Would you buy an essay online and submit it as your own work? Could you secretly slander a colleague to improve your own chances of a promotion? Better yet, could you undertake such duplicitous deeds without experiencing the faintest aftertaste of guilt or remorse?
If so, you're blessed, or cursed, with what psychologists call a Machiavellian personality. Such types are no strangers to our modern world; increasingly, our societies spawn self-serving, duplicitous individualists intent on getting what they want with negligible concern for fair-play or human cost.
Such Machiavellian characters are not just tolerated, they are increasingly celebrated. Hollywood has tapped into our fascination with the Machiavellian anti-hero. It has given us the likes of Gordon Gekko from the 1987 classic Wall Street, a trader who personifies the idea that "greed is good"; more recently, David Fincher's box office hit The Social Network offers us a portrayal of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a duplicitous, scheming Machiavellian.
Machiavellianism takes its name from the 16th-century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, whose writings advocate shadowy virtues such as subterfuge, deception and manipulation. It wasn't, however, until the 20th century that psychologists began to scientifically study these darker human traits. While studying personality dimensions, psychologists discovered a group of people who routinely cheated, charmed, and manipulated to get what they wanted. These seemingly amoral individuals, or "Machs", as the researchers called them, reported no guilt and showed little empathy for the people they used and abused.
The "Machs" displayed characteristics reminiscent of cold-blooded psychopaths, but without violent criminality. The Machs were high-functioning individuals, more given to legal evil than violent impulsivity. Barbara Oakley, the author of Evil Genes, refers to them as "successfully sinister", an allusion to the lofty status they often enjoy thanks to their subtle blend of charm, dishonesty, and calculated ruthlessness.
Evolutionary perspectives suggest that our population density has played an important role in the rise of Machiavellianism. The argument suggests that such traits are most advantageous when there is a large supply of people to dupe. Individuals with such tendencies often migrate from smaller towns and villages to big cities. Under the anonymising shadow of a sprawling urban dystopia, the detection of sinister acts is less likely and the consequences of detection less damaging.
Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's fast-food chain, suggests: "It's a dog eat dog, rat eat rat world." This may be true, but when too many people buy into the rat-eat-rat world-view, our organisations and our societies risk becoming crippled by anxiety, paranoia, and cynicism. No one really trusts anyone, everyone is suspect, and the office becomes a viper's nest of self-interest where only the ruthless rise. Such places are hardly conducive to collegiality and co-operation, the absence of which must gradually impact profitability and mental health.
So how can we prevent the proliferation of Machiavellianism? One answer is by promoting traits such as honesty, authenticity and empathy within our educational systems. Such qualities are often referred to as soft skills, and have been studied extensively by psychologists under the blanket term "emotional intelligence". One key finding is that emotionally intelligent business leaders tend to have healthier employees (lower rates of sickness and absence) and lower staff turnover.
These findings have justified investment in corporate training programmes aimed at developing emotional intelligence within the workforce. However, these initiatives would be more beneficial if they targeted students prior to their actually joining the workforce. Perhaps we should also include a focus on how to prevent, detect and respond to Machiavellian manipulation; a kind of "real-world" defence against the dark arts.
Despite our best efforts, there will always be Machiavellians. To further protect our institutions from the self-serving serpent-class, we have to ensure robust systems of governance, systemic checks and balances, with professional autonomy closely linked to transparent accountability. Doing nothing and accepting it as "the way of the world" is not an option.
Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi