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The theory of Machiavellian intelligence: what exactly is it?

The theory of Machiavellian intelligence: what exactly is it?

May 25, 2024

The evolution of the human brain in comparison with the rest of animals, specifically with primates, is still a mystery in constant investigation. Encouraging numerous debates since the English naturalist Charles Darwin exposed to the world his theory of evolution in 1859.

One of the most important assumptions that try to explain this difference is the theory of Machiavellian intelligence, which relates the evolution and development of the brain with the level of social development of each species.

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What is the theory of Machiavellian intelligence?

Unlike other animals, the human being has experienced an infinitely superior brain development, with the cognitive and behavioral consequences that this entails. Even compared to primates, the brain of the human being is considerably larger and more complex .


Although it has not yet been possible to establish in a completely sure way what is the cause of these differences so abysmal in terms of brain development, there are many theories that try to explain this phenomenon that gave "homo sapiens" the ability to develop a much more mind complex

Some of them propose that brain development is a response to the ability to adapt to changes or alterations in the environment. According to these hypotheses, the subjects with the greatest ability to adapt and who were able to overcome and survive the adversities of the environment, such as environmental or meteorological conditions, have managed to spread their genes, leading to a progressive brain development .


However, there is another theory with much more support from the scientific community: the theory of Machiavellian intelligence. Also known as social brain theory, this assumption postulates that the most important factor in brain development is social competition.

Broadly speaking, this means that those individuals with more skills for life in society were more likely to survive. Specifically, these skills considered Machiavellian refer to social behaviors such as the ability to lie, mischief and insight. That is to say, the most astute individuals with the most social skills they achieved much greater social and reproductive success.

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How was this idea forged?

In the research work "Social behavior and evolution of primates" published in 1953 by researchers M. R. A. Chance and A. P. Mead, it was suggested for the first time that in social interaction, understood as part of an environment of competitiveness to achieve a status within a social structure , the key to understanding brain development in hominid primates could be found.


Later, in 1982, the Dutch researcher specialized in psychology, primatology and ethology Francis de Waal, introduced the concept of Machiavellian intelligence in his work Chimpanzee politics, in which he describes the social and political behavior of chimpanzees.

However, it is not until 1988 that the theory of Machiavellian intelligence is developed as such. Thanks to the background that links the concepts of brain and social cognition and Machiavellian intelligence, psychologists Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, make a compendium of research published under the name " Machiavellian intelligence: social experience and evolution of the intellect in monkeys, apes and humans ".

In this work the researchers present the hypotheses of Machiavellian intelligence, which tries to convey the idea that the mere need to be more insightful and astute than the rest of individuals generates an evolutionary dynamic in which the Machiavellian intelligence, in the form of use of social cognition skills, would result in a social and reproductive advantage .

Brain development and social intelligence

Although at first sight it may be difficult to associate the level of intelligence or brain development with a phenomenon of a social nature, the truth is that the hypothesis of Machiavellian intelligence is supported by neuroanatomical evidence .

According to this theory, the demands and cognitive demands due to an increase in social interactions, which in turn comes from the gradual increase in the number of individuals in a society, caused a growth in the size of the neocortex, as well as the complexity of this .

From the perspective of the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, the increase in complexity and size of the neocortex is a function of the variability of behavior that the subject can carry out in interaction with their society. This specification is of special relevance since it explains the differences in the development of the neocortex between primates and humans compared to other animal species.

In addition, numerous works and studies support the idea that the dimensions of the neocortex increase as the size of the social group increases . In addition, in the specific case of primates, the size of the amygdala, an organ traditionally linked to emotional responses, also increases as the size of the social group increases.

This is because for the integration and social success is necessary the correct development of the modulation and emotional regulation skills, hence the consequent increase in the size of the amygdala.

The study of Gavrilets and Vose

In order to verify this hypothesis, researchers from the University of Tennessee, United States, S. Gavrilets and A. Vose carried out a study in which by designing a mathematical model, one could simulate the brain development of the people based on the theory of Machiavellian intelligence.

For this, the researchers took into consideration the genes in charge of learning social skills . Arriving at the conclusion that the cognitive capacities of our ancestors increased in a significant way throughout only 10,000 or 20,000 generations, a very short space of time taking into account the history of humanity.

This study describes the brain and cognitive development in three different phases that occurred throughout the history of humanity:

  • First phase: the social strategies created were not transmitted from individual to individual.
  • Second stage: known as the "cognitive explosion" phase , in it a high point was manifested in the transmission of knowledge and social skills. It was the moment of greater cerebral development.
  • Third phase: called the "saturation" phase . Due to the enormous expenditure of energy that involved the maintenance of a brain increasingly larger the growth of this stopped, staying as we know it today.

It is necessary to specify that the authors themselves report that their results do not necessarily demonstrate the hypothesis of Machiavellian intelligence theory, but that the mechanisms or phenomena that produced this growth may coincide with the historical time at which they were hypothesized to have occurred.


Learning to Love Machiavelli: Don MacDonald at TEDxBoston (May 2024).


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