Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?

One objection I’ve come across in arguing for a strategic view of human interaction is that “humans aren’t so Machiavellian.” My understanding of this objection is that it is founded in phenomenology—a feeling from those objecting that their conscious experience is only occasionally marked by a scheming, instrumental attitude toward their fellow interactants. (There is something which feels deeply unethical about such an attitude, after all—see Kant’s imperative to treat people as ends, rather than means.) Most of the time, they feel they are merely “getting along” in interactions—going through social rituals, attempting to stay amicable or collegial, trying to make friends or swap information and learn about the world.

Here, I’ll sketch out the ways that viewing strategic interaction as Machiavellian is reductive and unnecessarily pejorative.

First, it’s worth re-casting the above objection to a strategic interaction frame in strategic terms. Participating in interaction rituals, staying amicable or collegial—these are activities which help build and maintain one’s standing in, and one’s ties to, a social group. (Consider the strategically disastrous ramifications of not participating, of not being amicable.) “Making friends” is a colloquialism for “building alliances”; collecting information is crucial for effective strategizing; and informational exchange manages to both alliance-build and knowledge-build simultaneously.

It’s worth asking—why don’t people see these behaviors as strategic? And why does “strategic” seem to imply “selfish”? One may climb, with treacherousness and cunning, to the very top of power in order to improve the lives of one’s subjects.[1]

Objection 1: The party being strategically interacted for, or on behalf of, is not necessarily the interacting individual (the game’s “player”). One can represent, and optimize for, another person or an abstract ideal just as readily as one optimizes for oneself.

There is a second connotation of “strategic” we ought to nip in the bud. In the Machiavellian frame, one’s strategy is aimed at promoting oneself into a position of great power, where one gains the ability to affect others (and affect them, ostensibly, negatively—since such a person is also, in this frame, selfish). To be strategic is to be “on the offense,” in the popular imagination.

Objection 2: Highly defensive or self-preservational behavior [2]—seeking to limit one’s vulnerabilities, or ensuring one’s safety, or the safety of one’s loved ones—is no less strategic than offensive, power-grabbing behavior.

Finally, the Machiavellian frame assumes competitive, zero-sum behavior between interactants. Scheming and cunning, the objection goes, are used primarily to destroy and undermine others (even if it is done “selflessly” and “on behalf” of others). Wily Odysseus takes down Troy, blinds Polyphemus. But again, the unnecessarily pejorative “scheming” can be re-cast as the neutral if not downright pro-social “planning.”

Objection 3: Strategic interaction can and does often lead to greater coordination and Pareto improvements; indeed, it is usually their prerequisite.

A similar idea I have advanced—that “All communication is manipulation“—falls prey to similar resistance. When used in an engineering or tool-based context, to “manipulate” is an ethically neutral term which merely signifies affecting or transforming a manipulated object in a way which is beneficial to the manipulator. Interpersonally, however, the term has a disapproving connotation—”controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly.” But if we remove the connotation—the “often” which is not imperative to the concept—we come to realize how much of our interactions is characterized by perfectly harmless manipulation. We are standing in a crowd and glimpse an acquaintance across the room; we shout his name, hoping to manipulate his attention such that he will turn towards the source of the sound and notice us. Then we beckon, so that he will come to us. Then we ask him what his evening plans are, so that he will reveal them. Strategically, we do not invite him to have drinks with us until he has already noted that his evening is free, or (if we are lucky) hinted at being interested in doing something together—thus avoiding unnecessary risk of rejection or social awkwardness should we overstep the current bounds of our relationship (as he perceives them). At each step, we are trying to effect a transformation in our acquaintance. But because our manipulations are transparent, they can be consensually gone along with, and there is no phenomenology of manipulation even as manipulation is clearly apparent on analysis. Hence the addendum to “All communication is manipulation”: “Some manipulation is mutually advantageous” [3]—ceding, of course, that not all is.

Goffman, in The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life, gives some examples of this banal, benevolent sort of manipulation:

we need not appeal to sadly enlightened showmen such as Marcus Aurelius or Hsun Tzu. We know that in service occupations practitioners who may otherwise be sincere are sometimes forced to delude their customers because their customers show such a heartfelt demand for it. Doctors who are led into giving placebos, filling-station attendants who resignedly check and recheck tire pressures for anxious women motorists, shoe clerks who sell a shoe that fits but tell the customer it is the size she wants to hear—these are cynical performers whose audiences will not allow them to be sincere.



If one grants the strategic interaction frame, then what strategic reasons might there be for denying the fact of strategic maneuvering? In an upcoming post, I talk about the advantages of strategic ignorance and plausible deniability. Some of these will be familiar to readers of Bob Trivers’ work on self-deception; others will hopefully be new.


[1] Of course, it is built into our cultural mythology that to take such a path and compromise one’s sense of morality ultimately corrupts the do-gooder. “If we use the same dirty tactics as our enemy, does that not make us the same as them?” the eternal rhetorical question goes. Thomas Carcetti’s story arc in The Wire is one example of this mythos playing out. I think it is more likely that such individuals were selfishly motivated to begin with, and self-deluded at deep levels about their motivations in order to more effectively gain public support. But this is a separate matter.

[2] Note that such self-preservation is perfectly “selfish”—there is a connotation to selfishness which goes far beyond mere self-advancement, and implies self-advancement or self-regard at the cost of others’ wellbeing. It is not “selfish” to spend an afternoon in leisure; it is, however, “selfish” to spend an afternoon in leisure while neglecting a friend in need.

[3] Different cultures have different attitudes towards whether manipulation is ethical only when it is consensual, or only when it benefits the other. These norms vary greatly by context: parents are widely seen as having the authority to manipulate their children, often against their knowledge or consent, “for their own good.” The United States government has certain legal rights to cognitively manipulating individuals with pharmaceuticals, granted that such individuals have shown themselves to be “mentally unsound” or a potential risk to themselves.

10 responses to “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?”

  1. […] lead. And yet it is important to disentangle the banal strategic dispositions of human life from Machiavellian maneuvering: Grogan likely did not have this specific outcome in mind when he made the offer to stand as […]


  2. […] does not imply more selfishness or more dishonesty in human conduct, it does not imply that we are Machiavellian optimizers. It merely reframes what we already believe about human communication, by conceptualizing it […]


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  6. […] pressured to distinguish ourselves from the “bad” kind of manipulation—selfish, Machiavellian, dishonest puppeteering. We mistakenly believe the “bad” kind of manipulation involves […]


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  9. […] is Behavioral Manipulation,” “All Communication is Manipulation,” “Linguistic Fit,” “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?,” “A Landscape of Communication,” and “ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic […]


  10. […] sense of what it means to pursue goals, and be strategic, in everyday life—one which appears overly Machiavellian. Play is justified in part by its instrumentalism to greater goals, but may reach a tipping point […]


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