I have been addicted to 'Great courses' books for some time now and have read quite a few books on influence, social skills, conflict management, negotiating, etc.

Having basic knowledge in these areas I am now finding hard to see what is the difference between someone being Machiavellian and simply knowing how to negotiate, influence others.

One could argue that being moral is what separates the two however knowing about cultural differences across the world it would be quite hard to draw a line (we burned witches after having 'magna carta' and developed judiciary system for centuries) plus would inevitably have to delve in to moral philosophy... and eventually pretty much would end up having to make judgments subjectively.

Is there an actual difference between Machiavellianism and good negotiating skills?


The term "Machiavellianism" can be used to refer to adherence to a set of strategies and guidelines for manipulation (eg, "personally deliver good news but have bad news delivered by others"), a moral philosophy (eg, "the means justifies the ends"), or a personality trait (also called "Machiavellian intelligence"). Since you've posted this question on a cognitive science forum, I will focus on the latter definition.

Machiavellianism is measured (as any personality trait), using a self-report scale. This test, the Mach-IV, developed by Christie & Geis (1970), does not measure negotiation skills, but mostly focuses on social and moral attitudes and beliefs. As such, it would not normally be equated with any particular skills.

Fehr, Samson, & Paulhus (1992) review 17 years of research on Machiavellianism, including its association with persuasion:

Several studies have found that high Machs are particularly adept at persuading others in bargaining situations.

The review also mentions some notable exceptions, including a study by Fry (1985), that showed that a simple visual barrier greatly reduces the influence of high Machs. A more recent review by Jones & Paulhus (2009) also agrees:

... high Mach IV scores do predict who will and who will not engage in interpersonal manipulation.

So although the term refers to a set of self-reported attitudes about social relationships, and not a measure of any particular skills, it would be reasonable to say that Machiavellianism correlates with negotiation skills.

For completeness, I should mention that the strong correlation is not an accident. In fact, as the review points out:

... the construct validity of Machiavellianism rests largely on the match between high Mach IV scores and actual pragmatic manipulation.

In other words, the test was written and adjusted to have this correlation, so it may be more accurate to say that Machiavellianism is validated by negotiation skills.


Short answer

Negotiations can be subdivided into two categories: cooperative negotiations and competitive negotiations. Machiavellianism could be considered to be similar to competitive negotiations. It depends on the situation whether Machiavellianism can be considered as "good negotiation".

Long answer

Negotiation is a form of decision-making where two or more parties jointly search a space of possible solutions with the goal of reaching a consensus (p. 4, Gutmann & Maes, 1998).

The authors discuss two categories of negotiations that exist in a continuum: Competitive negotiations and cooperative negotiations. For competitive negotiations the goal is maximize your own reward. This often, if not always, comes at the cost of the reward of the other agent, i.e. the party you are negotiating with, because you have mutually exclusive goals. For example, if you must share 10 dollars, the goal of both agents would be to receive 10 dollars. With competitive negotiations, you try to come as close to that 10 dollar as possible.

During cooperative negotiations you try to find the best outcome for both parties. One reason to do so it that if you do not find the shared beneficial outcome, the reward could be even lower. For example, you again must share 10 dollars. However, if there is no consensus after some time, no money is given at all. Another example may be if there are repeated interactions (e.g. Bendor et al., 2001). If in the first negotiation you negotiate competitively, the other agent may be less inclined to accept sub-optimal outcomes in the second negotiation. Here is an old paper by Nash (1953) on cooperative negotiations (this is the same guy as from the Nash-equilibrium)

According to the Wikipedia page Machiavellianism is:

the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct [...] characterized by a duplicitous interpersonal style, a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and personal gain.

If I understand it correctly, Machiavellianism is thus clearly a competitive negotiation style in which the only goal is to maximize your own utility at the expense of the other agent.

Is there an actual difference between Machiavellianism and good negotiating skills?

It depends from what you considered "good" negotiation. A competitive (Machiavellian) negotiation does not always result in an optimal outcome, nor does a cooperative one. Only in particular situations you could argue that Machiavellianism is the most effective strategy. However, given that Machiavellianism constitues a cynical disregard for morality, my guts tell me that is is not "good".


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