June 21, 2020

We come with our own built-in predators

by: Leigh Baker

Deer are hunted by lions and wolves. Great white sharks hunt tuna and seals - and in turn are hunted by killer whales.

Over the millenia, humans have learned to form packs and defeat external predators. We no longer (mostly) fear rhinos, tigers or wolves.

There are still predators we need to be wary of - and learn to deal with. They are the psychopaths, sociopaths and Machiavellis of our own species.

"We have met the enemy and he is us"

Walt Kelly (Pogo)

Machiavelli - a name associated with manipulation mastery - wrote The Prince in the 15th century German writer and politican Ludwig von Rochauhe coined the term "realpolitik " in the 19th century.

Centuries earlier, The Art of War was published, a military text with a focus on:

how to outsmart one's opponent without actually having to engage in physical battle.


The Dark Triad

Today, Machiavellism has been identified as one of the "dark triad" of personality traits along side psychopathy and narcissim. The "dark triad" concept originated in 2002 and in 2013 further work began to better understand the patterns behind inter-personal harm.

These are three key sub-clinical personality traits that are involved in anti-social behaviour.

All three are socially malevolent, with tendencies towards being emotionally cold, duplicitous and aggressive. All of them are callous and manipulative and don't care about a) the "truth" or b) "other people" and there is a lot of overlap between them.

However understanding their patterns and distinctions is useful.

Psychopathy adds impulsivity and a tendency towards anti-social, reckless behaviour to the basic traits of callousness and duplicity. It is thought to have an inherited genetic component.

Narcissism has the additional aspects of entitlement and grandiosity, with a tendency to over confidence.

Machiavellianism is a habit of manipulation, a cynical world view, a lack of trust and willingness to exploit others to achieve personal goals at all costs. It's more pragmatic, strategic and rationalised pattern than psychopathy.

Machiavellians can control their impulses to do harm. They are flexible, adaptable and work strategically to get what they want.

The three traits overlap - but are distinct.

Machiavellism is the most prevalent pattern in the general population, though not in its extreme form (1-3%). However, at sub-clinical levels estimates are than something under 10% of the population has these tendencies (which is a disturbingly high number).

"A narcissist will insult you, a psychopath will hit you, a Machiavellian will invade you."

Dr Daniel Jones

Machiavellism is thought to develop through life experiences. As a learned pattern, it can can create a cynical, duplicitous environment where more individuals become Machiavellis. Work is ongoing towards understanding how to reverse Machiavellian patterns.

In the meantime - if you want to increase your success as a sustainability change agent - it's worth studying how Machiavellianism works - that way you will:

  • Have a better chance of spotting them
  • Being inoculated against their tactics.

Machiavellianism is a survival trait

It would be really easy to externalise and start labelling and blaming individuals - but part of the human race's ability to develop comes because of them.

They are immune to "everybody knows" and "doing the right thing". So "six drops of the essence of Machiavelli" probably contributed to developments from cosmology (when the Catholic Church was burning astronomers for blasphemy) to personal computers (the world will never need more than 12 computers - IBM).

It's also worth remembering that humans are social chameleons - with brains hard-wired to blend into whatever environment we enter - from the kindergarten playground to back room party politics.

Human systems are naturally self-conserving UNTIL something better comes along

So if our objective is to create "an economy that is regenerative and restorative - by design" then it's probably going to be useful to:

  • Acknowledge that the status quo is entrenched - and will naturally have a sub-population of Machiavellian types who will fight to the death to stay at the top.
  • Develop our own capabilities to recognise Machiavellian behaviours (including in ourselves).
  • Study the strategies and tactics developed over centuries to build our skills to "win the war with fewer battles".
  • Construct offers that will attract Machiavellian types - offers too good to refuse. (You might get a whole lot more done if your offer helps them meet their objectives.)

Sources and resources

Radio National's program All in the Mind discussed this human reality in a program called Machiavellianism, and the 'dark triad' of personality in June 2020 and prompted my further exploration and this article.

It included reference to science communication website on Machiavellian personality traits.

And for a more humourous twist:

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