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Machiavellian intelligence theory

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 13 years, 2 months ago

Machiavellian Intelligence Theory



The Social intelligence hypothesis suggests that the increase in brain size during evolution in primates has been driven by the need to work in groups and make sense of complex relationships.  In other words, primate intelligence is an adapted response to the complexity of the social environment where primates evolved.  



As Sterelny (2007) suggests, there are two reasons to explain the plausibility of this hypothesis.  The first reason is the sheer complexity of human social worlds.  Since human sociality is elaborate and biologically important, our social groups are characterized by the intra and inter-generations cooperation and divisions of labour.  The complex nature of an agent’s social environment depends on its horizontal and vertical complexity.  While vertical complexity is the hierarchical structuring of individuals, families, clans, and tribes, horizontal complexity measures the size and differentiation at each level.  For instance, numbers are important because the number of relationships in a group grows faster than the group size.  When more individual agents differ from one another, the agent’s social world becomes more complex, thus making differentiation essential.  The differences may be in expertise, economic role, physical capital, and so on.  A second reason is the recognition of a feedback loop: increases in social intelligence further increases the complexity of the social world.  This loop depends on a fundamental problem which is to reap the benefits of cooperation without being exploited by others.  This is also known as the Machiavellian loop where social chess generates social complexity.  



It is claimed that the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis (a version of Social Intelligence Hypothesis) “stems from the proposition that the advanced cognitive processes of primates are primarily adaptations to the special complexities of their social lives, rather than to non-social environmental problems such as finding food, which were traditionally thought to be the province of intelligence” (MITECS).  This is a niche construction hypothesis: where the evolution of hominin cognition depends on the features of the environment that the hominins have created for themselves.  Here, an agent must police reciprocal bargains, scrutinize signals for their honesty, negotiate alliances and consider defecting themselves.



According to this hypothesis, one of the important evolutionary pressures on human cognition is the risk of manipulation and deception.  Manipulation and counter-measures to manipulation evolved in an “arms race” that led to greater intelligence.  That is, as the social intellect in some members of a community increase, so will the exertion of selection pressures on others to show their social expertise, thus resulting in the “arms race” of our Machiavellian intelligence over time.



However, since our ancestors were social foragers, there might be no sharp distinction between social and ecological intelligence, as  they fused in human culture (Sterelny, 2007).






  • Sterelny, K. (2007). Social intelligence, human intelligence and niche construction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 362(1480), 719-730.
  • Whiten, A. Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, Whiten, A. Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, entry in MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS).


- Hamsa Santhalingam, University of Toronto


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