December 21, 2013

Machiavellism, social dominance orientation and authoritarianism are tightly related (and subclinically psycopathic)

Depending on one's ideology this may seem either obvious or counterintuitive but that is what a powerful set of five successive studies has found.

Laura Niemi & Liane Young, Caring across Boundaries versus Keeping Boundaries Intact: Links between Moral Values and Interpersonal Orientations. PLoS ONE 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081605]


Prior work has established robust diversity in the extent to which different moral values are endorsed. Some people focus on values related to caring and fairness, whereas others assign additional moral weight to ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and established hierarchies, and purity concerns. Five studies explore associations between endorsement of distinct moral values and a suite of interpersonal orientations: Machiavellianism, prosocial resource distribution, Social Dominance Orientation, and reported likelihood of helping and not helping kin and close friends versus acquaintances and neighbors. We found that Machiavellianism (Studies 1, 3, 4, 5) (e.g., amorality, controlling and status-seeking behaviors) and Social Dominance Orientation (Study 4) were negatively associated with caring values, and positively associated with valuation of authority. Those higher in caring values were more likely to choose prosocial resource distributions (Studies 2, 3, 4) and to report reduced likelihood of failing to help kin/close friends or acquaintances (Study 4). Finally, greater likelihood of helping acquaintances was positively associated with all moral values tested except authority values (Study 4). The current work offers a novel approach to characterizing moral values and reveals a striking divergence between two kinds of moral values in particular: caring values and authority values. Caring values were positively linked with prosociality and negatively associated with Machiavellianism, whereas authority values were positively associated with Machiavellianism and Social Dominance Orientation.

A synthesis of the results of the five studies is presented in figure 2:

Figure 2. Summary of correlations observed across all studies.
Each square represents an observation of a significant partial correlation (politics, religion, and gender controlled). Each circle represents an observation of a significant zero-order correlation. Study (#) indicated on each circle/square. Moral values are color-coded.

"Mach" means Machiavellianism and "SDO" means social dominance orientation, which are clearly and positively correlated among them, via the same set of "group values" (ingroup loyalty, authority and purity). Instead helping those close to oneself and prosocial distribution are very positively correlated among them and associated with the "humanist values" or caring and fairness.

This is very much counterintuitive, especially as the authors use the term "individualizing" for the caring and fairness values, which makes absolutely no sense to me, as individualism means selfishness and aloofness, even misanthropy. Hence I replaced that term for "humanist" although I also pondered "personalist" (as the person can be something more whole and socially connected than the individual).

The produce of the two sets of values is even more at odds with the concept individualism. In fact it is the group (or "binding and dividing") value people who actually strive for social dominance and favor Machiavellianism. This is because they do not think in the group as extensive but as intensive and almost certainly as tool for their own individualist selfish goals. 

Most interpersonal behavior requires individuals to balance selfish motivation with prosocial motivation – to be a positive social partner who helps other people. These orientations are not mutually exclusive – care for the self is at times necessary to enable care for others. However, for some individuals, a motivation to dominate or exploit the group for selfish aims, measureable as Machiavellianism [20] or Social Dominance Orientation [21], may take precedence. Individuals high in Machiavellianism (“Machs”) admit to employing manipulation and deception to achieve power, status, control, and financial success [20]. These goals require successful management of group relations, which may in turn shed light on the paradoxical nature of Machiavellianism. Machs are often described as socially skilled, well-liked, popular, and excellent at building alliances [22], but they are also subclinically psychopathic [23] and exploitative of others' trust [24], [25]. Machiavellian negotiation of relationships and social structures for personal gain may benefit from a moral stance that elevates values like loyalty and deference to authority. More specifically, these values are critical for the preservation of existing social order but largely insensitive to concerns about caring and fairness. Moralization of these values – alongside relative indifference to caring and fairness values – could facilitate strategic hierarchy management while freeing the individual to feel morally justified in engaging in manipulative or exploitative behavior.

Subclinically psychopathic is a most revealing concept. I have often though of this as a real social problem of first order. The subclinicality may only be because psychiatry has established a boundary not to touch the powerful, what would be playing with fire. But, as we will see below, there is more to it.

What happens with social dominance orientation?
Relatedly, Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is characterized by a desire for inequality and a tendency to categorize people along a hierarchical “superior-inferior dimension” [21]. SDO, like Machiavellianism, has been found to predict various antisocial outcomes, including explicit racism and sexism as well as reduced empathy and concern for others [21], [26], [27]. While SDO has previously been identified as negatively correlated with individualizing values and positively correlated with binding values [2], SDO has not yet received attention for its potential positive connection with binding values when political orientation is controlled. Since an orientation towards social dominance requires a strict hierarchical worldview, a positive correlation between SDO and authority values, regardless of political orientation, would be predicted [2].

Later in the discussion they turn back to "Machs":
What could account for the positive relationship between respect for authority and Machiavellianism, an antisocial interpersonal style associated with strategic manipulation? Indeed, Machs have been shown to lie more convincingly [35], steal more readily [36], and rationalize deeds with callous unemotionality [37]. To provide the foundation for two potential explanations for this surprising relationship, we first describe two relevant aspects of Machiavellianism: (1) Machiavellianism and psychopathy are distinct in relation to social norm processing, and (2) Machs are likely to be dominant individuals in positions of authority. Next, we propose two potential explanations for the positive relationships between moral valuation of respect for authority and Machiavellianism: (1) Machiavellianism may entail moralization of respect for authority for a variety of strategic reasons, and (2) authority values may license Machiavellian behavior.

Discussing the subtle differences between Machiavellianism and outright psychopathy:
Although Machiavellianism is characterized by selfishness and shares some overlap with psychopathy [23], Machs are not necessarily aloof and unconcerned with social norms. Instead, the ability to manipulate others may actually benefit from a keen sensitivity to norms that govern social structure.

Instead most clinical psychopaths tend to be aloof. 

Another key difference is that Machs are highly sensitive to punishment, while again true psychopaths may be somewhat indifferent to this social corrector, so Machs retreat and even give away profusely in order to avoid this outcome.

Machiavellianism is also clearly related to dominance and control and, therefore to respect for authority:
In addition to being hyper-attuned to social structure, Machs are also likely to reside at the top of those structures in positions of authority. Machiavellian-style social climbing tactics (e.g., manipulation and deception) are more likely to be used by individuals high in dominance and well-equipped to assume authority over others [38]. Likewise, Machiavellian supervisors in a range of business sectors have been described by subordinates as employing authoritarian work habits involving strict control over a hierarchical workplace structure [46]. As individuals who recognize they can personally benefit from “working the system” from a position of authority – rather than attempting to make the system work for all – Machs may be more likely to identify respect for authority as relevant or even central to their concepts of “right and wrong”.

Ironically Machiavellianism finds in authoritarianism a self-serving morality. Being able to play the game and climb to the top, Machs clearly benefit from such respect to authority themselves and will spread the word among their subordinates. It also helps themselves to self-regulate their behavior in ways that are within the boundaries of the game, yet still selfish. Accepting others' authority acts as self-protection and gives them a moral varnish, internalizing these values allows them more easily to perform their flattery and igratiation climbing tactics (otherwise probably perceived as humiliation).

The authoritarian ethics seem also useful in order to condone otherwise anti-social behaviors such as cheating, graft or torture. Other recent studies have shown that individuals primed to feel high in power – that is, closer to “authority figure” status – were more likely to endorse unethical and antisocial behavior [55], [56].

Something I really miss in this study is the proportion of tendencies among the studied group, which could reflect general distribution in society. While the statistical correlations are systematically produced the proportion and intensity of the values of the actual human sample is not shown.

The authors assume that the prosocial values are generally desirable but in reality what I have found way too often is that many people, especially those in intermediate command positions or with a career to develop, experience serious contradictions between the "official" prosocial or humanist ethics and the "unofficial" but very real Machiavellian one. I would even say that they often feel emotionally broken by this contradiction. And this "they" at least sometimes becomes "we" and "I", so painfully.

It would certainly be interesting to study this contradictory social and psychological reality, even cross-culturally. 

In any case this study does produce some very interesting data that should be most valuable for future and more comprehensive research. It also produces very important information for our meditations on our social and personal reality, and certainly it also applies to past realities, at least since society became complex and hierarchical.


  1. BTW, I do have somewhat of a mistrust for those in high positions of power. I also don't really trust those just looking to be provided for by some authority. I can see a bit of selfish lack of sympathy in both.

  2. Individualizing, as used here, may mean thinking of the other person as an individual instead of thinking of the other person as something to manipulate for my benefit (Machiavellianism) or someone who isn't part of the power structure (SDO) and so can be disregarded. An individual is someone whom I can have empathy for.

    Reading this post was an eye-opener. I work in state government and it is easy to se the "Machs" climb up the ladder while talented and idealistic people work as "subject matter experts" and remain there. Machs see early on that managers have power, not people with competence. In fact management seems to be designed for people who are good at manipulating other people.

    1. I understand your position re. the term "individualizing" but form me individual and individualist usually mean detached, aloof, selfish. "Individual" has the same root as "indivisible" and refers to the person as isolate, comparing well with the original meaning of the word "atom" (indivisible but from a Greek instead of a Latin root). We used to have some discussions on this terminology when I was younger and we strongly preferred the term "person" instead, as something more complete and integrated with the socius and even natural environment, and we see "individual" as a quite "Gringo" or extremist-capitalist vocabulary intended to detach people from the community by overemphasizing competition and selfishness between the individuals instead of cooperation between persons or people.

      "An individual is someone whom I can have empathy for".

      It's a cultural matter largely, I understand, but for me an individual is a pitiful remnant of a broken society in which solidarity does not anymore works as it should. It's not someone I fear necessarily (that depends) but it is something I do fear because the loss of social solidarity is destructive for its members, who become weaker internally and externally once deprived of their mutually reinforcing social component, which has an emotional (internal) and a strength-in-numers (external) component.

      The pro-social tendencies characteristic of this stand seem to me all but "individualist", actually very collectivist in fact. This kind of collectivism however is fundamentally different from the bind-and-divide Mach approach, which seems to me also exploitative of the innate collectivist (social) tendencies of humankind. The first is generic (humanist), while the latter exclusive (groupist, classist for example or also racist, exclusively nationalist, sectarian, etc.)

      "Reading this post was an eye-opener."

      Indeed. Writing it (and therefore reading the paper) was also very important for me. I somehow intuited all this but this scientific approach is very clarifying.

      " I work in state government and it is easy to se the "Machs" climb up the ladder while talented and idealistic people work as "subject matter experts" and remain there. Machs see early on that managers have power, not people with competence. In fact management seems to be designed for people who are good at manipulating other people".

      You are probably right, at least to some extent. The key issue is power. Management is necessary but in our society we tend to equate it to privilege even lack of responsibility to some extent, probably because the Machs have been promoting their positions since many millennia ago.

      As opposed to this kind of managerial privilege and power accumulation, we can think of other approaches like the Zapatista concept of "who commands must command obeying" (obeying the people, of course). Management is for them both a honor and a duty (but never a privilege nor source of it) and of course it is subject to the perpetual supervision of the popular assembly.

      Managerial skills are important but should be distributed by education and by making and managerial positions rotatory, becoming a social or otherwise collective duty and not conferring any privileges. Much as a neighbor community is managed, at least over here (nobody usually wants to the the community administrator, what carries duties and no compensations other than a brief position of leadership, so it is by law rotatory among all neighbors). In a more complex set the would-be managers may first perform auxiliary duties to the current ones or even take dedicated courses but what cannot be is that they perpetuate as a bureaucratic/technocratic class, with lots of privileges and power, just because they are good at climbing and boot licking.

    2. "and we see "individual" as a quite "Gringo" or extremist-capitalist vocabulary intended to detach people from the community by overemphasizing competition and selfishness between the individuals instead of cooperation between persons or people. "

      Some may say that it is precisely capitalism which encourages the *free* cooperation of people, whereas socialism/communism makes participation compulsory.
      I can see the Machiavellian thriving in what is basically a closed system, as was the case with the old Soviet Republics. If everything that you say is listened to electronically or through informants and you could face jail, physical punishment or even death based on your words, then manipulating the perceptions of others becomes more than advantage - it becomes survival strategy. I'm convinced that the ones at the top were keenly aware of this. Stalin would often purge his party of individuals whom he thought were suspicious. Displaying too little or too much enthusiasm about the Revolution could get you into trouble as was also the case during the Reign of Terror in France.
      On the other hand, we find an unprecedented level of cooperation in 1830s USA as described by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America". De Tocqueville was amazed by how fast Americans associated to solve different problems at the local level, whereas his French countrymen would have a more passive "there should be a law for that" attitude.
      By the way, have you read "Democracy in America"?

    3. Well, in my experience, Capitalism makes continuous competition compulsory. It's an endless treadmill, a waste of our lives. I have no vital experience with Socialism (other than some very short with rural communes) but, while I also hate red tape (not at all absent in Capitalism), I also realize that other than Machs, nobody is naturally competing, we are forced to and we are made extremely unhappy because of that, loosing our social integration in the way and making our whole lives dependent on the whims of hypercompetitive petty tyrants, who are all Machs and therefore control the money and the resorts, seldom because of any creative merit of them other than their skill at social climbing.

      However you are correct that state Socialism is not match for Machs and they thrive equally well in such environment, especially when democracy is lacking. What real democracy (not so much institutional party democracy) can do for society is to keep Machs at bay, punish them when they go overboard, choose maybe non-Mach altruist leaders, etc. - so the more radical the democracy the better in principle. I'm all for the Swiss model and even more participative, but also with real control on the economy because otherwise the Machs get resorts by controlling the banks, the media and other key resources which do not need to be private for-profit. The media very especially needs to be democratically distributed and concentration in few hands should never be allowed (otherwise you get Murdoch, Berlusconi or Milosevic).

      "De Tocqueville was amazed by how fast Americans associated to solve different problems at the local level, whereas his French countrymen would have a more passive "there should be a law for that" attitude".

      French have endured many centuries, millennia in most cases, of outright dictatorship: Rome, the Franks, the Paris-based autocratic monarchs and finally a hyper-centralist republic which is largely heir of those traditions (and in some aspects more exaggerated, we call that Jacobinism, forged in France but imitated across Europe and the World, very militaristic and centralist, in extreme becoming Bonapartism). France is not socialist in any case: it has never been. Just that, as in most other countries, including the USA, they realize that state intervention is necessary to stimulate the economy and protect the "national" interests preventing the country from becoming someone else's colony.

      That's actually why "real socialism" worked so well in the first half of the 20th century: because it provided tools for many countries to develop independently and to effectively become largely independent from outside. "Real socialism" (Leninism or Stalinism) was something much needed for Russia and China particularly, otherwise they would have remained stuck in underdevelopment. However they were all the time inserted and not really detached from Capitalism and when this one changed phase, overcoming the disciplinary stage (Fordism), some of them could not keep up and proved themselves unable to forge something even better (more efficient) because of bureaucratic/militaristic stagnation.

      I'm not keen of Tocqueville, whose perception of history is a bit too narrow and conservative, but I can agree that some aspects of US democracy, especially at county level, approach the Swiss model. But at the wider levels, it is just like Britain or France or even worse. For example the fact that only one person is elected to represent each district, suppresses all minorities and dissidence and promotes a twin party regime that is not at all different from a single party one (after all both parties are controlled by oligarchs, nearly all elected representatives are silver spoons: it's not a democracy but a plutocracy with some shallow democratic varnish).


    4. ...

      "By the way, have you read "Democracy in America"?"

      No. I read some other Tocquevillian work back in the day but it was rather disappointing. I have enjoyed Marxist school history teachers and read many socialist historians and by comparison Tocqueville is pretty much shallow. In fact it is in the discipline of History where the Marxist school (and variants) shows clear superiority, mostly because it focuses on economy and society and disdains the individual anecdote so darling to conservative historians, whose works often look a list of excerpted biographies of leaders and little more.

      As you seem so US-focused, I'd recommend reading the much acclaimed Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", but there are many others. They may help dispel some of the myths you have.

      Anyhow, I wonder what did Alexis thought of robbing the lands of the native peoples and denying them any say on their own affairs, or about slavery. Obviously when a country is expanding (at the expense of others), what works best is to guarantee some rights and privileges to the colonists. This was done, for example, by the Iberian Christian realms in the newly conquered lands, by the German marquises in the Balto-Slavic frontier, Russia in the cossack districts... and by the USA in its own Western frontier. It's a smart move because the state gives what it does not effectively own (newly robbed lands) to settlers that will then become thankful and loyal for their small share of the bounty.

      But it is the plutocrats, the oligarchs who eventually take the share of the lion and use the state for their purposes, even against those first privileged settlers who are the pillars of the new system. These oligarchs are all Machs, the most skilled ones in their dirty job.

      Similarly, when the USSR collapsed, the shares of all companies were distributed equally but soon the oligarchs bought them for peanuts abusing the extreme need of the workers. Unless democracy can defend the people from these abuses and concentration of power, it is a total failure, in Russia, France or the USA.

  3. Determination of psychopathology is a form of legislation of self-appointed authorities.
    Consensus and peer review be damned.

    1. I would tend to agree with you because I often feel that there's a minority of parasites who control human society for their benefit, risking even the continuity of the Human species that way. And that these parasites are mentally ill in ways similar to criminal psychopathy. And this study effectively confirms that all this is correct.

      But there are still important nuances to Machiavellian personality that make it "subclinical" in ways other than the mere rubberstamp of the Mad College of Psychiatrists for Corporate Efficiency, notably their self-serving sociality, calculated conformation to social norms and fear of punishment. That makes them hard to spot and relatively unlikely to cause too obvious trouble. How can such a nice, churchgoing and law abiding person be a psychopath?, that what most would think... unless the evidence for this pathology, so extremely dangerous for human societies, is first of all exposed and understood by the general public.

      The first step to solve a problem is to recognize it as such. Although, of course, I wouldn't trust the psychiatric establishment to solve it at all: it's a social problem that can only be dealt from society as a whole, essentially at grassroots level. These Machs have been climbing to positions of power all around since the very eve of civilization and causing the failure of all kinds of good-hearted social projects just because they corrupt them to their selfish cause. Nowadays the problem is more challenging than ever before because the power that Humankind has developed in the last centuries can well destroy us altogether.

      As always, who puts the bell on the cat, and which of the many cats anyhow: there are so many? And who can say at this point that Machiavellianism is not just a potential outcome of any human being rather than a "genetic" kind of illness?

      But first of all we must become aware, research the phenomenon, learn as much as we can, and then eradicate it by all means necessary. But careful: because I would not be surprised if Machs would also take control of a hypothetical anti-Mach vigilantism process. That's why we need to become overly conscious, painfully conscious first of all. Only that way we have some hope of curing this cancer and restoring Humankind to its full potential.


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