Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Dark triad personality and emotion

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Emotion and the dark triad:
What role does emotion play in the dark triad personality?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The dark triad of personality is a multifaceted construct that examines the way in which traits of Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy exist in our world. All three traits are characterised by a lack of empathy, which is a core component in understanding and experiencing emotion.

Theory of mind and Alexithymia are prominent theories which attempt to explain why and how the dark triad personality exists and they way in which it intertwines with emotion.

Focus questions:

  • What are the traits of the dark triad?
  • How does the dark triad personality impact relationships?
  • What is the relationship between empathy and the dark triad?
  • How does emotional intelligence interact with the dark triad?
  • What impact does the dark triad have on our ability to express emotions?

Dark triad traits[edit | edit source]

The dark triad is a combination of three socially aversive personality traits; Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Narcissism (Rogoza & Cieciuch, 2018).

These traits share a string of commonalities such as a lack of empathy (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), manipulation (Lyons & Brockman, 2017), callousness (Dowgwillo & Pincus, 2017), and disagreeableness (Jakobwitz & Egan,2005).

Machiavellianism[edit | edit source]

The construct of Machiavellianism is characterised by interpersonal strategies that advocate self interest (Jakobwitz & Egan, 2005). Individuals scoring highly in Machiavellianism have the ability to identify and exploit weakness in others and possess a cynical perception of the world (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). This is done through manipulation, deception and exploitation that ultimately benefits oneself (Miao et al, 2019) as those who demonstrate machiavellian tendencies hold the belief that manipulating others is better than being manipulated (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

Figure 1. The dark triad traits and their sub-traits.

Machiavellianism is also associated with diminished affect in interpersonal relationships (Dowgwillo & Pincus, 2017) and a negative correlation with empathy (Barnett & Thompson, 1985). Machiavellianism has shown to influence factors such as romantic partners, relationship quality and the desire to stay in a relationship. For example, individuals scoring highly on Machiavellianism display low levels of commitment and often engage in emotionally detached relationships (Brewer & Abell, 2017a), [grammar?] they display increased levels of infidelity and they demonstrate higher levels of sexual deception (Brewer & Abell, 2017b). Controlling behaviours and emotional abuse is prominent in relationships where one partner demonstrates machiavellian behaviours (Brewer & Abell, 2017a). Here, the machiavellian partner may diminish their partner's self-esteem, increase their partner's dependency and insecurity surrounding the relationship which leaves the partner vulnerable to manipulation attempts (Brewer & Abell, 2017a).

Psychopathy[edit | edit source]

Psychopathy is often referred to as the most malevolent of the dark triad traits (Miao, Humphrey, Qian, & Pollack, 2019; Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2016 ). Psychopathy is characterised by features such as high impulsivity, recklessness, aggression (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), antisocial behaviour (Rogoza & Cieciuch, 2018), as well as lack of empathy, remorse and guilt (Miao, Humphrey, Qian, & Pollack, 2019).

Individuals who score highly on psychopathy display patterns of dysfunctional interpersonal behaviours and utilise superficial charm and manipulation techniques for their own benefit with little regard for the cost to others (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Psychopathy has been found to be uniquely predictive of future delinquent behaviour (Williams & Paulhus, 2004) in that a display of high levels of psychopathy is correlated with bullying and responding with aggression to physical threats (Baughman, Dearing, Giammarco & Vernon, 2012).

The individual's relationships are often shallow, short-lived and only meet the material needs and desire for companionship (Leedom, 2017). Psychopathy is negatively correlated with relationship satisfaction and relationships where one partner demonstrates psychopathic behaviours are often strained by infidelity and financial concerns (Leedom, 2017). Psychopathy within a relationship has also been associated with intimate partner violence where the psychopathic individual seeks to gain coercive control over their partner (Leedom, 2017).

Narcissism[edit | edit source]

An individual who scores highly on the construct of narcissism displays an exaggerated view of self-worth and grandiosity (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Narcissism is associated with arrogance (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), entitlement (Ziegler-Hill & Marcus, 2016), and the belief of superiority over others (Miao, Humphrey, Qian, & Pollack, 2019). Individuals scoring highly on this trait will also use controlling and manipulative techniques in an attempt to influence others (Dowgwillo & Pincus, 2017) and as a means through which their need for admiration is met and their self-views are reinforced (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

Narcissistic personalities have been described as "disagreeable extraverts" (Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2016) in that they display lower levels of agreeableness and higher levels of extraversion. Individuals who display high levels of narcissism appear confident and assertive around people and feel comfortable speaking up however are often seen as uncompromising and uncooperative (Dowgwillo & Pincus, 2017) which often leaves the individual feeling threatened and vulnerable. Narcissistic personalities tend to display aggressive behaviours in situations where their ego has been threatened (Horton & Sedikides, 2009).

Individuals with higher levels of narcissism display a preference for relationships that require little commitment (Zeigler-Hill & Marcus, 2016). Such individuals report larger numbers of sexual partners and a greater willingness to employ deceptive and manipulative behaviours to satisfy their sexual impulses such as infidelity and mate poaching (Jonason & Buss, 2012).

Narcissistic personalities have been described as:

disagreeable extraverts
egotistical manipulators

Empathy and the dark triad[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. The difference between affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Empathy is defined as as the ability to perceive, understand, and respond to the emotional experiences and behaviours of others (Szanto & Krueger, 2019). Empathy can be further broken down into two concepts: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to an individual's ability to identify the emotional states of others without experiencing such emotions personally (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Affective empathy refers to the way in which an individual is able to appropriately generate emotional reactions in response to others' emotions (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012)

Although multiple studies have identified a negative correlation between empathy and the dark triad (Kajonius & Björkman, 2020; Jonason & Kroll, 2015; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), the distinction between the effects of affective and cognitive empathy is not well documented. The research that has been completed in this area identifies a significant negative relationship to affective empathy and a weak if not non-existent relationship to cognitive empathy (Kajonius & Björkman, 2020; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

These results suggest that dark triad personalities have an understanding of what emotions are and how they are displayed in others (i.e. cognitive empathy) and are able to manipulate these to compensate for their inability to display appropriate emotional responses (i.e. affective empathy) (Kajonius & Björkman, 2020; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). The lack of affective empathy can be explained simply by a lack of motivation to communicate emotions as dark triad personalities see this as an opportunity for manipulation (Jonason & Krause, 2013). Given that manipulation is prevalent in all three traits, it is not unusual that such individuals demonstrate abilities in the domain of cognitive empathy. The manipulation of emotions provides the individual with sensitive information which can be used to formulate strategies in order to achieve their goals. Therefore, what appears to be a deficit is actually a skill which serves the individual to assist in the exploitation and manipulation of others (Kajonius & Björkman, 2020; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

Affective empathy is:

the ability to perceive, understand, and respond to the emotional experiences and behaviours of others
the lack of motivate to communicate emotions
the way in which an individual is able to appropriately generate emotional reactions
the ability to identify the emotional state of others without experiencing such emotions personally

Emotional intelligence and the dark triad[edit | edit source]

Emotional Intelligence pertains to the recognition, interpretation and regulation of emotional information regarding both the self and others (Nagler, Reiter, Furtner, & Rauthmann, 2014). The core skills involved in emotional intelligence include empathy, self-awareness, optimism and problem-solving (Romanelli, Cain, & Smith, 2006). Individuals who demonstrate higher levels of emotional intelligence have also shown to display lower levels of Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy (Miao, Humphrey, Qian, & Pollack, 2019). Given that a hallmark of the dark triad traits is the absence of empathy, it is not unusual to assume that individuals scoring highly on the dark triad traits would display lower levels of emotional intelligence (Nagler, Reiter, Furtner, & Rauthmann, 2014).

Although dark triad personalities demonstrate lower levels of emotional intelligence, they still appear to have some level of emotional control. It can be suggested that what is being observed in such individuals is not actually emotional intelligence, but simply a low score of neuroticism (Grande, 2019). Neuroticism is characterised by tendencies to respond to stress, frustration or loss with negative emotions (Lahey, 2009). Therefore, an individual who reports a low score of neuroticism would appear to have exceptional emotional regulation. What could be regarded as high emotional intelligence is simply a demonstration of a lack of reactivity to stimuli (Grande, 2019).

The correlation between the perceived emotional control of neuroticism and the ability to understand how emotional manipulation works explains how dark triad individuals are able to imitate and pass as emotionally intelligent without possessing genuine empathy. Dark triad personalities understand what emotional intelligence is and how it can be manipulated and exploited in others (Kilduff, Chiaburu, & Menges, 2010). Dark triad personalities may use the knowledge and manipulation of emotional intelligence to engage in self-promoting behaviours (Kilduff, Chiaburu, & Menges, 2010), and to create favourable although misleading impressions of themselves (Miao, Humphrey, Qian, & Pollack, 2019).

Emotional expressivity[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Individuals who score highly on the dark triad traits have difficulty with accurately identifying facial expressions.

A facet of the role that emotion plays in the Dark Triad is emotional expressivity. Emotional expressivity is a trait-like difference in the extent to which individuals outwardly display emotions in their facial expressions (Lyons & Brockman, 2017). Emotional expressivity has been associated with agreeableness (Paulhus & Williams, 2002) and a higher level of emotional intensity (Kring, Smith & Neale, 1994), both of which are negatively correlated will all three traits of the dark triad.

Individuals who scored highly on the dark triad traits demonstrated maladaptive responses to emotional stimuli and were generally unable to accurately identify emotional responses (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Such individuals reported a positive feeling when looking at sad faces and responded negatively when looking at happy faces (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

If we consider the possibility that emotional expressivity is is linked exclusively to affective empathy rather than cognitive empathy (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), then this would explain the facial recognition deficits that occur with individuals who exhibit high levels of Machiavellianism or Psychopathy due to their inability or lack of motivation to express appropriate emotional reactions (Jonason & Krause, 2013; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).

Another explanation is that the problem is related to a dysregulation in the amygdala which plays a role in emotional regulation (Kiehl et al, 2001). In psychopathic individuals, the ability to recognise fear-related cues or the ability to respond to a fearful situation is diminished (Karasavva, 2019). This suggests that the deficit experience by those who score highly on psychopathy is due to the maladaptive processing of emotional cues in the brain rather than the desire for manipulation and exploitation (Karasavva, 2019).

Emotional expressivity is linked to:

emotional intensity
emotional stimuli
cognitive empathy
affective empathy

Psychological theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Theory of mind[edit | edit source]

Having a theory of mind is having the ability to understand that all people have thoughts, beliefs and motivations in the same way that others do (Vonk, Hill, & Mercer, 2015).

Individuals who score highly on the dark triad traits of Machiavellianism and psychopathy also demonstrated significant negative correlations to the indicators of theory of mind. Those who exhibit poor capabilities in theory of mind have a higher tendency to misread or dismiss the emotions and intentions of others (Vonk, Hill, & Mercer, 2015).

Conversely, individuals with high levels of narcissism displayed a significant positive correlation (Vonk, Hill, & Mercer, 2015). This could suggest that the sub-traits of narcissism, such as grandiosity, may benefit from the ability to understand the mental state of others as it increases their effectiveness in interpersonal manipulation and deception (Vonk, Hill, & Mercer, 2015).

The fact that dark triad personalities have the capacity to rationalise emotions but fail to utilise their skills to invoke empathy suggests that the motivation behind exhibiting emotional awareness is the opportunity to engage in maladaptive and antisocial behaviours (Vonk, Hill, & Mercer, 2015).

Alexithymia[edit | edit source]

Alexithymia is a condition whereby an individual experiences a deficit in the cognitive processing of emotions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The individual may have difficulty identifying, verbally describing, visualising or personally experiencing emotions (Chen, Xu, Jing, & Chan, 2011).

Alexithymia is associated with deficits in empathy (Goerlich, 2018) with the premise surmising that, in order to understand and empathise with another person, an individual must first have an awareness and understanding of their own emotions (Jonason & Krause, 2013). However, all three dark triad traits were associated with lower levels of cognitive empathy suggesting that dark triad personalities are insufficiently able to identify emotions in others. Individuals who score highly on Machiavellianism and Psychopathy demonstrated lower levels of affective empathy, however narcissism did not.

It is possible that Alexithymia developed to serve as an adaptive function to the dark triad personality in that an individual's ability to communicate their feelings effectively may interfere with their exploitation of others (Jonason & Krause, 2013).

Psychopathy and Machiavellianism display:

negative correlations to the indicators of theory of mind
positive correlations to the indicators of theory of mind
some correlations to the indicators of theory of mind
no correlations to the indicators of theory of mind

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The dark triad of personality is a multifaceted construct with a number of different underlying theories. We see more than just the surface personality traits, but rather the many ways in which to explore this complex domain. The concepts of empathy runs distinctly through all areas as can be seen through the research on emotional intelligence, emotional expressivity and the psychological theories that aim to explain the dark triad. Given that empathy is a core component of emotion, it seems unusual that dark triad personalities can exhibit both low and high scores in the different aspects related to empathy. We must ask ourselves whether all three dark traits are genuinely linked an underlying core component, or whether dark triad personalities have really become masters of manipulation.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]