Friday, March 8, 2013

Machiavellians & Narcissists: More & More of Them

"Machiavellian: A person who is charming on the surface, a genius at sucking up to power, but capable of mind-boggling acts of deceit for control or personal gain."(1)

"Understanding the narcissism epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture's focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy."(2)

Exasperating to deal with and dangerous when gullible people believe them, narcissists and Machiavellians really have become more common since the beginning of agriculture. There are several reasons--Machiavellians  producing more offspring and passing on their traits; culture; parenting practices; even viruses. I can only imagine life as a hunter-gatherer, but possibly, living such a life among 50 to 150 people, some who'd known you all your life, meant facing reality every day and knowing who you were and what you could do. Nevertheless, the occasional hunter-gatherer came to be a legend in his own mind. Barbara Oakley writes in Evil Genes,

Psychopathic or self-serving Machiavellian behavior would be obvious in such a restricted environment and would be difficult to tolerate long-term. There is evidence that when such behavior arose in those small, ancestral nomadic groups, it was eliminated in straightforward fashion. Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy, for example, notes that the Yupic-speaking Eskimos of northwest Alaska have a word, kunlangeta, which means "his mind knows what to do but he does not do it."

....One Eskimo among the 499 on their island was called kunlangeta. When asked what would have happened to such a person traditionally, an Eskimo said that probably "somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking."(3)

Murphy goes on to describe a similar word, arankan, used by the Yorubas of Africa. It is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded. Interestingly, neither kunlangeta nor arankan were thought to be curable by native healers. Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures. (4)(5)
The narcissists might have also been subject to natural selection: an inflated sense of one's abilities could be deadly when hunting animals that fought back or when gathering on unknown terrain. And as philosopher Diana Hsieh has observed, no fact is separate from all others: tell yourself one lie, and you have to ignore or explain away evidence to the contrary to keep up the deception. The lies become a bad habit.(6) They dumb you down. "Mistakes were Made, but not by Me," goes the title of one aptly named book on the subject.

What can most of us do about narcissists and Machiavellians you don't have any authority over? Probably just protect ourselves. Charlie Munger, before he was Warren Buffett's business partner, "bought a dented yellow Pontiac with a bad paint job 'to discourage gold-diggers'."(7) (The old-fashioned virtue of modesty might have really been enlightened self-interest.) Gavin DeBecker, a specialist in security issues, notes in The Gift of Fear that charm is a skill, not a virtue. Miss Manners, who says readers often ask her how to politely get others to pay for their wedding or trip or furniture, says there isn't any polite way, and guests or others don't have to pony up. Probably, driving a beater and withholding your money isn't as satisfying as shoving a kunlangeta off the ice. But, hopefully not being a Machiavellian yourself, you won't have to live with any guilt.

1. Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley. 2007, Prometheus Books, New York. P. 409.
2. "Me Me Me! America's Narcissism Epidemic" Excerpt from The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.
3. JM Murphy, "Psychiatric Labeling in Cross-Cultural Perspective," Science 141 (1976): 1019-28.
4. Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors. New York: Penguin Press, 2006, p. 128.
5. Evil Genes, p. 265.
6. "Dursley Duplicity" by Diana Mertz Hsieh. Harry Potter and Philosophy. 2003.
7. Snowball by Alice Schroeder. Random House: 2008. Page 225.


tess said...

Ya know, there's a problem with this post - it's too short, :-)

Lori Miller said...

Maybe I should have a narcissist (I know several) write a guest post on how wonderful they are--that is, if they can spare time from posting pictures of themselves online and applying for jobs they're wildly underqualified for. I find such people amusing.