Interparental conflict linked to higher levels of Machiavellianism in boys — but not girls

Conflict among parents is associated with higher levels of Machiavellianism in boys, according to new psychological research published in Personality and Individual Differences.

“After finishing my PhD back in 2011, I found myself in a situation where a lot of people were talking about Machiavellianism in the Institute of Psychology at University of Pécs in Hungary. However, this group of colleagues around Professor Bereczkei seemed to be less interested in the developmental aspects,” said study author András Láng.

“After doing some literature review, I realized that this ignorance of the developmental aspects was more general. The current paper is one in the series of published articles that deals with the developmental aspects of Machiavellianism. The specific idea of investigating interparental issues in this paper came originally from co-author Loren Abell.”

Machiavellianism, one of the so-called “Dark Triad” personality traits, describes the willingness to be cynical, manipulative and deceitful. Machiavellians also endorse end-justifies-the-means morality.

A survey of 266 adolescents found that intense and unresolved parental conflict was associated with Machiavellianism in boys but not girls. Boys who agreed with statement such as “My parents get really mad when they argue” and “Even after my parents stop arguing they stay mad at each other” were more likely to agree with Machiavellian statements such as “Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble.”

A second study that examined 98 cohabiting Hungarian families raising at least one adolescent confirmed the initial results. Parents with more conflict and less cooperation were more likely to have boys with Machiavellian personality traits. Poorer quality of coparenting was also linked to higher levels of Machiavellianism in the adolescent boys.

“I would emphasize two aspects of these studies. First, in everyday life it is usually not a pleasant experience if you meet someone who is trying to manipulate and exploit you. However, I consider Machiavellianism to be a means of survival for some of us, a means of managing the world around you,” Láng told PsyPost.

“Coming from rejecting, conflictual, disturbed family backgrounds might leave individuals with manipulation as their only chance to relate and to make their lives bearable.

“Second, I would emphasize the gendered nature of Machiavellianism – and psychological functioning in general,” Láng continued. “Family adversities seem to affect Machiavellianism in men but not in women. I don’t think these difficulties leave women unaffected – they might be affected in ways that are different from those for men.”

There is still a need for more research. The design of the study made it impossible to make any conclusions regarding causality.

“Both studies reported in this paper are cross-sectional in nature,” Láng explained. “Therefore, we are speculative about the direction of causation. It is also plausible that Machiavellian children make families troubled and not the other way around. Longitudinal studies could relieve this problem.”

“I consider Machiavellianism to remain a highly interesting topic for years to come,” Láng added. “There is a controversy around this concept, whether it is any different from psychopathy. To systematically test this distinction between the two concepts would be an interesting challenge.”

The study was titled: “Relationship between interparental functioning and adolescents’ level of Machiavellianism: A multi-perspective approach“.