Emotional Intelligence Not Relevant to Psychopaths

EI tests assess conformity rather than real emotional insight.

Posted Sep 10, 2012

Psychopathy is a well-known personality disorder characterised by callousness, shallow emotions, and willingness to manipulate other people for selfish ends (Hare, 1999). Emotional deficits seem to be a core feature of psychopathy. For example, there is evidence that psychopaths lack normal response differentiation to emotional and neutral words, and may have impaired recognition of emotional faces, although the evidence is not completely consistent (Ermer, Kahn, Salovey, & Kiehl, 2012). Some researchers have used tests of “emotional intelligence” (EI) in order to better understand emotional deficits in psychopathy, with somewhat mixed results (Lishner, Swim, Hong, & Vitacco, 2011). I would argue that emotional intelligence tests are unlikely to reveal much of importance about this area because they lack validity and have little relevance to psychopathy.

Psychopaths are deficient in emotional responsiveness to other pe
Psychopaths like Ted Bundy are deficient in emotional responsiveness to other people

Perhaps the most prominent test of emotional intelligence today is the Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), which purports to be an objective measure of one’s ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions in self and others. The abilities it supposedly measures may be grouped into two areas: experiential EI (perceiving emotions and “facilitating thought”) and strategic EI (understanding and managing emotions). The perceiving emotions subtest is supposedly a strong indicator of empathic ability. Psychopaths are noted for their lack of empathic concern for others, yet a study of incarcerated men diagnosed with psychopathic traits found no correlation between experiential EI and psychopathy (Ermer, et al., 2012). The correlations between the perceiving emotion subscale and the psychopathy measures were all near zero. Psychopaths are supposed to be deficient in empathy yet they did not seem to be lacking ability to accurately perceive emotion in this study. This suggests either that the emotional perception measure is not a valid indicator of empathic ability or that in some sense psychopaths do not lack empathy. Perhaps psychopaths do perceive emotions accurately in others but the problem is that they are not moved by them. In other words, they know how others feel but simply do not care.

The same study did find rather small negative correlations between “strategic EI” and psychopathic traits, particularly in the “managing emotions” subtest. On its face, this might seem to suggest that psychopaths are not good at managing emotions in themselves or others. Or does it? According to psychopathy expert Robert Hare, psychopaths are highly motivated to manipulate others and are generally quick to get a read on people’s motivations and emotional vulnerabilities in order to exploit them (Hare, 1999). Some psychopathic individuals are noted for their use of superficial charm to successfully con other people into trusting them, suggesting that they do understand how to use people’s emotions, just not in a socially desirable manner. Social desirability might help explain why psychopaths apparently score badly on tests of managing emotions and what this really means.

The managing emotions subtest asks one to consider a scenario involving emotions in others and choose the “best” or “most effective” response (Ermer, et al., 2012). Scoringis usually based on the general consensus method, which means that the “correct” response is the one that has been selected as best by the majority of people surveyed. There is also an “expert” scoring method, in which the correct response is the one most frequently endorsed by a panel of so-called “experts”, although there is usually little difference between the two methods, suggesting that the experts agree with the majority of people. Hence, if you pick the answer that most people agree with you may be considered “emotionally intelligent”. This is in striking contrast to tests of general intelligence where highly intelligent people can produce correct answers to difficult questions where most people cannot (Brody, 2004).

In other words, the managing emotions subtest assesses endorsement of social norms. EI measures are designed to assess only socially acceptable uses of emotional information (Ermer, et al., 2012). Psychopaths on the other hand generally have little interest in following social norms, as psychopathic agendas such as conning and exploiting people are generally frowned upon. Therefore, their scores on emotional intelligence tests may reflect their lack of interest in following social norms rather than a lack of insight into what these norms are. The authors of another study on ability EI and psychopathy (Lishner, et al., 2011) acknowledged that participants had little incentive to produce the “correct” answers, so it was unclear whether the negative correlations they found between psychopathy and the managing emotions subtest reflected a real deficit or a lack of motivation to conform. EI tests have been criticised as a measure of conformity, so EI measures such as the MSCEIT may not be valid measures of ability because they assess conformity rather than competence. EI measures such as the managing emotions subtest assess knowledge, but do not assess actual skill in dealing with emotions (Brody, 2004). That is, a person may be aware of what they are supposed to do when dealing with an emotional person, but in practice they may or may not have the skill or ability to actually do it. Furthermore, whether a person uses their knowledge in daily life is not necessarily an issue of intelligence at all, as it may depend on habits, integrity and motivation (Locke, 2005).

Similarly in regard to psychopaths, the mere fact that they do not endorse the “correct” answers on EI tests does not mean they lack some form of “intelligence” required to understand emotions, because the test itself is not a measure of intelligence (Locke, 2005) but one of conformity to social norms. By definition, psychopaths disregard social norms, so the test does not seem to tell us anything we do not already know. Self-report measures of manipulation do exist, but it is not clear whether they measure actual ability to successfully manipulate other people’s emotions for personal gain (Ermer, et al., 2012). Understanding emotional deficits in psychopathy seems crucial to understanding this important and disturbing phenomenon but I would argue that the use of emotional intelligence tests is most likely a dead end because the measures are not valid and do not address the core emotional problems in the disorder. Psychopaths do seem to accurately perceive other people’s emotions but do not appear to have a normal emotional response themselves. Research focusing on why this is the case would seem to be a more productive avenue of enquiry. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

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Brody, N. (2004). What Cognitive Intelligence Is and What Emotional Intelligence Is Not. Psychological Inquiry, 15(3), 234-238.

Ermer, E., Kahn, R. E., Salovey, P., & Kiehl, K. A. (2012). Emotional Intelligence in Incarcerated Men With Psychopathic Traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0027328

Hare, R. (1999). Without conscience: The disturbing world of psychopaths among us. New York: The Guilford Press.

Lishner, D. A., Swim, E. R., Hong, P. Y., & Vitacco, M. J. (2011). Psychopathy and ability emotional intelligence: Widespread or limited association among facets? Personality and Individual Differences, 50(7), 1029-1033. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.01.018

Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior. doi: 10.1002/job.318

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