Study: Brains of Selfish People Immediately Seek to Exploit Others

The science behind selfish behavior has been revealed, and it's pretty disturbing.


Everyone wants to get ahead, but how we do that and to what extent says a lot about us. A recent study by the University of Pécs in Hungary shows the neuroscience behind people who are opportunistic, exploitative, and suspicious. Called “Machiavellians” by psychologists and “politicians” by most, this personality type is naturally bad at playing with others. Like Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election, these people will do anything to get ahead and have a callous disregard for other people’s feelings. The study shows in startling detail the inner workings of Machiavellians brains.

[W]hen you show calculating people what they expect — that you are ready to exploit their vulnerabilities for self-gain — there is no sign of surprise.

In the study, a group of people both low and high on the Machiavellian scale played a game with, unbeknownst to them, a computer. The computer sometimes played fairly and sometimes did not, but when it was playing fairly, the Machiavellian brain lit up in key areas. Researchers say as soon as someone demonstrates fairness — in this case, a confederate computer — Machiavellians start finding ways to exploit it.

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Machiavellians, however, tend to see the worst in people, presuming that everyone acts purely out of self-interest. What is interesting, then, is that when you show calculating people what they expect — that you are ready to exploit their vulnerabilities for self-gain — there is no sign of surprise. When you respond to their selfish behavior with kindness, their brains immediately start planning how to best take advantage of you. They are, in fact, selfish jerks.

Researchers say as soon as someone demonstrates fairness — in this case, a confederate computer — Machiavellians start finding ways to exploit it.

While personality types such as these are certainly disturbing, perhaps with greater research we can begin to understand the why and also how to help Machiavellians be more humane. Either that, or they will end up alone in a mansion murmuring “rosebud” a la Citizen Kane.

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Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY, which is the most unoriginal sentence she has ever written. You can look at her silly drawings on Tumblr, Rad Drawings, or read her silly tweets @LilBoodleChild. Enough about her, she says: how are you?


PHOTO CREDIT: iStock

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