they make mistakes, they revise and refine their tactics. Psychopaths tend to be impulsive and tactical as opposed to strategic, and they don’t feel or respond to fear as others do. They’re also notorious for failing to learn from their failures and mistakes.
- You may know that psychopaths don’t experience guilt or feel empathy for others. Machiavellians can experience guilt and empathy, but these emotions cause cognitive dissonance, which interferes with their schemes. So they use “mental gymnastics” to suppress any remorse or moral qualms. My book details the techniques they use to accomplish this. One example is victim-blaming. For example, the child molester might have told himself, “Those kids are better off learning about sex from me” or “Those gullible parents are to blame for being so trusting.”
- Psychopathy can be an asset in certain limited situations. For example, in negotiations or in a leadership position where organizational or mission success is paramount, with all other considerations being subordinate to the ultimate goal. It would probably be an asset for someone working in a slaughterhouse or fighting in a war. Except for such limited and narrowly defined circumstances, psychopathy is not a net asset in life. Machiavellianism, however, is versatile and can be strategically employed as a force for good. Consider the story of King Solomon and his threat to cut a baby in half and give a piece of the corpse to each mother. This provoked a visceral, maternal response in the real mother, who begged the king to spare the child and give it to the other woman. Whether the story is true or not—and whether Solomon really would have killed the child—is beside the point. This story illustrates how cunning and manipulation can be used to achieve a positive outcome. A modern example is reporter Chris Hansen and his team who have used televised sting operations to lure and expose would-be child sexual predators.
- Con artists, financial fraudsters, romance scammers, and other schemers may be psychopaths or narcissists—or not. They may or may not meet the criteria for any number of personality disorders. We can’t know that, and ultimately it’s none of our business. But neither their psychopathy, nor their narcissism, nor any personality disorder can deceive, manipulate, and exploit us—only when they deploy Machiavellian tactics can they do that. Psychopaths might gain our compliance via threats or force, but when they do it with honeyed words, they’re falling back on Machiavellianism (which you can recognize if you know what to look for).
- Psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a theory of personality in which Machiavellianism represents a midpoint between a healthy, balanced personality and a psychopathic personality. It’s as if master manipulators are straddling the boundary between Normal Land and Psychopath Land, with Machiavellianism representing the boundary line. They strive to present themselves as normal and trustworthy, but this is a mere facade concealing their lurking treachery.
Machiavellians have more in common with psychopaths than narcissists. Narcissists, for example, tend to be more focused on self-aggrandizement and emotionally reactive to whether they’re feeling honored or underappreciated. Machiavellians and psychopaths tend to be less interested in what others think about them and more interested in getting what they want.
Psychopaths are more likely to act now by whatever means are necessary, whereas master manipulators can plot, be patient, and wait. But both personality types can be confrontational and even violent when confronted or exposed.
© Dale Hartley