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Published in: Journal of Business Ethics 3/2022

08-01-2021 | Original Paper

Is Machiavellianism Dead or Dormant? The Perils of Researching a Secretive Construct

Authors: Daniel N. Jones, Steven M. Mueller

Published in: Journal of Business Ethics | Issue 3/2022

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Abstract

Machiavellianism is a popular construct in research on ethics and organizational behavior. This research has demonstrated that Machiavellianism predicts a host of counterproductive, deviant, and unethical behaviors. However, individuals high in Machiavellianism also adapt to their organizational surroundings, engaging in unethical behavior only in certain situations. Nevertheless, the utility of Machiavellianism has been questioned. Meta-analyses have demonstrated that psychopathy out-predicts Machiavellianism for most antisocial outcomes. Thus, many researchers assume Machiavellianism is a derivative and redundant construct. However, researchers examining the utility of Machiavellianism may be asking the wrong question about how Machiavellianism is unique. In our review, we find it less informative to ask about what antisocial behaviors Machiavellianism predicts. Instead, we find it more informative to ask when Machiavellianism predicts antisocial behaviors. Drawing on Field Theory and Trait Activation Theory, we argue that Machiavellianism is a trait that is associated with person × environment interactions. Their adaptive nature is made possible through the presence of impulse control and environmental sensitivity to punishment, two characteristics that individuals high in psychopathy lack. Consequently, individuals high in Machiavellianism constrain their antisocial behavior to environments when the benefits outweigh the costs. Thus, environmental context, especially the risk of external punishment, moderates Machiavellian misbehavior more than it does for those high in psychopathy. These behavioral constraints align with Lewin’s argument that behavior is a function of the person, environment, and interaction between the two. From this discussion, we arrive at recommendations pertaining to the future of Machiavellianism research in organizational and other applied settings.
Footnotes
1
Because the most problematic issue with Machiavellianism is its overlap with psychopathy, we will focus only on literature surrounding these two traits, excluding discussions of narcissism or sadism (Paulhus 2014).
 
2
Here, we use the term “environment” following Lewin (1997/1948). Although environment can refer to all situational and/or contextual states in which one can be (e.g., social, physical, or mental). We discuss environment in rational cost / benefit terms for selfish gain.
 
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Metadata
Title
Is Machiavellianism Dead or Dormant? The Perils of Researching a Secretive Construct
Authors
Daniel N. Jones
Steven M. Mueller
Publication date
08-01-2021
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Published in
Journal of Business Ethics / Issue 3/2022
Print ISSN: 0167-4544
Electronic ISSN: 1573-0697
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04708-w