No, Dark Personalities Aren't Always "Master Strategists"


New research argues that dark personalities are no smarter than the rest of us.


A new study published by a team of psychologists at the University of Alabama refutes the notion that “Machiavellian personalities” — those who have a penchant for being strategic, deceptive, and even manipulative to achieve their goals — are any smarter than other personality types.

“The Machiavellian individual is presumed to be a master social strategist,” state the authors of the research, led by William Hart. “However, research has generally failed to support this assumption. Surprisingly, Machiavellians tend to under-perform on various social-cognitive tasks that entail intuiting other’s internal states such as a person’s intentions or emotions.”

The psychologists theorized that this disconnect might stem from an overly simplistic view of Machiavellianism.

“Previous research has been limited to measures of Machiavellianism that are unidimensional,” say the researchers. “Here, we propose to study the link between Machiavellianism and social-cognitive skill by simultaneously considering the complexities of both constructs.”

To do so, the scientists split the personality trait of Machiavellianism into five distinct features, examined below:

Antagonism.- Antagonism describes the callous, exploitative, selfish, and immodest tendencies found in people who exhibit Machiavellian personalities.

Planfulness.- Planfulness refers to a careful, detail-oriented processing style. It is also found in people with Machiavellian personalities.

Agency.- Agentic individuals show high ambition and power striving. Elevated levels of agency are one of the hallmarks of Machiavellianism.

Tactics. Tactics, similar to antagonism, are tendencies toward manipulation and exploitation that are exhibited by Machiavellian personalities.

Cynical views. Cynical views refer to misanthropic ideas about human behavior. They are also expressed by Machiavellian personalities.

Then, they separated social-cognitive skills into two components:

Social prediction. Social prediction skill involves predicting people’s mental experiences and behaviors. It taps into a person's awareness of psychological principles such as being able to empathize with others and be able to use persuasion tactics such as the foot-in-the-door strategy.

Person perception. Closely related to social prediction, person perception skill involves being able to accurately “read” the personality characteristics, emotions, and motives of other individuals.

The scientists recruited 461 U.S. undergraduate students to complete a series of scales that measured the seven psychological constructs listed above. For instance, to measure one's person perception skill, participants were asked to complete the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test,” which asks test-takers to infer people’s emotional and cognitive states from still-pictures of people's eyes.

The scientists then analyzed how each specific feature of Machiavellianism related to the social-cognitive skill areas. They found that the “planfulness” feature of Machiavellianism was predictive of higher scores on both social-cognitive skill areas while the “antagonistic” and “tactics” dimensions of Machiavellianism were associated with lower social prediction and person perception scores.

In other words, the researchers offer a scientific explanation why Machiavellian personality types can be simultaneously more clever and more obtuse than their non-Machiavellian counterparts: their social-cognitive skills benefit from their careful, detail-oriented processing style but suffer from their callous, selfish, and immodest tendencies.

They conclude, “Broadly, our research highlights the importance of studying Machiavellianism as a multi-dimensional construct.”

This research corroborates other studies that suggest we give dark personalities too much credit for their "heightened" intelligence. For instance, one study found that grandiose narcissists were more likely to view themselves as more intelligent than others even though the intelligence tests showed no reliable pattern of intellectual superiority.

Why? The researchers surmise that it has to do with the narcissist's belief that intelligence is an integral part of their self-concept.

They write, "Individuals with high grandiose narcissism maintain unrealistically positive self‐views with regard to intelligence. They feel that high intelligence is a resource that buys people benefits in multiple domains, and they feel that they possess that resource. Thus, people scoring high on grandiose narcissism are indeed preoccupied with the topic of intelligence."

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