Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Emotional intelligence and the dark triad

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Emotional intelligence and the dark triad:
What is the relationship between the dark triad personality traits and emotional intelligence?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Personalities are a tricky thing. How do the people around us affect our personalities? Are we born with a personality or do we "collect" personality traits as we grow?

Do you have any personality traits that you consider negative? Researchers have examined personalities and traits for decades, and have arrived at diverse conclusions on what personality traits are bad. What is a "bad" personality trait? Is it because it might lead to negative health outcomes? Are certain traits only seen as bad because the majority of people disapprove of them? There are three traits consistently seen as the "dark side" of personality: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Together, these traits make up the Dark Triad of personality traits. There have been many studies dedicated to the triad and its' intricacies (Hyde et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2015; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Miller et al., 2019) . This page will discuss the relationship between the Dark Triad and emotional intelligence.

Focus questions:

  • What is the Dark Triad?
  • What is Emotional Intelligence?
  • What is their relationship according to current research?

The Dark Triad[edit | edit source]

The dark triad encompasses three distinct, but at times overlapping, personality traits that are seen as socially aversive (Nagler et al., 2014; Petrides et al., 2012; Miller et al., 2019; Schimmenti et al., 2019). These three traits, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, share a "dark" nature and are commonly associated with antisocial and manipulative personalities (Nagler et al., 2014; Petrides et al., 2012). This "dark" nature encompasses socially aversive traits such as callousness, dishonesty, exploitativeness, manipulativeness, dominance, and a lack of empathy and remorse (Michels & Shulze, 2021; Nagler et al., 2014; Petrides et al., 2011; Miller et al., 2019).

Figure 1. Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Machiavellianism[edit | edit source]

Machiavellianism originates from the views of the Italian philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli, which were found to be pessimistic, callous and lacking in conventional moral standards (Michels & Shulze, 2021; Petrides et al., 2011). The trait is categorised by cold, manipulative, and self-interested behaviours (Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Petrides et al., 2011). Miller et al., (2019) describes Machiavellianism as involving "deliberate and strategic interpersonal manipulation aimed at acquiring and maintaining power and control".

Figure 2. Baroque painting of Narcissus by Jan Cossiers.

Narcissism[edit | edit source]

The term narcissism originates from Narcissus, a hunter from Greek mythology, who fell in love with himself upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water. Congruent to Narcissus' fixation on himself, narcissism is categorised by a combination of feelings of entitlement, superiority and selfishness (Petrides et al., 2011; Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Schimmenti et al., 2019). Narcissistic individuals have a grandiose view of the self, tend to devalue others, and overstate their own abilities (Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Petrides et al. 2011). Narcissism is also associated with attention seeking and domineering behaviours (Miller et al., 2019).

Some researchers further define narcissism into two forms: vulnerable and grandiose (Zajenkowski et al., 2018). Vulnerable narcissism encompasses insecure, avoidant, and hypersensitive behaviours and typically need recognition to maintain their self-worth (Zajenkowski et al., 2018). In comparison, grandiose narcissism involves high self-esteem, an overestimation of one's abilities and dominant behaviours and then to believe they are superior (Zajenkowski et al., 2018).

Psychopathy[edit | edit source]

Unlike Machiavellianism and narcissism, the term psychopathy doesn't originate from a person. Psychopathy is associated with impulsive, callous, egocentric, and superficial behaviours (Megias et al., 2018; Schimmenti et al., 2019). Hare & Neumann's (2006; cited in Michels & Shulze, 2021) four-factor model of psychopathy describes the trait through four factors: interpersonal manipulation, callous affect, erratic lifestyle, and antisocial behaviours. These factors are consistently used across research surrounding psychopathy, with a particular emphasis on manipulative behaviour and lack of empathy (Nagler et al., 2014; Petrides et al., 2011). Some research involving psychopathy uses the heterogenous model of psychopathy, which comprises of two subtypes of psychopathy ( Petrides et al., 2011). The first subtype, primary psychopathy, is categorised by cold-hearted interpersonal traits, while the second subtype, secondary psychopathy, is categorised by socially deviant behaviours and impulsivity (Petrides et al., 2011).

Figure 3. Key traits of dark triad.

Emotional intelligence and the Dark Triad[edit | edit source]

Emotional intelligence (EI) is difficult to define precisely. A broad definition, coined by Salovey and Mayer (1990, cited in Nagler et al., 2014), summarises EI as the "ability to deal with emotions". Since then, researchers continued to define EI in more precise words, with most definitions putting an emphasis on perceiving, understanding, and regulating the emotions of both others and our self (Davis & Nichols, 2016; Copestake & Gray, 2013; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Miao et al., 2019). Austin et al. (2007) notes that there is substantial evidence of positive associations between EI and various life-enhancing elements, such as happiness and quality social networks. Similarly, other research indicates EI as beneficial for navigating social situations (Nagler et al., 2014).

However, a possible "dark side" to EI has also been noted. Individuals who are emotionally intelligent could use their skills in a manipulative manner at the expense of others (Miao et al., 2019; Nagler et al., 2014). EI can be utilised to influence others' emotions, fabricate others' impressions, and disguise and display specific emotions for personal gain (Miao et al., 2019; Nagler et al., 2014). This possible manipulative use of EI has similarities to the dark triad. Manipulative behaviours are strongly associated with and thought to be a core characteristic of the triad (Nagler et al., 2014).

Schlegel and Mortillaro (2019) identified three different streams of measuring EI:

  1. Performance based tests: measure maximum performance of people who know they are being tested and have been asked to complete the tasks with as much effort as possible.
  2. Self- and other-report measures: not a common use of measuring EI. Is based on abilities rather than inherent traits.
  3. Self-report questionnaires: people fill out questionnaires on their traits surrounding the topic of EI

Trait vs Ability Emotional Intelligence[edit | edit source]

EI can be separated into two perspectives: trait and ability. The trait perspective views EI as a "constellation of behavioural dispositions and self-perceptions concerning one's ability to recognise, process, and utilise emotion-laden information" (Zhang et al., 2015). This includes dispositions and perceptions such as empathy, self-control, and personality characteristics (Michels & Shulze, 2021; Davis & Nichols, 2016; Schlegel & Mortillaro, 2019). Trait EI (TEI) is typically measured through self-report questionnaires (Zhang et al., 2015, Nagler et al., 2014). The ability perspective sees EI as a set of abilities or skills, such as emotional perception and understanding (Davis & Nichols, 2016). Ability EI (AEI) is typically measured through maximum performance tests (Zhang et al., 2015). The four-branch model is typically associated with AEI (Schlegel & Mortillaro, 2019). This model includes emotion perception, emotion facilitation, emotional understanding, and emotion management (Schlegel & Mortillaro, 2019; Zajenkowski et al., 2018). TEI and AEI are viewed as conceptually different, with researchers recording low, non-significant correlations between the two (Copestake & Gray, 2013).

What is your Emotional Intelligence?

A few self-tests of emotional intelligence are provided below for you to try![edit | edit source]

Machiavellianism and EI[edit | edit source]

High levels of Machiavellianism is positively associated with emotional manipulation, which is a facet of EI (Nagler et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2015; Petrides et al., 2011; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Hyde et al., 2020). However, emotional manipulation is the only facet of EI that is positively correlated with Machiavellianism. People who exhibit high levels of Machiavellianism tend to show deficits in interpersonal abilities such as empathy and emotional sensitivity (Austin et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2015).

Machiavellianism is negatively associated with both TEI and AEI (Zhang et al., 2015; Petrides et al., 2011). This means that people with high levels of TEI or AEI would usually exhibit low Machiavellianism, and vice versa.

Psychopathy and EI[edit | edit source]

People who exhibit higher levels of psychopathy typically do not have great EI (Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Copestake & Gray). Psychopaths do not show good emotional sensitivity, but do have associations with emotional manipulation (Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Zhang et al., 2015; Hyde et al., 2020).

Copestake & Gray (2013) examined the mixed evidence surrounding psychopaths' having emotional processing deficits. They found that several researchers provided evidence of a low physiological (bodily) reaction and a limited startle response to distressing material. Contrastingly, they also found evidence that psychopaths are more accurate at identifying some emotions on facial recognition tasks (Copestake & Gray, 2013). They concluded that recent evidence suggests that psychopathic individuals may have enhanced abilities in some facets of EI.

Similar to Machiavellianism, psychopathy is negatively associated with both TEI and AEI (Zhang et al., 2015; Petrides et al., 2011). Zhang et al. (2015) noted that psychopaths have deficits in managing and regulating their emotions.

Narcissism and EI[edit | edit source]

Narcissism has mixed relations to EI. The trait is positively associated with several facets of EI, including assertiveness, happiness and optimism (Zhang et al., 2015; Zajenkowski et al., 2018). Narcissism, alike Machiavellianism and psychopathy, shows strong positive associations with emotional manipulation and negative associations with emotional sensitivity (Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Hyde et al., 2020).

There is a positive association between narcissism and TEI, with people with high TEI tending to exhibit hubristic behaviour (Zhang et al., 2015; Petrides et al., 2011; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Zajenkowski et al., 2018). In line with the hubristic behaviour associated with narcissism, people with high levels of the trait tend to describe themselves in a biased manner and therefore, as TEI is measured through self report, this bias could affect the results recorded (Michels & Shulze, 2021). Zajenkowski et al., (2018) measured the relationship between EI and vulnerable and grandiose narcissism respectively. They found that while grandiose narcissism was positively associated with TEI, vulnerable narcissism was negatively associated.

Narcissism is negatively associated with AEI, alike the other traits mentioned above (Zhang et al., 2015; Petrides et al., 2011; Michels & Shulze, 2021). Michels & Shulze (2021) noted that the AEI deficits for all three traits were primarily in managing emotions.

Case Study: Hyde et al., 2020

'The dark side of emotional intelligence: the role of gender and the dark triad in emotional manipulation at work'[edit | edit source]

What was the objective?[edit | edit source]

This study examined the willingness of people to manipulate others in an exploitative manner in the workplace. They also examined how gender, emotional intelligence, and the dark triad had a role in the behaviour. The study examined two types of manipulation: malicious (e.g., making someone feel guilty and disingenuous (e.g., manipulating people to go along with your ideas/plans).

How did they do it?[edit | edit source]

The study sampled 756 Australian employees across various workplaces, who completed an online survey. The survey measured the following:

  • Trait willingness to emotionally manipulate in the workplace
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Measures of personality

What did they find?[edit | edit source]

  • Higher levels of emotional intelligence affected the method of manipulation
    • People high in EI tended to use disingenuous emotional manipulation
  • High levels of Machiavellianism showed was correlated with both types of emotional manipulation
  • All three dark triad traits had a moderate association with malicious emotional manipulation, albeit only in females
  • Correlations between narcissism and both types of emotional manipulation
    • There was a significantly stronger correlation to disingenuous emotional manipulation
  • Direct link between higher levels of EI and antisocial behaviours in females
    • Concluded that this suggested a possible dark side to emotional intelligence

Why is this important?[edit | edit source]

  • This study found a direct and positive association between EI and emotional manipulation in the workplace.
  • Brings up the question that gender may have an influence on dark triad traits and emotional manipulation
  • Examines the relationship between EI and the dark triad

1 Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Narcissism are all negatively associated with both TEI and AEI.


2 AEI stands for "ability emotional intelligence".


3 Psychopathy is the only trait in the dark triad whose name does not originate from a specific person.


4 Narcissists tend to have a biased and distorted self-view.


Moderator vs Direct Link[edit | edit source]

While research mostly attempts to find a direct link between EI and the dark triad, there is some research that instead sees them as moderators between one and a separate variable (e.g., Grover & Furnham, 2021). Moderating a link refers to when a link depends on another variable; for example, the case study below examines whether emotional intelligence and resilience moderates the link between the dark triad and personal and work burnout.

In their study, Nagler et al., (2014) examined the dark triad as moderators between various facets of EI. They found that the link between emotional control and emotional manipulation was moderated by narcissism and psychopathy, with higher levels of these two traits leading to stronger associations between emotional control and emotional manipulation. They also found that psychopathy moderated the link between emotional sensitivity and emotional manipulation.

'Does emotional intelligence and resilience moderate the relationship between the Dark Triad and personal and work burnout?'[edit | edit source]

What was the objective?[edit | edit source]

The objective of this study was to discover whether emotional intelligence and resilience acted as a moderator between the dark triad and personal and work burnout. They aimed to see whether the moderating effects were consistent across all three traits of the triad.

How did they do it?[edit | edit source]

They sampled 232 people who had a minimum of 2 years full-time work experience to take an online survey that was distributed internationally. The survey measured the following:

What did they find?[edit | edit source]

  • Primary psychopathy reduced an individual's level of burnout
  • Narcissism did not have a significant relationship with burnout
  • Higher levels of EI provided a buffer against the negative affects of the dark triad
    • the negative effects of Machiavellianism were buffered
  • Higher levels of EI amplified positive effects of the dark triad, such as reducing burnout
    • beneficial effects of primary psychopathy and narcissism were amplified

Why is this important?[edit | edit source]

This study examined EI as a moderator between the dark triad and other variables, rather than examining a direct link between the two. This brings rise to new research that could examine how they affect other variables, such as burnout or performance, together and what roles they play.

Limitations and future research[edit | edit source]

There is limited research surrounding the relationship between EI and the dark triad and this research also has its limitations. Research surrounding this topic is has mixed results and is limited in effect sizes (Miao et al. 2014). This is a limitation because limited effect sizes makes it difficult to gain accurate results and generalise those results to the wider population (Miao et al., 2019). Having mixed results creates uncertainty and makes it difficult to come to empirically supported conclusions (Zhang et al., 2015; Miao et al., 2019). For example, some studies have provided contradicting results, though the majority indicate that EI is negatively related to the triad (Miao et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2015). Although, one possible reason for contradicting results could be how EI is defined, perceived, and measured.

The broad definition of "perceiving, understanding and regulating our own emotions and the emotions of others" allows for researchers to take on vastly different perceptions of what EI entails and how it should be measured (Davis & Nichols, 2016; Zajenkowski et al., 2018). This can be both a benefit and a limitation. Benefit-wise, this allows the relationship between EI and the dark triad to be examined on specific aspects of EI, rather than the broad topic as a whole. For example, as mentioned previously, the traits have positive associations with some facets of EI, such as emotional manipulation and control, while negative with others, such as empathy (Austin et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2015; Nagler et al., 2014; Michels & Shulze, 2021). This can also be a limitation because since research is already limited, the amount of research on these specific topics is even lower. Zajenkowski et al.'s (2018) study is a good example of attempting to address this limitation. In their study, they used two different measures of EI, rather than a single one, to enhance their analysis. Future research should include multiple measures of EI where appropriate so as to truly examine the relationships. As mentioned previously, EI can also be further defined into ability or trait EI. They both have different empirical bases and are measured differently (Davis & Nichols, 2016; Copestake & Gray, 2013). This difference can cause vastly different results, as shown through the differing associations between both TEI and AEI that were mentioned previously. It is difficult to establish connections, whether negative or positive, between EI and the dark triad because how differently researchers perceive and measure EI (Michels & Shulze, 2021).

When measuring TEI, self-report is the primary method of measurement (Nagler et al., 2014). This is a limitation because an person's view of themselves is not always accurate and can be biased; this is particularly common in narcissists (Petrides et al., 2011; Michels & Shulze, 2021; Schlegel & Mortillaro, 2019). Miller et al., (2019) set out five concerns with limitations surrounding studies on the dark triad. The limitations are as follows:

  • the failure to recognise that the dark triad traits are multidimensional in nature,
  • the inadequacy of current Machiavellianism measures,
  • the failure to acknowledge the difficulty of interpreting multiple variables at once,
  • the failure to adequately test differences in validity between the dark triad traits, and
  • the reliance on the use of studies that use samples of convenience and single methods

Future research is needed on all areas of the topic. The relationship between EI and the dark triad has limited research, and the research that does exist has the limitations set out above. Specific research on how EI is differentiated and perceived would be beneficial, because by having set facets of EI, researchers could examine the relationship between the dark triad and specific EI facets rather than the concept as a whole. Studies that investigate how EI and the dark triad moderate each other would also be beneficial, as recent studies show that while direct links may be difficult to establish, they may affect each other indirectly (Grover & Furnham, 2021).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The dark triad may possibly be related to a "dark side" of emotional intelligence. Emotional manipulation requires a certain degree of emotional intelligence, and manipulation is a common characteristic between all three traits in the triad. However, the question of whether this similarity is a result of a direct link between emotional intelligence and the dark triad is still being researched, with much of the research being contradicting. The majority of current research establishes a positive connection between narcissism and emotional intelligence, and also records higher levels of emotional intelligence in people who have low levels of Machiavellianism and psychopathy. There is evidence, however, that despite this trend, people with high levels of Machiavellianism and psychopathy may still be well versed in some specific facets of emotional intelligence. While still under-researched, there is potential that emotional intelligence and the dark triad moderate the link between different variables. This potential could possibly moderate variables such as burnout and workplace behaviours, and also may uncover motivations behind specific motivations.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Austin, E., Farrelly, D., Black, C. & Moor, H. (2007). Emotional intelligence, machiavellianism and emotional manipulation: Does EI have a dark side?. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(1), 179-189.

Copestake, S. & Gray, N.S. (2013). Emotional intelligence and psychopathy: A comparison of trait and ability measures. American Psychological Association, 13(4), 691-702.

Davis S.K. & Nichols R. (2016). Does emotional intelligence have a “dark” side? A review of the literature. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1316.

Grover, S. & Furnham, A. (2021). Does emotional intelligence and resilience moderate the relationship between the dark triad and personal and work burnout. Personality and Individual Differences, 169, e109979.

Hyde, J., Grieve, R., Norris, K. & Kemp, N. (2020). The dark side of emotional intelligence: The role of gender and the Dark Triad in emotional manipulation at work. Aust J Psychol, 72, 307-317.

Megias, A., Gomez-Leal, R., Gutierrez-Cobo, M.J., Cabello, R. & Fernandez-Berrocal, P. (2018). The relationship between trait psychopathy and emotional intelligence: A meta-analytic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioural reviews, 84, 198-203.

Miao, C., Humphrey, R.H., Qian, S. & Pollack, J.M. (2019). The relationship between emotional intelligence and the dark triad personality traits: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 189-197.

Michels, M. & Shulze, R. (2021). Emotional intelligence and the dark triad: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 180, 110961.

Miller, J.D., Vize, C., Crowe, M.L. & Lynam, D.R. (2019). A critical appraisal of the dark-triad literature and suggestions for moving forward. Association for Psychological Science, 28(4),353-360.

Nagler, U.K.J., Reiter, K.J., Furtner, M.R. & Rauthmann, J.F. (2014). Is there a “dark intelligence”? Emotional intelligence is used by dark personalities to emotionally manipulate other. Personality and Individual Differences, 65, 47-52.

Petrides, KV, Vernon, PA, Schermer, JA, Veselka, L. (2011). Trait emotional intelligence and the dark triad traits of personality. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 14(1). 35-41.

Schimmenti, A., Jonason, P.K., Passanisi, A., La Marca, L., Di Dio, N. & Gervasi, A.M. (2019). Exploring the dark side of personality: Emotional awareness, empathy, and the dark triad traits in an Italian sample. Curr Psychol, 38,100-109.

Schlegel, K. & Mortillaro, M. (2019). The Geneva Emotional Competence Test (GECo): an ability measure of workplace emotional intelligence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(4), 559-580.

Zajenkowski, M., Maciantowicz, O., Szymaniak, K. & Urban, P. (2018). Vulnerable and grandiose narcissism are differently associated with ability and trait emotional intelligence. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1-8.

Zhang, W., Zou, H., Wang, M. & Finy, M.S. (2015). The role of the dark triad traits and two constructs of emotional intelligence on loneliness in adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 74-79.

External links[edit | edit source]