Machiavellianism, Manipulations and Empathy.

Machiavellianism is a term used to describe a person’s tendency to deceive and manipulate other people for their personal gain.  The MACH-IV test is a twenty-statement personality survey that is now the standard self-assessment tool of Machiavellianism. People scoring above 60 out of 100 on the MACH-IV are considered high Machs; that is, they endorsed statements such as, “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so,” (No. 1) but not ones like, “Most people are basically good and kind” (No. 4). People scoring below 60 out of 100 on the MACH-IV are considered low Machs; they tend to believe, “There is no excuse for lying to someone else,” (No. 7) and, “Most people who get ahead in the world lead clean, moral lives” (No. 11).  You can take the test to see where you fit here.

I am a lawyer.  As such, many of the “Machiavellian” statements make sense to me in the working world.  Despite my profession, however, I am proud to consider myself a low Mach with a borderline score of 60.  Maybe that is part of being a special needs mom.  Unfortunately, as special needs mom, I know more than my fair share of high Machs.  In parenting my autistic son, I have come to learn that I am vulnerable to people who purport to “help” me.  By “me”, I mean my son, or, at times, I do mean me.  I am grateful when I get a break.  Some people can see that and attempt to manipulate me for their own personal gain.  And sometimes, it works.

With gratitude, I have been blind at times.  I will look past a fault or ignore a hint.  I see a highly desirable skill or service that someone provides to me and/or my son and I don’t want to look at the chink in the armor, because if I look that direction, I might lose what I regard as useful, which may be selfish in and of itself.  If that chink in the armor, is bad enough, I might destroy my self- constructed world view and get hurt.

Recently, I have seen a lot of parents in the special needs world get hurt by not checking- me included.  I have not been irreparably hurt or financially bilked, like some, but I did lose trust in someone recently who I had believed was one of the good guys.  The hints were there.  The manipulations always occurred when I was preoccupied.

It became a bitter reality.  My son was not hurt at all but he was used as a way for someone to make a buck off me.  It wasn’t even a lot of money.  It was a manipulation of me, knowing I was vulnerable, coupled with a chance to get something for their own personal gain.  Classic Machiavellianism.  (I was lucky that Jessica helped me uncover the truth about this person.)

It was a huge breach of trust.  And when you put together a huge breach of trust and care of my son?  You get cut out of my life.  There is no “I’m sorry,” or “let me explain.”  So, for a few bucks, this person lost my respect, my trust and made me feel like a fool.

That being said, I hesitated whether to write about this or not. Funny, but as a low Mach I felt compelled to share an honest story with you all.  Not because it will help me with personal gain, but because it is the truth.

As I was contemplating writing this, I came across a story from Psychology Today, that was fascinating in its discussion of empathy as it relates to the Dark Triad, personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, grouped together for their overlapping, negative characteristics. The common thread running through all three traits is low agreeableness and low empathy.

Now, for those of you who have been around the block, you know there is a huge discussion because some “researchers” profess that autistics do NOT have empathy.  Contrary to that position, there is a whole website devoted to Autism and Empathy run by a brilliant woman, Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg.  Rachel and I don’t always see eye to eye but I respect her greatly.

Personally, I’ve never felt my son lacked empathy, nor do I believe, generally that autistics lack empathy.  I have held the belief that every person is an individual, spectrum or not and whether someone has empathy cannot be judged by whether he/she has or does not have autism.  And while I do not believe my son lacks empathy, I do believe the person who breached my trust, lacks the kind of empathy my son has…

Having said all that, there is a recent paper out analyzing the lack of empathy of those personalities that fall within the Dark Triad.  In that paper, a distinction is made between two types of empathy.  In this Psychology Today story, the distinction is defined this way:

Cognitive empathy involves the ability to figure out the emotional states of others without feeling any emotional contagion (i.e., without being able to feel what they are feeling). In contrast, affective empathy involves sharing an emotional reaction in response to others’ emotions. This form of empathy facilitates altruistic behaviors. Prior research shows that individuals with high-functioning autism are impaired in cognitive empathy, but do not differ from neurotypicals in emotional empathy. The exact reverse appears to be true for Dark Triad individuals.”    

This prior research is a study that was published in November of 2007 and which concluded:

In conclusion, using the MET, a newly developed measure of empathy, we have demonstrated that individuals with Asperger syndrome show equivalent emotional empathy compared to a control group, although they have difficulties with the cognitive aspects of empathy.

That study also found:

Results from the study revealed difficulties in cognitive, but not in affective aspects of empathy in the Asperger group, suggesting that individuals with AS have a com- parable amount of concern for the distress of others as do neurotypicals. These results are further strengthened by the absence of differences between the groups on social desirability scores or on ratings of emotional reactions to non-social stimuli (context pictures), which might have represented confounding factors.

So, despite all the misperceptions by the public regarding a “lack of empathy” of people on the spectrum, there is evidence that autistics have a healthy dose of empathy.  And that empathy is a whole lot healthier than that which is lacking amongst those who desire to manipulate for selfish reasons.

At least, that’s my conclusion.  What’s yours?


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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20 Responses to Machiavellianism, Manipulations and Empathy.

  1. Kudos on being able to use “Machiavellianism” in the title for a blog post. I’m not sure I could have done that even if someone dared me to 😉 (hell, I had to copy and paste it into the comment just to spell it right!)

    I think your train of thinking is very interesting here, but I just don’t have the personal experience to be able to give feedback. I’m looking forward to reading your comments though from people who do!

  2. I agree. My son has more empathy than a lot of people. He’s more mature than a lot of grown ups too. Some people are just sad…and there’s nothing you can do about it except drop them out of your life.

  3. Teresa says:

    Machiavelli??? I remember something about him way back, a long time ago, in that stupid philosophy class I had to take (took it pass/fail; probably barely scraped out a pass)…

    Are people on the autistic spectrum capable of empathy? In my experience, thinking of the children I know, yes. Are they capable of showing it? Thinking of those came children, the answer must be a big sometimes.

    I know four teen and young adults on the autism spectrum. Two come across as caring while the other two appear to care less. None of them are entirely appropriate when it comes to displaying emotion. My son and one of the young men appear loving and interact more appropriately. My son, though cannot bear strong emotional feelings and will run and hide. This happens, for example, when the famous Grandpa comes to visit. Matthew loves Grandpa more than anything but if Grandpa comes in unexpectedly, I’ll hear a ‘Yip’ and off Matthew runs, covering his face until he can regain control. The other young man appears to handle emotions better but has not learned to be “adult” about overt displays.

    The other two young adults, on the face, appear to show no emotion towards another. They brush past if you enter, not allowing themselves to be interrupted from their task or direction. Yet, in watching them closely I can see reactions and emotions displayed towards the mother figure.

    In the study you reference I have to wonder if the perceived lack of concern demonstrated is real or maybe just hidden.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, and in my rambling I forgot to say that I’m sorry someone took advantage of you and your son. There are devious people out there offering services that we parents naively believe are being performed. We must all remain diligent.

    • Aspie Mom says:

      Please take a look at the FB Autism Discussion Page. He has a post today that starts:
      “Don’t assume “no emotion”, when you don’t see emotion!”

  4. blogginglily says:

    I’m a 60 also. That means we are awesome. People screw you over in life. . . but not ALL people. So you sometimes learn a hard lesson. . . as I have; as you have. . . and cut those people out of your life like surgically removing cancer.

  5. I agree with much of what you say in this post. Thank you for discussing the difference in cognitive and affective empathy. If you know kids with autism, you know they have empathy, its just how it is shown that is different. Oh and also, good for you not to give the manipulator another chance.

  6. Lizbeth says:

    The people who prey on others—it is they who lack empathy. I’m sorry someone did this. I am seething over here. I am glad you put an end to it. There is no redemption from that.

    I think the empathy discussion in Autism is one that can be equally applied to NT’s. Not everyone has it. I know people with Autism who have far more empathy than someone who does not have Autism. It’s one of those shades of grey.

  7. Your score was 39 of 100.

    This puts you in the category of the low Machs, people who will hold out for the goodness of the world and avoid manipulation. Not the people Machiavelli would approve of.

    Knew it! One thing about Aspies (Aspergers Syndrome) as we trust people, don’t like lies, and don’t understand manipulation. Thanks for the post. Very interesting. ; )

  8. Oh, and I totally agree with the cognitive empathy. When I have empathy I associate the feeling, and feel the pain. Thanks so much. You are an excellent writer. Very clear and precise….must be that lawyer in you. I have high-doses of empathy, and my son, with Aspergers as well, has developed empathy–as odd as that seems. When we lost our dog, yesterday : ( He was the one giving me a hug, sitting by my side, and reassuring me. Thanks again.

  9. Bobbie says:

    This post is brilliant. I’ve felt a lot of sadness and even some anger over some things that have happened recently. You have such a way with putting it that I LOVED. I am not a 60, but a 45… can I still be your friend. Ha ha.

  10. Broot says:

    hmm. I scored 68. Can I still be your friend? LOL maybe I’m just pessimistic this morning.

  11. eof737 says:

    I’m always impressed by how much you stay connected with the research and reports out there. Kudos. As for Machiavelli and his wicked cohorts, they are everywhere; especially during these tough times. They are vultures, piranhas with huge smiles and warm hugs and I do my best to run from them. Good for you to cut that one lose…

  12. *Thank you* for that test!! Pretty awesome. I’m borderline as well, but a borderline High-Mach (63). I have to say that one of the sayings I live by is “expect the worst, hope for the best”. I think my “misspent youth” probably has a lot to do with my high-mach score as I learned a lot about how base people can be.

    I am truly sorry that someone you trusted took advantage of you and your family. It never fails to come like a kick in the gut leaving only breathlessness. In truth, I get twitchy (read: stabby) when I hear that people take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others. If you’re going to try to “win”, at least do it clean. I’m really happy you have someone like Jessica though who helped you suss out their real intentions.

    To be honest, I think it’s good to have a low-mach heart, but a high-mach mind, if that makes sense. You have to be able to protect yourself against others, but at the same time, be the person who would never do something so vile. I loved this post and it came at quite the opportune time for me!

  13. Pingback: Machiavellianism, Manipulations and Empathy. | Empathy and Compassion |

  14. Pingback: Machiavellianism, Manipulations and Empathy. « Things I grab, motley collection

  15. me says:

    Unfortunately, I’ve found that in our society, a vast majority of people today are manipulating with their empathy. Using their empathic perceptions in order to superficially judge others, as well as to react to them based on their (empathic) perceptions about the person.

  16. Great post! But I’m sorry your trust was breached, that has been happening a lot in the SN community these last few months. Sigh.

  17. Pingback: Machiavellianism, Manipulations and Empath...

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