The Theory of Constructed Emotion Can Better Prepare Us for the Dark Triad
Our brains are not prepared for intraspecies predators.
Posted August 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Most of us operate by telling the truth and are ill-prepared when faced with pathological liars.
- Our brains are not designed to keep us safe from manipulators.
- Our innate survival strategy, namely fight, flight, or freeze, does not work when dealing with narcissists, Machiavellians, or psychopaths.
Our sympathetic nervous system is designed to save us when faced with a visible predator such as a lion, bear, or an aggressive human. It gives us three options other animals use: fight, flight, or freeze. This same evolutionary-designed system, effective at keeping us alive, does not work nearly as well when faced with manipulators. It frequently fails to recognize the psychopath’s mask and does not identify until the fiction spun by narcissists and Machiavellians is too late.
Our sympathetic nervous system often backfires when faced with an invisible predator like a narcissist, Machiavellian, or psychopath.
You're more likely to get blamed and penalized if you fight an individual from the Dark Triad. These kinds of intraspecies predators may even manipulate you into losing your temper, reacting with rage, and acting with primal violence. They may slowly but surely, make you lose it and then watch while you pay a terrible social price or even criminal price for your out-of-control conduct. Fighting rarely works with these kinds of social predators.
If you even try to report on an individual from the Dark Triad, she’s likely to claim she’s the real victim. She’s the target of a “witch hunt.” She is the one who needs protection. Most whistleblowers who dare to speak up about a narcissist, Machiavellian, or psychopath find themselves re-victimized and thrust into the role of perpetrator. This kind of confusing reversal flummoxes our sympathetic nervous system.
Flight is an option many choose when dealing with the Dark Triad. They survive their narcissistic parent until they can leave home, cut off all ties and go into therapy to recover. Flight is the option competitive athletes choose as they request transfers to other teams to escape a psychopathic coach. Flight to another jazz band or dance company acts as an option for talented artists to escape their abuser.
Flight is the response of employees who quit their jobs when they have a Machiavellian manager who transforms a work environment based on mutual respect, care, and meritocracy into a toxic environment where favouritism rules the day. Those willing to leave broken bodies in their wake are the ones who get opportunities and promotions.
Freeze might work in the short term when you find yourself the subject of a smear campaign, blocked from earned opportunities, publicly put down, berated, yelled at, and shamed. However, in the long term, this kind of freezing or shutting down in the moment is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, various kinds of disorders, and substance abuse.
Freeze stifles creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, and intellectual risk-taking. It makes a once bright, confident, energetic individual turn into a fearful, awkward shell of his former self. Since the fight, flight, and freeze do not work well with narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths. We need to develop a different approach.
Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion offers a research-based strategy for avoiding or escaping a social predator's clutches.
Barrett and others’ research shows that predictions construct what we feel and our emotions in response to the environment. The predictions are based on our knowledge and our past experiences. If I gave you a gift, your brain, at lightning speed, would do a quick survey to predict what emotion is accurate to the environmental stimulus “handed a gift.” It would find a series of gifts that match with a sense of delight mixed with gratitude. In response to this present moment of being given a gift, it predicts and responds with “delight mixed with gratitude.” The gift was well-meaning and thoughtful, and the brain predicted an accurate emotion.
It gets more complicated when the brain has conflicting responses to an environmental stimulus. If you loved swimming as a child, being pushed off the dock as a joke might cause the brain a flutter of confusion. It might feel unsure how to predict an accurate response. It might make a prediction error. It might override the shock of being pushed into the ocean, losing control, and hitting the cold water unprepared, as I “love swimming.”
Imagine the brain’s confusion and prediction errors when dealing with an individual from the Dark Triad. A woman is swept off her feet by a man who reflects on her what she wants and needs. He mirrors her need for protection, her value system, her wish to be romanced and loved, and her interests and hobbies. The brain rifles through knowledge from movies and books, go through the files of experience, and predicts that the accurate emotional response is “trust and love.” With a psychopath, this is a prediction error. The honeymoon or grooming phase is over. Unpredictably, the man becomes irrationally controlling, raging, and violent.
Why not train the brain to have two sets of emotional responses to avoid the trap set by individuals of the Dark Triad?
Once we are aware that our brain is responding to an environmental stimulus when it creates our reality, articulates meaning from noise, and constructs our emotional responses, we can train it to become more sophisticated. We can use Barrett’s neuroscience-based theory to construct more informed and complex predictions when faced with individuals. When constructing emotional responses, we need to take time and be just as patient as a social predator stalking their prey.
Our modern world requires us to know the textbook behaviours of those in the Dark Triad. We need to train our brains to be skilled at identifying the red flags of those who are manipulating, grooming, lying, generating fiction, and wearing masks. We need to be critical thinkers who don’t simply match “gift-giving” with “delight and gratitude.” We need to know that sometimes the gift is a Trojan Horse. We must be fact-checkers. We must seek objective, measurable reality as much as possible to expose the alternative facts of spin-doctors.
Fight, flight, and freeze don’t work with pathological liars.
Those in the Dark Triad are adept at gaining trust from unwitting victims. They specialize in gaining trust. To stay safe, we need to recognize the threat and keep our brains accurately predicting in response to their machinations. Training our brains to construct, at the very least dual responses to environmental stimuli until an individual passes the security test can help us survive.
Babiak, P. & Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in Suits. New York: Harper Collins.
Barrett, L. (2018). How Emotions are Made. New York: Mariner Books.