Friday, July 27, 2012

Assessing “emotional intelligence” will not help us understand psychopathy

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 emotional deficits in psychopathy because they lack validity and have little relevance to psychopathy.
Extravagant claims that emotional intelligence is a more important predictor of success in life than IQ have not been borne out by empirical research.

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). Scoring may be 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”. However, 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 answers that 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. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else 

Other posts discussing intelligence related topics
Cold Winters and the Evolution of Intelligence: A critique of Richard Lynn’s Theory

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences – a critique of Howard Gardner’s theory

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 : 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


  1. Nice post, I was reading this paper recently which I found interesting, about how self-report "measures" of EI do not measure the same thing as more objective "performance" EI tests. I wonder if these performance tests (Situational Test of Emotional Understanding (STEU) and the Situational Test of Emotion Management (STEM).) would shed light on psychopathy?

    1. In the EI literature there has for some time been a distinction between "trait" EI (self-report) and "ability" EI which is considered to be a performance measure. Trait EI measures are strongly correlated with personality traits, such as extraversion, neuroticism and so on, whereas ability-based measures are more independent of personality. The measure I discussed in my post, the MSCEIT, is an ability measure. If I recall correctly, the STEU and STEM use fairly similar assessment methods to the MSCEIT and were developed as non-copyrighted alternatives. As I alluded to in my post, there is a problem with the scoring of these ability measures, because unlike IQ tests they have no objectively correct answers. Hence researchers have resorted to "consensus" or "expert" scoring, which I believe have serious problems. For example, what qualifies someone as an emotional expert? It's possible researchers might develop better ways of assessing emotion-related abilities, such as assessing how people solve interpersonal problems in realistic settings, that would yield more useful information in relation to psychopathy. Also, the particular motivations of psychopaths would need to be taken into account to determine if their performance is related to real emotional deficits or their self-centred motives. Thanks for taking an interest!

  2. I've worried for a while now that the "emotional intelligence" world, which aims to improve the world and spread more empathy and compassion, is not paying adequate attention to the serious disorders like psychopathy and NPD that are relevant to that mission. Ideas like emotional and character training in schools may have some merit, for example. But if they don't make any distinction between the normal child and the child with different genetics and/or wiring when it comes to empathy, how can they really succeed?

    Also, it makes sense that psychopaths would not necessarily be identified just by asking for emotional recognition. They are fantastic manipulators, so it would seem they are actually often quite adept and recognizing emotions. It's what they experience in response and how they then behave that distinguishes them.

  3. I am new at this blogging thing, I am trying to understand it all still. So what this is saying is that psychopaths are more emotionally intelligent than anyone else?

    1. No, there is no evidence that psychopaths are more "emotionally intelligent" than other people. On the contrary, studies have found that they score lower on these tests than others. My argument though is that current tests of EI, particularly the "managing emotions" subtest, are measuring conformity to social norms rather than true ability to manage emotions. Psychopaths are not interested in conforming to social rules, so the fact they obtain low scores on these tests does not really tell us anything very interesting in my opinion. Regarding their ability to manipulate others, this is something difficult to measure and certainly EI tests do not focus on antisocial uses of emotion, so they do not assess manipulation. Some researchers argue that psychopaths' facility with manipulation is due mainly to strong motivation, rather than a particular form of intelligence. That is, they spend a lot of time focusing on how to manipulate people so they become good at it, whereas most people don't do this because they feel it is morally wrong. Psychopaths do appear to lack the usual responses to emotional stimuli, e.g. they are unmoved by images of human suffering. I think that research focusing on their lack of emotional response will be more likely to increase our understanding of psychopathy than the use of currently existing EI measures. I hope this makes things clearer.