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Machiavellianism and Spontaneous Mentalization: One Step Ahead of Others

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Machiavellianism and Spontaneous Mentalization: One Step Ahead of Others
  Machiavellianism and Spontaneous Mentalization: One Step Ahead of Others ZSOFIA ESPERGER and TAMAS BERECZKEI* Institute of Psychology, University of Pécs, Pécs, Hungary   Abstract: In spite of the Machiavellians ’  successful strategies in exploitation of others, they show cognitive de  󿬁 cien-cies, especially reduced mind-reading skill. Theory of mind is usually regarded as an ability to make inferences about the mental states of others and thus to predict their behaviour. In our study, we have instead emphasized a motivation-based approach, using the concept of spontaneous mentalization. This concept is construed solely in a motivational context and not in relation to the automaticity of mind-reading ability. It entails that people in their social relationsmake efforts to explore the thoughts and intentions of others and are motivated to make hypotheses about the mental state of the other person. We assumed that what is peculiar to Machiavellianism is spontaneous mentalization as akind of motivation rather than mind-reading as an ability. To measure spontaneous mentalization, we created a set of image stimuli and asked our participants to describe their impressions of the pictures. The results show that individual differences in spontaneous mentalization correlate positively with the scores of Machiavellianism. Theseresults suggest that those who have a stronger motivation for putting themselves into the mind of others can be moresuccessful in misleading and exploiting them. Further research should be carried out to clarify how spontaneousmentalization and mind-reading ability relate to each other. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Key words: manipulation; theory of mind; social cognition INTRODUCTIONMachiavellianism Davies and Stone (2003) argue that the advanced capacity of mind-reading as a   ‘ neutral cognitive device ’  brings advan-tages in two important areas of interpersonal relations. First,it makes it easier to develop the exchange of perspectivebetween two individuals that is necessary for successfulcooperation. Second, a well-developed ability to attributemental states to others enhances competitive skills because it enables individuals to gain advantageous positions or, incertain cases, to manipulate others.Machiavellianism, which involves manipulation and deceit,is regarded as a behavioural strategy that people employ to useothers as a tool for achieving their own goals (Wilson, Near, &Miller, 1996). Psychological research has revealed that Machiavellian thinking and behaviour play important rolesin our social relations (Bereczkei, Birkas, & Kerekes, 2010,McIllwain, 2003; Repacholi et al., 2003), and variousexperimental tools  —  called Mach tests  —  were designedto measure this type of behaviour (Christie & Geis, 1970).Current psychological research clearly shows that Machi-avellianism is a complex pattern of behaviour that can becharacterized by several essential personality, cognitive andsocial features. The Machiavellian personality can be ana-lyzed essentially in three different aspects (Gunnthorsdottir,McCabe, & Smith, 2002; McIllwain, 2003; Repacholiet al., 2003; Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996). First, it is inter-preted as an expressly manipulative behaviour wherebypeople give nearly absolute priority to their own interests,and the damage or bene 󿬁 t to others hardly matters. Second,it comprises a world view governed by the principle of   ‘ theend justi 󿬁 es the means ’ . Third, it involves a cynical andsuspicious attitude toward others with the conviction that if you do not exploit others, they will abuse you. All these fea-tures are strongly related to the ability of Machiavellians tostay away from the emotional in 󿬂 uences of situations andevents (a type of cold-bloodedness), and as a result, it is moredif  󿬁 cult to in 󿬂 uence them emotionally (Paal & Bereczkei,2007). Machiavellianism and theory of mind Several authors assumed that the manipulative behaviour characteristic of Machiavellianism cannot work ef  󿬁 cientlywithout the re 󿬁 ned use of the theory of mind (McIllwain,2003; Paal & Bereczkei, 2007). Good mind-readers  —  that is, people who can easily project themselves into thethoughts of others and understand their intentions, beliefsand knowledge  —  can use this ability more ef  󿬁 ciently for achieving their goals than people with weaker mind-readingcapacity. Hence, humans with outstanding mentalizing skillsare always one step ahead of others and can mislead them more easily than those with poor mind-reading ability.Therefore, the authors predicted that people who can be char-acterized as Machiavellian  —  those with high scores on theMach IV test   —  make fewer mistakes in theory of mind teststhan those who are characterized as less Machiavellian. *Correspondence to: Tamas Bereczkei, Institute of Psychology, Universityof Pécs, Ifjúság u. 6, Pécs H-7624, Hungary.E-mail: bereczkei.tamas@pte.hu  European Journal of Personality ,  Eur. J. Pers.  26 : 580 – 587 (2012) Published online 19 December 2011 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com)  DOI : 10.1002/per.859  Received 21 September 2011 Revised 9 November 2011, Accepted 9 November 2011 Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  However, surprisingly, this prediction has not been con- 󿬁 rmed. The  󿬁 rst study did not   󿬁 nd a signi 󿬁 cant relationshipbetween Machiavellianism (measured on the Mach IV scale)and adult mind-reading ability in social relations (measuredby a comprehension task consisting of 14 stories and 53questions; Paal & Bereczkei, 2007). Further studies found that Machiavellianism was negatively correlated with mind-readingtest scores based on the  ‘ Imposing Memory Task  ’  (IMT) andthe  ‘ Reading the Mind in the Eyes ’  test (Ali & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2010; Lyons, Caldwell, & Shultz, 2010). Theauthors concluded that high Machs are performing poorlyon both cognitive and affective tasks of mind-reading.Several studies on clinical samples also con 󿬁 rm theMachiavellians ’  de 󿬁 cits in social cognition. Some of thesestudies have revealed that scores on Mach IV correlatedstrongly with both primary and secondary psychopaths (Aliet al., 2009; Jacobwitz & Egan, 2006). Psychopathic patients,especially secondary psychopaths, have been shown toexhibit a mentalization de 󿬁 cit in connection with recognizingemotions and handling intentional problems (Dolan &Fullam, 2004; Hare, 1993).In spite of these cognitive failures, Machiavellian peopleappear to be successful in the exploitation of others. Indivi-duals high on Mach scale ( ‘ high Machs ’ ) were found to gainhigher pro 󿬁 t in experimental games, take advantage of misleading cooperation and ef  󿬁 ciently deceive others to beable to acquire money, recognition and status (Bereczkei,Birkas, & Kerekes, 2010; Gunnthorsdottir, McCabe &Smith, 2002; Sakalaki, Richardson, & Thepaut, 2007;Spitzer et al., 2006; Williams, Nathanson, & Paulhus, 2010). Theory of mind as an ability The controversy between the Machiavellians ’  successfulmanipulation and their de 󿬁 cit in mind-reading may lie inour limited comprehension of theory of mind. Theory of mind is regarded as an ability that determines how preciselywe can see the mental states of others. This ability might have provided our ancestors with an obvious advantage ininterpersonal relations when they had to understand andpredict the expected behaviour of others and enabled them to adjust to the constantly changing challenges posed bythe groups in which they lived (Brüne & Brüne-Cohrs,2006; Mithen, 1996).There is plenty of research on pathological manifestationsthat are related to the dysfunctions of the theory of mind(Baron-Cohen, 1995; Corcoran, Mercer, & Frith, 1995; Hare,1993; Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). Studies on healthy indi-viduals have also focused on mind-reading as an ability. Inone study, in which participants read short stories that involved problems about intentionality, large individualdifferences were found in adult theory of mind (Kinderman,Dunbar, & Bentall, 1998). Paal and Bereczkei (2007) whoused a similar experimental paradigm came to the conclusionthat mind-reading ability is strongly correlated with the will-ingness to cooperate and with empathy and consciousness aspersonality factors (which were measured by one subscale of Cloninger  ’ s Temperament and Character Inventory). Studiesof experimental games provide some support for the impact of mind-reading ability on success in cooperation andpersonality traits linked to prosocial behaviour (Ali &Chamorro-Premuzic, 2010; Nettle & Liddle, 2008; Stiller &Dunbar, 2007). Theory of mind as a motivation The aforementioned studies tend to regard theory of mind asa cognitive ability that is used to predict others ’  mental con-tents and to measure how precisely one can infer the internalstates of other persons. In many cases, mind-reading canindeed assist adaptation to the social environment so wecan make better predictions about the internal world of othersas precisely as possible. Our mind-reading ability providesinvaluable help for performing social interactions in a smooth and effective way (Paal & Bereczkei, 2007).However, the question arises of whether the only thing that really matters in our everyday life is how precisely we canpredict the thoughts, desires and knowledge of other people.Several authors suggest that the ability to attribute mentalstates and its precision is not the only criterion that should be taken into account for understanding mind-reading.Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, and Moll (2005) workedout the notion of   ‘ collective intentionality ’  that includes, inaddition to ability, a special kind of motivation that urges usto share our subjective experience with others. Children reachthe level of collective intentionality at an average age of 14months, which enables them to participate in socialrelations and collective thinking (Tomasello et al., 2005).The motivation inherent in collective intentionality can bebidirectional:  󿬁 rst of all, it urges us to share our psychologicalstates with others. At the same time, it encourages us to focuson the psychological states of others. In the present study, weput the emphasis on the latter.In the present study, we use the notion of spontaneousmentalization for the willingness to explore the mental statesof others. The ability-level aspects of the theory of mind willbe differentiated from the motivational aspect that works byurging us to make hypotheses in our everyday lives about others ’  minds. We hypothesize that there are differencesamong individuals not only at the level of abilities but alsoin terms of spontaneous mentalization focus: some peopleare more, others are less motivated to assess the thoughtsand intentions of others in a spontaneous way. It is important to note that we use  ‘ spontaneity ’  to refer to the hypothesizedintrinsically motivated nature of mind-reading attempts, not to predict a certain degree of automaticity of mind-readingability. We approach mind-reading from a motivational point of view, and not in the sense of an automatic or unconsciouscognitive ability. Hypotheses We assume that there may be different strategies at work inmentalization depending on how strongly individuals focuson the mental states of others and how much they are moti-vated spontaneously to use their own mind-reading ability —  irrespective of how re 󿬁 ned their skills are in this respect.We de 󿬁 ne spontaneous mentalization as a drive to try toMachiavellianism and spontaneous mentalization 581 Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Eur. J. Pers.  26 : 580 – 587 (2012)DOI: 10.1002/per   attain the fastest and most elaborate internal representation of the mental states of others in various social situations. Weassume that the successful use of the manipulative behaviour strategy de 󿬁 nitely requires that the information inferred onthe basis of psychological states should be available as soonas possible. Therefore, it is hypothesized that it is theMachiavellians who need to take the  󿬁 rst step: they have tomake efforts to recognize the thoughts of others if they wishto manipulate them successfully. This concept would give anexplanation why Machiavellians are so successful in thecompetition for material and social resources in spite of their reduced ability of mind-reading. In the light of this theoreti-cal framework, we wish to test two predictions:We assumethat there are signi 󿬁 cant individual differences in spontane-ous mentalization, that is, in how strongly individuals aremotivated to read the mind of others.We assume that peoplecharacterized as Machiavellian  —  those who receive highscores on the Mach IV test   —  focus more strongly on themental states of others and take steps to explore the internalworld of others earlier than less Machiavellian persons. METHODSParticipants Our research is based on the data of 112 participants, full-timestudents at various faculties of the University of Pécs. Fifty of them were men and 62 were women, with an age range of 18 – 25years (  M  =20.6years;  SD =1.8). They participated in thestudy voluntarily without any compensation. Participants weretested in small groups consisting 10 to 20 persons. Procedure The participants  󿬁 rst saw a set of stimuli consisting of 12pictures projected onto the screen. They had 20minutes toreact to the pictures in writing (100seconds for each picture).Then, we asked them to complete the Mach IV questionnaire.All participants were subsequently informed about thepurpose of the research. Materials For the study of spontaneous mentalization, a set of visualstimuli consisting of 12 pictures was compiled (Figure 1).Some of the pictures were made by the authors, and theothers were non-copyrighted images downloaded from theInternet. These pictures depicted everyday situations (e.g. a wedding procession, children playing). We assumed that focus set on the picture may in 󿬂 uence the participants ’  men-talization to a certain degree; therefore, we did not use close-ups that could intensify the focus on the emotional states of the people in the pictures. As a   󿬁 rst step of the experiments,the pictures were projected on a 170  127-cm screen for theparticipants. The distance between the participants and thewidescreen was approximately 3m. Short, handwrittendescriptions were requested for each picture. Every picturewas displayed for 100seconds on the screen (this durationwas optimal for participants to write their responses basedon our pilot investigations). We used time pressure to stan-dardize investment in the task and to rule out the possibilitythat individual differences in responses would be a functionof time. The written and verbal instructions were as follows: ‘ In the  󿬁 rst part of the experiment you will see pictures pro- jected onto the screen. Please write 2 to 3 sentences about each picture. The only expectation is that you should writelegibly. We do not wish to draw a conclusion about anypersonality traits from what you write. ’ To measure Machiavellianism, we used the Mach IVscale developed by Christie and Geis in 1970. It consists of 20 items that contain short statements related to the rulesand principles that may cover relationships with others (e.g. ‘ The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear  ’ ;  ‘ Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is Figure 1. The four elements of the 12 picture stimuli. The pictures are either our own or have been downloaded from free Internet sites. They do not containextreme situations; all of them represent situations that people can encounter in their everyday life. We also avoided using close-up shots because they do not re 󿬂 ect real-life situations. 582 Z. Esperger and T. Bereczkei Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Eur. J. Pers.  26 : 580 – 587 (2012)DOI: 10.1002/per   asking for trouble ’ ). The participants used a 7-point Likert scale to indicate the degree of agreement with each item.As was mentioned previously, several studies con 󿬁 rm that high-Mach persons are very successful in competition withrivals; those participants who obtained high scores on theMach IV scale proved to be more effective in the manipula-tion of others (Christie & Geis, 1970; Gunnthorsdottir,McCabe, & Smith, 2002) and gained a larger sum of moneyin experimental games (Czibor & Bereczkei, 2010; Spitzer et al., 2006) than did others.Although the use of the Mach IV scale is an acceptedmethod in the literature, we decided to verify the reliabilityof the questionnaire in our study as well, and the result proved to be acceptable (Cronbach alpha=0.72). Coding spontaneous mentalization The texts written by the participants were entered into a com-puter and then we conducted psychological content analysison them (Holsti, 1968) using the ATLAS/ti software. Theanalysis was inductive, using the Code-by-List functionalityof ATLAS/ti. This function allowed independent coders toidentify those words and sentences that represented theparticipants ’  mentalization, rather than selecting certainphrases from a pre-written list. The basic units of the codingprocedure were either single words or phrases and wholesentences. The single words or phrases always referred tomental states, whereas the whole sentences, when partici-pants wrote them in quotation marks, were taken as basicunits as if they were thought bubbles belonging to thepersons on the pictures.The frequency of passages that showed that the partici-pant was concerned with the internal states of the person(s)in the picture was coded. Thus, every such passage was inter-preted as an element of spontaneous mentalization, and everyparticipant received as many points as such elements werefound in the text they had written. The coding of the wholecorpus was carried out by the  󿬁 rst author. Then, the textswere divided between two independent coders. All responsesof a single participant were assigned randomly to one of thecoders. Responses from the same participant were not split.The independent coders were blind to the hypotheses of the re-search. After discussing the concepts, the coding principles andthe techniques, they worked with the text on their own. Therewas high correlation between our coding and the results of theindependent coders (Pearson  r  =0.90,  p < 0.01). When analyz-ing the texts containing a total of 11514 words, we recorded517 elements in our coding, whereas the independent codersrecorded 488 elements. The results of independent coders wereusedonlyforensuringthereliabilityofthe 󿬁 rstauthor  ’ scoding,and these results were not used for further statistics. RESULTSIndividual differences in spontaneous mentalization On the basis of the coding process, we calculated how manymentalization elements appeared in the participants ’  texts.For this purpose, we divided the spontaneous mentalizationresults of the participants in four equal groups in accordancewith the frequencies received. The lowest and highest results —  fallingintothe 󿬁 rst and fourthquarters —  wereputintotwogroups for further analysis ( 󿬁 rst quarter:  N  =34, 19 women, 15men; fourth quarter:  N  =42, 19 women, 23 men). After establishing the group variable, the independent sample  T   test revealed a signi 󿬁 cant difference between the values of thetwo groups ( t  =  20.91,  p < 0.01,  d  =0.89): the results of the 󿬁 rst quarter proved to be signi 󿬁 cantly lower than those in thefourth quarter. Another analysis revealed that the number of mental state attributions used by the participants showednormal distribution in the samples (Shapiro – Wilk   Z  =0.939,  p > 0.05; Figure 2). So, we can claim that our introductoryhypothesis, which assumes that signi 󿬁 cant individual differ-ences can be demonstrated for spontaneous mentalization, iscon 󿬁 rmed. Figure 3 gives an insight into the qualitative data. Spontaneous mentalization and Machiavellianism We found a positive correlation between spontaneous menta-lization and Machiavellianism (Figure 4). More speci 󿬁 cally,there was a moderate correlation between the number of mental state attributions and the scores achieved in the MachIV questionnaire (Pearson  r  =0.40,  p < 0.01). In addition tothe correlation method, we used the previously establishedgroup variable in a   T   test to examine the difference betweenthe two groups from the point of view of Machiavellianism.The results of the mental state attributions falling into thefourth quarter have signi 󿬁 cantly higher Machiavellianism values than those of the  󿬁 rst quarter (72.41  12.14 vs85.33  13.7,  t  =  3.98,  p < 0.01,  d  =0.35). Nevertheless, a median split comparison on the basis of spontaneousmentalization scores was not signi 󿬁 cant from the point of view of Machiavellianism (75.49  11.51 vs 79.26  11.63, t  =  1.16,  p > 0.05).Next, we analyzed the possible moderation effects on therelationship between Machiavellianism and spontaneous Figure 2. The quantitative distribution of mental state attributions in  spon-taneous mentalization  with a normal distribution curve placed over it. Theminimum spontaneous mentalization score was 0; the maximum score was19. The mean score was 8.5. Machiavellianism and spontaneous mentalization 583 Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Eur. J. Pers.  26 : 580 – 587 (2012)DOI: 10.1002/per   mentalization, using the available data. First, we took a closer look at gender differences. In line with the results of previous research (Andrew, Cooke, & Muncer, 2008), theMachiavellianism value was higher for male than for femaleparticipants ( t  =3.07,  p < 0.05,  d  =0.28). At the same time,there was no difference between the sexes for the spontane-ous mentalization that we measured (9.77  4.73 vs8.66  3.95,  t  =0.89,  p > 0.05).Positive correlations have been found between spontane-ous mentalization and Machiavellianism for both male andfemale subjects ( r  =0.51,  p < 0.001;  r  =0.35,  p < 0.01,respectively), and these correlations did not show a signi 󿬁 -cant difference (  z *=1.02 < 1.96). Additionally, when weruled out the possible effect of sex by using partial correla-tion, we found that the values for the relationship betweenMachiavellianism and spontaneous mentalization (Pearson r  =0.46,  p < 0.01) were not signi 󿬁 cantly different from thesrcinal correlation values.Then, we also looked at the possibility of whether theparticipants who wrote more about the pictures attributedmore mental states in their texts. This possible correlationshould be addressed because it if turns out that the number of mentalizations depends on the length of the texts, theresult on the relationship between spontaneous mentalizationand Machiavellianism should qualify as a mere artefact.However, we managed to provide evidence against the arte-fact hypothesis. Using partial correlation, we ruled out theeffect of the number of words, and the srcinal correlationvalue (Pearson  r  =0.41,  p < 0.01) did not change as a result.This result shows that the spontaneous mentalization strategyproves to be ef  󿬁 cient irrespective of the length of the textswritten by each participant   —  that is, of the possible differ-ences in verbal abilities. DISCUSSION Our results suggest that spontaneous mentalization, a moremotivation-based aspect of mind-reading, (i) shows largeindividual differences and (ii) plays an important role in themanipulation of others. Individuals high on Mach scale werefound to focus more strongly on the mental states of othersthan those low on Mach scale. The individual differences “There is a girl standing on a train in the picture. She leans out of the window. It is a black and white picture.“Travelling is important for everybody. The quality of trains in our country is not very good for that. Still, many use this means of transportation.”“It is a mindless moment before departure. The girl is travelling to a remote but not unknown place. She knows that whatever awaits her at the end of her journey; it will be new and interesting. A last, stray thought about what she is leaving behind.“A lady is travelling to a remote place leaving her loved ones behind. She is staring with glazed eyes in front of her. She is sad because she is leaving. Figure 3. Answersgivenbyfourdifferentparticipantstothesameitem.The 󿬁 rsttwocasesexemplifythelack,andtheothertwo,thepresenceofmentalizationfocus.Figure 4. Graphic representation of the positive correlation between Ma-chiavellianism and spontaneous mentalization. The horizontal axis repre-sents the scores achieved in the Mach IV test, and the vertical axis showsthe number of mental states attributed to the people in the pictures by the par-ticipants as the variable of spontaneous mentalization. 584 Z. Esperger and T. Bereczkei Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Eur. J. Pers.  26 : 580 – 587 (2012)DOI: 10.1002/per 
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