The overconfidence of Machiavelli and Blair

In the 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a book for a prince on how to use cunning to obtain and hold on to power. In sharp contrast to most books written at the time on princely governance, morality took second place to practicality. 

The more modern, female, swishy-haired equivalent is Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. (Yes, I’m an economist and I watch Gossip Girl. I have no shame because you don’t know my real name.) Blair charms, conspires and cheats. Take the following quotes – Machiavelli or Blair Waldorf?

1. “All that matters is the face you show the world.”

2. “When the truth fails you, you have no choice but to abandon it.”

3.  “Everybody sees what you seem, few feel what you are like.”

4. “He who deceives will always find people who will let themselves be deceived.”

It may be easier to tell the images apart

So how good are Machiavellians at getting their cunning way? Regular viewers of Gossip Girl will know that many episodes follow the following sequence. Blair hatches a cunning plan; Blair over-stretches herself; Blair’s true nature is exposed; plan comes tumbling down; Blair is upset; Blair hatches a cunning plan.

According to a recent INSEAD working paper, “Machiavellianism and Overconfidence“, people with Machiavellian tendencies are more likely to be overconfident. When asked to forecast the results of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Machiavellians were more likely to believe that they would outperform others – perhaps reflective of the fact that Machiavellians are more likely to be narcissistic too.  

However, Machiavellians actually performed worse than others, because they tended to confidently pick unlikely outcomes. (It would be interesting to run this experiment with England supporters, who never seem to learn from past World Cup losses).

In other words, Machiavellians may be good at strategising – but their weak point is that they think they’re much better than they really are.

Although maybe true Machiavellians wouldn’t reveal their true nature so easily in a simple research survey…


Answers to the quotes puzzle above: Quotes 1 & 2 are Blair, 3 & 4 are Machiavelli.
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