How to Spot a Machiavelli

Question: Is there something inherently unethical about seeking power?

Robert Greene: It depends. Ethics and power are separate. That’s why I separated them. Ethics and morality, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think life would be miserable if there weren’t some kind of code that people operated by, but history is full of many, many people who have gotten power by very unethical means, people who were very ethical who get no power, people who have the most brilliant, lovely, wonderful, nice intentions and bring about horrible things in the world because they don’t know how to play the power game. The two are separate. They don’t really intersect at any point. I talk in The 33 Strategies of War, I use Mahatma Gandhi as one of the examples I look at, and he was obviously a very ethical man. I’m not ever going to deny that, but he used strategy when he tried to take on the British and get them out of India. This was a man who was extremely clever, who understood England very well. He had lived there. He understood its weaknesses, its vulnerabilities, and he attacked them in an extremely strategic manner. If he had been just simply a good, ethical man and thought that was enough, nothing would have happened. So I wanted to write a book about power. I want to write a book about seduction or about warfare and strategy. I want to focus on them as intensely and deeply as possible. I want to reveal to the reader all of the things that people in history have done, some of it dastardly, some of it not so dastardly. And then I treat the reader like an adult. It’s up to you. If you’re already somebody who has issues and problems the book might push you more in that direction. I don’t know, but you’re probably going to be doing those things anyway. I find with most of my readers are kind of like me, sort of people who were a little bit naïve in life and then learned the hard way that this is what’s going on, the political games and most of my readers write to me telling me that the book helped them open their eyes to what other people are doing to them.

Question: How can you tell if you’re dealing with a conscious manipulator?

Robert Greene: Everything depends on circumstance. A lot of people are obvious. Right away you can tell that they’re after something from you, but most people are tricky. Most people are passive aggressive in this world. I have this idea that the human being is born with a kind of reservoir of aggression. We are inherently somewhat aggressive creatures and we either channel that in direct ways or we channel it in indirect ways and we become passive aggressive and more and more people nowadays are passive aggressive, so months can go by and you’re not realizing that they are these sort of slippery snakes and I mean we’re all passive aggressive to some extent. We can’t help it, but some people just take it to another limit and there are ways you can recognize when you’re dealing with it. I give hints throughout my books. An example would be you enter a job or a new position somewhere and there is somebody who is suddenly extremely nice to you and you don’t know why. They’re flattering you. They’re praising you. They’re listening to everything you say. They want to know what you’re doing. They’re desire to be a friend is too fast. Usually you’re dealing with someone that’s up to something. This is a tactic they have used in life to get something from you. They’re winning your confidence over. They’re learning about you and they’re going to probably eventually betray you because if someone is genuine with their emotions they generally take time. Everybody is a little bit distrustful and needs to know… learn about the other person. These types that are glomming onto you right away they’ve got some kind of emptiness inside on they’re playing some kind of game and you need to be very wary of them. So the flatterers, the overt flatterers are usually hiding some kind of manipulation. I mean there are people who are genuinely like that or who have a need because they’re insecure to do that and then maybe you don’t have to worry about them. I don’t want to promote paranoia in my books. It’s not like wow, everybody is after me. You know that’s not going to be very powerful. A person like Stalin was like that and he was powerful, but it ended up completely destroying him because he couldn’t trust anyone. The idea is to be smart and not be so naïve and there are people around you who are probably playing passive aggressive games and they give off signals. You know I gave you one idea. There are many.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Are those who seek power inherently unethical? And how can the rest of us avoid being manipulated by them?

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Keep reading Show less

CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
  • The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
  • The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Keep reading Show less

Mammals dream about the world they are entering even before birth

A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.

Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
  • The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
  • Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast