Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are Narcissists Better at Reading Minds?

The dark side of theory of mind

A little while back, I sat Tucker Max-- one of the world's most well-known self-proclaimed narcissists-- on my couch and revealed his psychological test results.

Unsurprisingly, he scored high (31/40) on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). He scored the highest though on the exploitative dimension, which has items such as "I find it easy to manipulate people" and "I can read people like a book".

I also gave him the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test", which assesses the ability to accurately perceive how someone is feeling based solely on looking at their eyes (you can take the test here). Consistent with his NPI scores, he scored extremely high on this test, getting 33 out of 36 correct.

But then I noticed something else. On the Big Five personality test, he scored extremely low in Compassion, a dimension of Agreeableness. Now, anyone that reads his books (his latest is "Hilarity Ensues") knows he's not known for his compassion. But I had empirical proof.

At the end of the interview, I jokingly told him to use his powers responsibly. But it did occur to me that maybe his lower levels of empathy, coupled with his heightened ability to read people may enable him to attain his goals. But this posed a dilemma, because the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test" is supposed to measure Theory of Mind, a uniquely human capacity to reason about the mental states of others. Some psychologists argue that this ability underlies our capacity for cooperation, harmony, and lasting friendships.

But his compassion and empathy levels are low. So I wondered: could the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test be measuring a separate component of theory of mind-- perhaps a darker component that evolved for manipulative purposes?


Recently, psychologists have stepped outside of the clinical setting and have accumulated research on how the dark side of human nature varies in the general population. What has become quite clear is that the "Dark Triad," which consists of the combination of Machiavellianism (which involves interpersonal strategies for manipulating others), narcissism (which involves an inflated view of self-worth and grandiosity) and psychopathy (which involves deceit, high impulsiveness, recklessness, and manipulation regardless of the cost to others), is an overarching trait that everyone has to some degree. Some people just have a lot more of it than others.

The common thread running through all three traits is low empathy and low agreeableness. Still, the three traits are only moderately correlated with one another, and recently researchers have started to assess the independent predictions of each separately from the others, and how people with a different balance of the dark triad traits go about obtaining their goals differently (note: I gave Tucker a measure of the Dark Triad and he did not score high in psychopathy).

In a hot-off-the press paper in Personality and Individual Differences, Michael Wai and Niko Tiliopoulos looked at the empathic nature of dark individuals. They distinguished between two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy involves the ability to figure out the emotional states of others without feeling any emotional contagion (i.e., without being able to feel what they are feeling). In contrast, affective empathy involves sharing an emotional reaction in response to others' emotions. This form of empathy facilitates altruistic behaviors. Prior research shows that individuals with high-functioning autism are impaired in cognitive empathy, but do not differ from neurotypicals in emotional empathy. The exact reverse appears to be true for Dark Triad individuals.

The researchers had 139 university students complete personality measures of the Dark Triad, and they also gave them a test of empathy. In the empathy test, they had the students view a series of images of individuals with different facial expressions. For each picture they were asked to rate how they felt towards the person. This was their measure of affective empathy. They also had people select which emotions they believed each of the images expressed, and their answers were scored on how correctly they identified the emotion that was being expressed. This was their measure of cognitive empathy.

Those scoring high in narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy all reported a positive feeling when looking at sad faces. They seemed to actually be happy when others were sad. Interestingly, only narcissists were accurate at recognizing anger. Therefore, out of the three Dark Triad traits, narcissists appear to stand out as having enhanced cognitive empathy. This is interesting since recent research conducted by Peter Jonason, Glenn Geher, and myself suggests out of all the Dark Triad traits, narcissism is tied most heavily to extroversion and a desire to engage in social interactions. Perhaps their enhanced cognitive empathy facilitates superficial, short-term interpersonal interactions and relationships.

Clearly affective empathy is also extremely important for harmonious social interactions. So how can Dark Triad individuals obtain their interpersonal goals with this chip missing? The researchers argue that

"individuals high on the dark triad traits appear to exhibit an empathic profile that allows them to retain their ability to read and assess others’ emotions, and subsequently utilise this sensitive information to formulate strategies with which they can acquire what they want, while their lack of affective empathy may lead them to overlook or ignore potential harm inflicted to others in the process."


But there's more to this puzzle. If theory of mind evolved to facilitate harmonious social interactions, why do Dark Triad individuals score so high on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test-- a capstone measure of theory of mind?

It turns out there are at least two main dimensions of theory of mind (ToM). The social-perceptual component of ToM involves the ability to determine the mental states of others using immediately available non-verbal cues (e.g., eyes, face, hand gestures). This maps on to the cognitive empathy component, and is what is measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. This component of theory of mind shows up earlier in development and is related to the right hemisphere medial temporal and orbitofrontal regions of the brain.

In contrast, the social-cognitive component of ToM (not to be confused with cognitive empathy) involves the ability to reason about the mental state of others, and use that reasoning to predict or explain their behavior. This ability involves inferring what others know or believe to be true apart from what you know or believe to be true. This is a later developing skill and is more strongly dependent on linguistic capacities. This component of theory of mind draws on left hemisphere circuitry involving medial frontal areas and the temporoparietal junction.

Daniel Nettle and Bethany Liddle found a relationship between the social-cognitive component of theory of mind, but not the social-perceptual component. It appears that the agreeable, compassionate, altruistic aspect of our human nature is only associated with the higher-level, social-cognitive component of theory of mind.


Now for the last few pieces of this puzzle.

Research conducted by Elizabeth Austin and her colleagues show that the only element of emotional intelligence Machiavellian individuals aren't impaired on is the perceiving dimension, which involves the lower-level, pereceptual ability to decipher emotions in faces and pictures. Not only that, but they show a relatively stronger ability to manage the emotions of others than manage their own emotions. This may be related to their empathy and perspective taking deficits: not only can't they spontaneously feel what others are feeling, but even if they could, they would have difficulty labeling or figuring out what the emotions mean. Additionally, Machiavellian individuals endorse emotionally-manipulative behavior. So in their eyes, they are really good at manipulating others.

Zsofia Esperger and Tamas Bereczkei in Hungary wondered whether despite their theory of mind deficits, Machiavellian individuals mentalize more often than others-- in other words, even though their emotional intelligence is impaired, are they still cognitively strategizing, scheming, and trying to infer the intentions of others much more so than those who are less Machiavellian?

So they investigated this motivational component of theory of mind as distinct from the ability component. To measure spontaneous mentalization, they had 112 Unviersity students look at 12 pictures depicting everyday situations. For each picture, the students were asked to write 2 to 3 sentences about each picture. The responses were then automatically coded by a computer, which looked for words and sentences that represented mentalization.

They found large individual differences in spontaneous mentalization: some people just weren't motivated to constantly try to mentalize the people in the pictures, whereas other just couldn't stop mentalizing! In fact, those scoring high on a measure of Machiavellianism tended to focus more strongly on the mental state of others than those who were less Machiavellian. They concluded that

"in the case of everday, real-life situations, people may have initial strategies that help them focus on the mental states of others. All this may be related to Machiavellianism; using spontaneous mentalization, people with an inclination to manipulate others may always try to be one step ahead of the other and gain important knowledge that can later be profitable in deceit and fraud."


Now we can fit the pieces together. Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne argue that primate intelligence stems from "Machiavellian Intelligence"-- the ability to manipulate and deceive others in the competition for scarce resources [pdf]. According to this view, manipulative tendencies co-evolved with mind-reading ability.

But the latest research suggests that in humans this can't be the whole story. As Daniel Nettle's research shows, our uniquely human capacity to reason about the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of others (what philosopher Daniel Dennett refers to as "second-order intentionality", or what some psychologists refer to as "metacognition") is associated with an agreeable prosocial orientation. Therefore, the key skill is being able to cognitively separate one's own thoughts, beliefs, and desires from those of others. These advanced theory of mind skills-- in combination with affective empathy-- are crucial for harmonious functioning in social environments. Daniel Dennett has even argued that second-order intentionality is a key precursor to human consciousness!

For most of our evolution, it payed to be cooperative and empathic. But during the course of our evolution, there were also selfish individuals who learned how to manipulate others to get what they wanted. They lacked empathy, perspective taking, and self-awareness (i.e., metacognition). Still, they had in tact lower-level perceptual theory of mind abilities that were good enough for them to manipulate others. In fact, their lower levels of empathy and higher levels of strategizing and spontaneous mentalizing worked to their advantage: whereas most people intuitively felt as though they were doing something wrong when they hurt others, these Machiavellian individuals didn't recieve the same emotional signals so they persevered toward their short-term selfish goals. In the process, they obtained more quantity of mates. Therefore, they remained in the human gene pool, along with their short-term mating orientation.

In modern day humans this does in fact appear to be the case. Peter K. Jonason and his colleagues have shown over and over again that the Dark Triad is associated with various dimensions of short-term mating but not long-term mating. Jonason argues that "the Dark Triad facilitates an exploitative, short-term mating strategy."

Does this mean that that's the only path to reproductive success? Certainly not. In fact, I believe our more developed, higher-order theory of mind abilities evolved to faciliate harmony and cooperation. Those with empathy, perspective taking, and self-awareness probably reaped the most benefits over the course of human evolution, especially when it came to building long lasting bonds, gaining a valuable positive reputation, and gaining trust from others.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman

Follow me on G+ or Twitter.

More from Scott Barry Kaufman
More from Psychology Today
More from Scott Barry Kaufman
More from Psychology Today