Evil geniuses? People high in Machiavellianism may have superior reasoning abilities

Fluid intelligence — a measure of a person’s adaptive reasoning and problem-solving skills — might be associated with one of the “dark triad” personality traits. A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences has found preliminary evidence that fluid intelligence is linked to Machiavellianism.

“The Dark Triad is a novel topic dealing with the more negative side of human character. We became interested in the controversy within the literature regarding the supposed redundancy of psychopathy and current measures of Machiavellianism,” explained study author Christopher Marcin Kowalski of the University of Western Ontario.

“In self-report studies, the two traits appear to be redundant, but when other methods are used, such as in experiments, they are more easily differentiated.”

“We were also interested in the ‘evil genius’ idea of Machiavellianism. Intuitively, one would expect Machiavellian individuals to also be highly intelligent because of their strategic and manipulative tendencies (for example, Theodore Kaczynski), but previous literature has not supported this idea,” Kowalski said.

“One reason for this lack of relationship could be that past research has predominantly focused on crystallized intelligence (learned and cultural in nature), rather than fluid intelligence (i.e., reasoning or performance ability) which is more consistent with theoretical accounts of Machiavellianism.”

The study of 128 Polish high school students found that individuals with more Machiavellian tendencies tended to have higher levels of fluid intelligence. People who are high in Machiavellianism agree with statements like “It’s wise to keep track of information that you can use against people later.”

But neither narcissism nor psychopathy were found to be significantly related to fluid intelligence.

“More research on the topic should be conducted before making any sweeping conclusions,” Kowalski told PsyPost. “The main takeaway from this study, I think, is that individuals who are high in Machiavellianism may in fact have superior reasoning ability that would allow them to better manipulate people around them. I say this with some caution, however.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. “The IQs of the participants were higher than average, and therefore not representative of the population,” Kowalski noted.

“As well, although non-significant (perhaps because of the small sample), there was a negative relationship between psychopathy and fluid intelligence that warrants clarification by future research. If there is a relationship between psychopathy and fluid intelligence, is it due to actual deficits in intelligence or do psychopaths just put less thought and effort into taking intelligence tests?”

The study, “The Dark Triad traits and intelligence: Machiavellians are bright, and narcissists and psychopaths are ordinary“, was authored by Christopher Marcin Kowalski, Katarzyna Kwiatkowska, Maria Magdalena Kwiatkowska, Klaudia Ponikiewska, Radosław Rogoza, and Julie Aitken Schermer.