Madoff is a great example of someone with a personality that combines charm and influence with a callous disregard for others.

Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy

Among many different types of personality characteristics there are three that are particularly central to this type of behaviour: machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Researchers refer to these as the dark triad of personality.

Each of these three personality traits is somewhat distinct as research suggests that each can lead some people to do harm with their use of influence. And, let’s first look at machiavellianism, which is named for the Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.

Individuals who score high in machiavellianism, tend to be the kind who manipulate others for their own gain. A team of European researchers designed an interesting experiment that captures machiavellianism in action.

How do you win at this game?

Participants in this experiment were given an opportunity to play a game were they rotated between playing against the computer and playing against a person. In both conditions participants decided how much money from a designated pot they would share with their partner, again either a person or computer.

Now if the partner thought the amount of money offered them wasn’t fair the game was structured so that they could choose to punish the participants and reduce how much money they got to keep. In other words the partner was given leeway to take revenge if she became angry with how stingy the research participant was being.

Of course when the playing partner was a computer it would take whatever money was given gladly and not hold a grudge, computers are convenient like that. But when the partner was a person, well that was another story. How do you win at this game? Who gets the most money?

Machiavellians earned the most

The people who earn the most in this game are those who pay just enough to human partners on rounds where the human partners are playing and they quickly switch strategy to paying as little as possible when the computers play. Takes a little thought and strategizing to win big in this game but can you guess who did best.

People higher in machiavellian personalities withheld more money in the trials with the computer and gave just enough whenever playing against people to avoid being punished. Adding up across all trials higher machiavellians earned the most.

They figured out the system, and they were ruthless when it worked against that unfeeling computer, but play nice when it was necessary against the person who can punish them. Just as interesting, in this particular study were imaging results from the brains of participants.

Keep an eye on someone like this

These participants actually played while they were in an MRI machine. The MRI results, the pictures of their brains indicate that those high in machiavellianism had significant brain activity in her brain regions associated with concern for punishment.

Machiavellians are highly sensitive to punishment, so in the experiment they acted with smart restraint when punishment was a factor but when punishment was not there were working their brain activity was going they kept all they could.

Think about it this way, keep an eye on someone like this and they’ll play nice. Turn your back and who knows what they might do in pursuit of their own self interest.