Most people who get ahead in the world lead clean, moral lives. Do you agree or disagree?

If you strongly disagree you might be Machiavellian.

A Machiavellian is someone who’s tendency is to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain. The charactersitics include: charm, confidence, glibness, arrogance, calculation, cynicism, manipulation and exploitation.

Machiavelliansim is measured using the simple 20-statement MACH-IV self-assessment test devised and standardised by Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis. A score of 60/100 and up qualifies one as a ‘high Mach’ – someone who is detached, calculating, and cynical about people. A ‘low Mach’ is more personal, empathic, and trusting.

Are high-Machs psychopaths? No. The difference is important and needs to be teased apart carefully. Here’s something from Wikipedia to get open the discussion:

It may be difficult to distinguish between the two, because both types exhibit similar tendencies, often while considering it important to mask or misrepresent their motives….(T)rue High Machs (as opposed to sociopaths) tend to take consequences very seriously, and when dedicated to a course of action which may backfire, it is usually because the potential consequences have been weighed quite carefully and the High Mach is prepared to be responsible if blame cannot be deflected sufficiently.

Before we lump high- and low-Machs in respective negative and positive boxes, it should be noted that at the very low end lies maladroitness with others: “kind of dependent, submissive and socially inept. So be sure to invite a high Mach or two to your next dinner party” says’s ‘Ivory tower‘, where you can take the MACH-IV test for a look-see.

So, what do you think? Is this a useful ingredient to out into our pot?

Photo: Uffizi statue: Niccolo Machiavelli, originally uploaded by Crashworks

34 thoughts on “Most people who get ahead in the world lead clean, moral lives. Do you agree or disagree?

  1. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I would have to say I agree. The bad guys get all the press, while the good ones, who are in the majority quietly get the job done in the background.

    One question for you though: by whose standards do you define clean and moral?

  2. So I did the MACH-IV test (and no, my score is my business, thank you very much!). Perhaps I’m revealing something awful here but for 19 of the questions I thought I could work out what a hig- or low-Mach would answer.

    But not this one: ‘People suffering from incurable diseases should have the choice of being put painlessly to death.’

    I can’t figure out what the calculating and the empathic answers are.

  3. Dr. Steve, what a post!

    I’d say the clean and moral who also have the brain cells for pro-social behavior get ahead – I mean really ahead.

    Next the low-machs who have good front office staff (think: Bill Gates and his father the lawyer). In science, this seems to be a pretty good combination.

    But the High Machs — they’re always the wanna-be’s.

    Psychopathic leaders love High machs — they do their dirty work. So maybe they do get ahead for a little while.

    IMO the companies which fail — lots of High Machs, probably run by psychopaths . At some point you need actual data supporting your spin.

    I get some Schadenfreude out of that, but since many of my “low-mach” friends are out of work, it’s pretty sad.

    On the other hand, would I ever hire any of the high-machs who are out of work? No, are you kidding me? Maybe to work as a lobbyist in Washington — figuring out the power structure is truly a talent, and they’re good at that.

    Sheesh, I could go on and on about this one.

  4. swivelchair – Nice question at the end. What else might one hire a high-Mach for? To sell or buy something and get the best deal for one perhaps? Say you invest in a company. Who do you want as their sales guys? (See the Michael Keaton character in the movie ‘The last time’.)

    You say: “the clean and moral who also have the brain cells for pro-social behavior get ahead – I mean really ahead”. That’s intriguing. What’s ‘pro-social’ in this context would you say? A. Low-Mach enough to have empathy, but not so low-Mach as to be socially inept. Or, B. High-Mach enough to be calculating, but not so High-mach as to be anti-social?

  5. ian – I was struck when watching the show ‘The apprentice’ how sober and plain the managers Trump has working for him are (not the one’s who are themselves stars of the show). This suggests to me what you’re saying – the background boys and gals actually do pretty well. Continuing this illustration, though, does the super-success of someone like Trump (I’ll take a wild guess and say he’s high-Mach) not shake your thinking?

    I suppose the MACH-IV test wants one to use one’s own stands for clean and moral.

  6. I’d say those only concerned for consequences are devoid of morality. (Many a debate about karma and other things in here.)

    My guess is that there is, in general, a difference between the short-term (where Machiavellians do well) and the long-term (where pro-social may do better). Though there are huge numbers of exceptions.

    A concern is that the Machiavellians are admired because they are successful. This says something deeply disturbing about our culture I think.

    Is ignoring consequences part of being a sociopath? If they are motivated by power, don’t consequences come in to consideration for achieving this goal?

  7. evan – Do you recall that Dr. Mefi’s supervisor (therapist?) in ‘The sopranos’ tells her that talk therapy makes psychopaths worse?

    Anyway, the authors of that research are Samenow and Yochelson. I recall when reading some of their stuff (they work in prisons) that they say that psychopaths are very bad at thinking ahead except where it comes to planning their crimes. Ignoring consequences seems to be basic with them. They also seem to have less/different fear to regular folks which only adds to it.

  8. Okay, I took the test here (, and I saw this at the end:

    Out of 5705 people surveyed the current average is: 61.4019281332165

    So according to what you are saying, most people are high MACH, at least the ones who took this test, anyway.

    I personally think this concept is too limiting (as stated above). It’s too black and white for me, personally. Also, I think the definition of successful is critical here and it isn’t defined.

  9. I’m with swivelchair, who says “At some point you need actual data supporting your spin.”
    I think of Enron. You can only last so long being all flash & no photo.

    So I’m with Evan Hadkins about the pro-social people being more likely the endurance winners.

    Evan asked “Is ignoring consequences part of being a sociopath?”
    From what I read in Hare’s book, sociopaths have an inability to learn from mistakes, because they don’t feel the emotions (fear, shame, etc) that facilitate most people to learn from mistakes, and want to avoid the consequences in the future. So by default that means they’re prone to forget about consequences, or at least that they wouldn’t have them foremost in their mind generally. So I’d say yes, ignoring consequences sure sounds like it’s part of being a sociopath, at least to some degree, because consequences just don’t have the same impact on sociopaths as they do for people who do have the emotional responses to them.

    As to Ian’s question about “whose moral standards?”, my response is, Ian, if you have to ask… LOL

  10. “… if you have to ask . . . .” Good one, Chloe!

    “If you strongly disagree you might be Machiavellian,”
    i.e., a politician–Machiavelli applied himself as a political advisor. Compared to today’s avatars, he’s a choir boy.

    The model I have in mind is fictional, but surely Iago was Machiavelli’s Machiavellian. Part of his manipulative success is due to his seeming to personally care for Othello and his ability to anticipate Othello’s responses.

    Perhaps Machiavellians and psychopaths are less exotic than we think. Maybe all it takes to be a “good” Machiavellian (or psychopath) is some acting skill (most actors don’t “become” their roles) and sufficient dissociation to carry out the exploitation. Even dissociation (in the form of “psychological distance”) is normal and necessary–say, for hospital workers on an oncology ward.

  11. eyes – The test does seem like a bit of a blunt instrument. Very easy to tell what the ‘right’ answers are.

    (Re: most people who took the test are high-Mach. I see that they’ve found that the people who volunteered for the infamous Stanford prison experiment were a particular kind of person. Perhaps those of us who choose to take the MACH-IV are a particular type too…oh oh!)

    As for ‘successful’ I guess the testers mean one to use one’s own standards, but it does introduce ambiguity, I agree.

    Still, the phenomenon of Machiavellianism is a valid one. methinks.

  12. chloe – “All flash and no photo” – nice one (new to me).

    If we add up a few of the things you say in this post the picture looks a little rosier than it might otherwise.

  13. dm-smith – Funny, but I’ve been wondering about Iago too: Machiavellian or psychopath. For me it depends on his fundamental motivation. I’ll have to re-read the play to have a decent go at guessing.

    As for the normality – my thought at present is that, while we all share these characteristics and use the techniques, there’s a quantitative difference. Was it Engels who said that at a certain point quantitative difference becomes qualitative?

    I suspect that the key difference is that there are neurological differences (genetics plus early experience) which mean, for example that while every person will get some score on the psychopathy scale, no matter how bad things and we get, only a psychopath will get a score above 30/40 or above.

  14. Readers – do have look at khatalyst’s long comment yeterday to my December 11 post. It’s most interesting on several fronts and it would be a pity if y’all missed it.

  15. I disagree but I am far from Machavellian.

    I know my view is skewed by the lifetime of abuse I have endured from pathologicals but if I look honestly at those around me and in the media who get ahead. It is not always the good guys.

    And that is very very sad.

  16. barbara – Mm, the MACH-IV test may useful for somethings, but not for everything, that’s for sure. (On Wednesday I have something on the lovefraud blog about cynicism and jadedness. It’s so difficult not to end up there – maybe even unsafe?

  17. To preface, I scored 51 on this test. Almost exactly halfway inbetween. What does this say about me? I’m not sure I really understand Machiavellianism well enough to know! ha!

    Is that odd for the rosy picture you think I’ve developed here?

    But I think “blunt instrument” is a very good description of that test. As I was answering the questions, I kept wondering what context they had in mind.

    Kind of like the detachment of a nurse in the oncology ward isn’t psychopathic, nor necessarily unkind.

    #7 is really hazy. “There is no excuse for lying to someone else.” No excuse whatsoever ever? What’s the lie? Is it a real lie or a sort-of lie? Who’s the someone else? What situation are you in? Jeesh, there have to be any number of situations something like lying could be justified. Complex questions are a good place to start arguing that one. Then go on to violent hostage situations, and you’ve got quite a basis for debate.

    #2 “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear.”
    Immediately I wondered the context. In a workplace when there’s some kind of argument going on in the break room and you’re put on the spot? Hell yeah, I’d tell someone what they want to hear if it would get me the hell off the hook. But I decided that the question meant overall, always, the best way… And to that, I had to disagree (maybe strongly, I can’t recall). Because I would say if you choose your situations in life wisely, most of the time you shouldn’t NEED to “handle” people at all.

    #3 “One should take action only when sure it is morally right.”
    My knee-jerk reaction is “strongly agree”. But then I thought about a myriad of unfortunate circumstances with tough moral decisions on the order of “Sophie’s Choice” (Meryl Streep, 1982). Let’s say you’re in a life or death situation, and you’re the one in charge, and you’ve got 20 seconds to make a decision that will effect yourself & 10 other people. What person in their right mind could adequately contemplate what’s morally right, to the point of being absolutely certain, in that situation in that short a time?
    On the other hand, my motto has long been that if I’m unsure about an action, it’s usually better to do nothing. But I’m usually not in life or death situations where people are depending on me!
    So even though I would consider myself even more moral than the average person, I put “agree” instead of “strongly agree”.

    #5 “It is safest to assume that all people have a vicious streak and it will come out when they are given a chance.”
    I voted “agree” after some thought. Because I think it’s safest to assume anyone MAY have a vicious streak if given a chance. I wouldn’t assume it of everyone, and leave it at that. But I think it IS safest to proceed as if it’s possible anyone might, and wait & see if there’s any evidence before getting too close.

    So that’s the sort of thing that earned me a 51.

    About “All flash and no photo”, I didn’t come up with it, though I wish I did. Being a photographer though, when I heard it, I thought it was fantastic & funny. I heard it on “Stargate SG1”, said by the alien villain character Ba’al. Very narcissistic, very authentically ridiculous, and very entertaining. The actor really does it with feeling, you can tell he has a lot of fun playing the role, so he’s a really fun villain.'al_(Stargate)
    Scroll down to “Personality” – it’s like they created the character straight out of the diagnostic criteria for NPD.
    Decidedly Machiavellian I suspect. 😉

    Indeed, on the topic of Iago, and the authenticity of Ba’al… It seems rarely does fiction ever portray a character with authentic personality/character. Usually fictional characters are a hodge podge of traits, issues, and symptoms of mental illness that simply wouldn’t go together in a real human.
    I’m betting Iago would fall into that category. But fiction thrives on contrast.

    I think of the (nauseating to me) popularity of “Jerry Maguire” (Tom Cruise, 1996). I remember that song that was played on the radio incessantly with dialogue from the movie, and refused to watch it. I watched it years later under the urging of a friend, and thought it was co-dependent shlock. LOL.

    Look at the popularity of “Pride & Prejudice”. And that’s a brilliant story because Jane Austen manages to do the story in such a way that it turns out that the character changes turn out to be mostly based on misperceptions. IE: the character changes are not really drastic at all, just your perception of the characters as the story unfolds changes drastically by the end. And thus it’s more palatable & believable. In fact, there’s few stories that so vividly & realistically portray so many personalities in one story. There’s a sociopath and a borderline in that one, at the very least. (In “Emma” there’s a narcissist & a sociopath. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are brimming with mental cases. lol) Jane Austen was a very astute observer of human society.
    But be advised, I’m not talking about the recent Hollywood movie which was a true travesty of the original work in every way imaginable. All these nuances are lost in that movie. I’m talking about the original novel, and the only movie that holds the spirit of the original story is the 1996 miniseries (w/ Colin Firth).

    But people love a character that starts out bad and turns around. Or a nasty character with some fine traits. The more drastic the contrasts, the more compelling the character.
    It’s like it’s a big emotional pay-off when a bad ass character deigns to do something altrustic.

    I have a friend who had a therapist who recommended the Soprano bad guy as an excellent example of a good father & family man. I was astonished. But a lot of people seem to romanticize the mob family values fantasy. But I imagine the same emotional phenomenon is at work with that. They’re ruthless killers, they’re criminals, but they supposedly “take care of their own”, and that’s enough to redeem them for the audience?

    To Barbara: ” if I look honestly at those around me and in the media who get ahead. It is not always the good guys.”

    I think this seriously depends on how you look at “getting ahead”. I’ve found that I do not put the same level of importance on many of the things considered ‘desirable’.
    For example, if you’re very much interested in a spouse that looks like they walked off a cologne ad, and loads of money to buy lots of bright shiny things, and think of that in terms of “having it made”, then being non-machiavellian probably isn’t going to get you what you want.
    But if happiness, harmony, caring, knowledge, peace, and love are your priorities, those goals ARE attainable for the good of heart… I don’t see the ruthless getting those rewards more than other people. Do you?

  18. Good lord, that’s a comment & a half. I should really get my own blog. Oh yeah, that’s right, I have one. I just don’t use it much. LOL. sorry.

  19. chloe – Who on Earth writes this stuff for Wikipedia! (I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong.)

    If you’re referring to Tony Soprano, that’s hilarious. I don’t believe he’s a psychopath, but a good father? No way in hell.

  20. Wow, did this one hit a nerve.

    In general, if you are a High Mach, you can live the miserable, self-denigrating life as The Donald’s lieutenant. But you can never be The Donald.

    Which goes to Chloe’s point: do you define “Success” as being “the Donald”?

    Just to add a footnote to the whole High Mach thing, in the corporate environment:

    That’s a link to what the corporate raider Carl Icahn said about this — (Sorry for linking to my blog, but I put up the parts I thought were relevant, but you can click through to the Conde Naste Portfolio article — which quotes Mr. Icahn extensively. Heh. No wonder he’s so successful.)

    Excuse me while I go comb-over my hair,

  21. swivelchair – Hey, any link if OK if it’s on point and yours is.

    Is it Parkinson’s Law that says that people are promoted to their level of incompetence? Maybe the guys Icahn describes get promoted even higher than that.

  22. Peter Principle

    I saw that happen in a company I worked at years ago. They promoted people from sales to lead artists in advertising. Perhaps not bad as people managers. But some of the artistic decisions they made were a tad… well, odd to say the least.

    Nothing so bad as stuff like the “safe beneath the watchful eye” doh! some years back though!
    I think that was definitely the Peter Principle in action. I imagine the bus schedule coordinator was making the advertising decisions. haha.

    And yeah, I definitely think that more & more, people are actually getting promoted beyond their level of incompetance… far beyond.

  23. No, you can’t. Because it’s purely from the perspective of someone in the authority of the transit system, not thinking outside of that at all, adding to that, an extremely poor working knowledge of historical pop culture.
    Someone who specializes in advertising would be quite the opposite. When you work in advertising, the nature of the job is to see things from the consumer point of view. And people in that line generally have an excellent knowledge of pop culture & that type of history.

  24. Barbara: I’m confused about how you can be cynical & jaded, and score Low on that Machiavelli test?
    I mean I immediately noticed the reason I didn’t score low was because of my skepticism and being a realist, as I said.
    In fact, it sounds to me like Machiavelli was the epitome of all cynics really.

  25. Hello everyone,

    Totally agree with Chloe on the Enron situation — yes, “flash and no photo” heh.

    Dr Steve asked what are suitable jobs for psychopaths — here’s two:

    1. Investment Banking.

    The “China Daily” link is the only one I could find easily, since that study came out in 2005 — (ironic, since China is one of the places that has institutionalized human rights violations).

    2. KGB Officer and Russian Prime Minister,28804,1690753_1690757,00.html

  26. swivel – Nice examples.

    DrX links to this interesting study on emotion, cognition and moral decisions:

  27. The problem is that the questions assume that we live in a world that is set up by, and run by, and occupied solely by, normal people with empathy potential and all that implies.

    The facts say otherwise: we live in a world dominated by and run by psychopaths even if they are only a small percentage of the whole population. Like scum, psychopaths rise to the top in just about every sphere of endeavor. They are, as Robert Hare says, “an intraspecies predator.”

    So, yeah, I took the test… and answered based on my knowledge of psychopathy. Still got a “low mach” score. I do not subscribe to the ideas that Machiavelli elucidated, but I know that they are what shape and dominate our reality. I’m not even sure that Machiavelli subscribed to them, he was just painting a damning portrait of a reality that really hasn’t changed since then.

    The problem with always telling the truth, with being committed to is as an absolute, is that we live in a world where telling the truth can be used against you by psychopaths. In fact, if you notice, the 10 commandments do not even mandate “do not lie.” What it says is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

    Georges Gurdjieff said that “sincerity with everyone is weakness,” and anybody who hasn’t figured that out is a potential target for the next psychopath to come around the bend.

    Imagine a group of resistance fighters vis a vis the Nazis. If they adhered to the dictum “never tell a lie,” they would be dead in nothing flat, and all their compatriots with them. Sometimes the truth has to be defended by lies, and that’s the truth.

  28. laura – What a terrifying phrase: “an intraspecies predator.”

    It’s an interesting point – was Machiavelli advocating or describing? Perhaps The prince is a work of satire!

    Excellent point about the Ten Commandments – thanks. (And this is where the intraspecies predator bit comes in: psychopaths do bear false witness against those close to them.

    I hadn’t heard this one, thanks: “sincerity with everyone is weakness.”

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