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Neuroscience Shows Psychopaths Can Use Emotional Intelligence to Harm. Here’s How to Stop Them.

A fascinating experiment shows how psychopaths can use empathy to charm their victims.


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For most of us, the term "psychopath" evokes images of serial killers or mass murderers. But the complex disorder known as psyc—which is traditionally characterized by a list of traits including antisocial behavior, arrogance, deceitfulness, and a lack of emotional empathy—is actually more common than most people think.

This list of traits may sound like the complete opposite of what you normally think of when you hear the term "emotional intelligence"—the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. We generally think of emotionally intelligent persons as kind and helpful.

But a number of psychologists have also highlighted the "dark side" of emotional intelligence: how a person could use their knowledge of emotions to strategically achieve self-serving goals, with little or no concern for others.

So, this raises a question: Is there such thing as an emotionally intelligent psychopath?

How Psychopaths Use EQ to Manipulate

A criminal psychologist, Professor Robert Hare spent most of his life studying psychopaths and learning what makes them tick. (Hare is the creator of the PCL-R, the assessment most commonly used to identify psychopathic traits in an individual.) In an interview with the Telegraph, Hare described psychopathy as "dimensional," suggesting that many psychopaths tend to blend in.

"There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they're our friends, they're fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it's subtle and they're able to talk their way around it."

Note psychopath's ability to "talk their way around" their tendency to take advantage of others. Intellectually, we may identify what they're doing ... we may even call them out for it. But these persons play on our emotions to get us to dismiss their behavior.

Research supports these conclusions—that some individuals are highly skilled at using the ability of emotional influence for selfish gain.

For example, consider one particularly fascinating experiment by Dr. Christian Keysers, Professor of Social Neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam.

In one study, Keysers and his team analyzed the brain activity of 21 convicted violent psychopathic offenders, comparing the results with 26 men of similar age and IQ. The participants were shown movies of people hurting each other while brain activity was measured. Later, a doctoral student would slap the patients on their hands to localize brain regions connected with feeling touch and pain. The goal was to see if patients' brains activated a feeling of pain in their own brain when viewing the pain of others.

The result?

"The vicarious activation of motor, somatosensory and emotional brain regions was much lower in the patients with psychopathy than in the normal subjects," writes Keysers. "The theory seemed right: their empathy was reduced, and this could explain why they committed such terrible crimes without feeling guilt."

But one question still plagued Keysers.

How could these same individuals prove to be so charming at times?

"I remember chatting with one of the patients ... a particularly severe psychopath (he had scored the full 40 points on the psychopathy checklist)," writes Keysers. "Surrounded by the guards, he seemed a most pleasant person. He was smiling, engaging, and seemed to feel exactly what we wanted from him."

So Keysers and his partner decided to let the patients watch the movies again, this time asking them to try and empathize with the victims in the movies.

"What we found was that this simple instruction sufficed to boost the empathic activation in their brain to a level that was hard to distinguish from that of the healthy controls," writes Keysers. "Suddenly, the psychopaths seemed as empathic as the next guy. Their empathy was switched on."

Keysers' conclusion:

"Psychopathic individuals do not simply lack empathy. Instead, it seems as though for most of us, empathy is the default mode. If we see a victim, we share her pain. For the psychopathic criminals of our study, empathy seemed to be a voluntary activity. If they want to, they can empathize, and that explains how they can be so charming, and maybe so manipulative. Once they have seduced you into doing what serves their purpose, the effortful empathy would probably disappear again."

Protect Yourself

So, we might ask: How can you deal effectively with a psychopath's emotional intelligence?

Simply put, by sharpening your own.

For example, your capacity to accurately perceive others' abilities to manage emotions can serve as a self-defense mechanism—a type of "emotional alarm system" that alerts you to the fact that someone is attempting to manipulate your feelings, to get you to act in a way that is not in your best interests or that conflicts with your values and principles.

My goal isn't to encourage undue suspicion—not everyone who tries to persuade you is a psychopath.

But be cautious—and even skeptical—when necessary. When you discover that someone has the ability to evoke strong emotions in you, strive to remain balanced with respect to your own words and actions. Once your own feelings have calmed down, revisit the "what" and the "why": What words or actions sparked your emotions? Why did they do so? What are the influencer's true motives and desires?

By gaining greater control over your thoughts and actions, you can protect yourself from your own feelings—even if a skilled manipulator works hard to exploit you.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Justin Bariso's book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.

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This post originally appeared on Inc. and was published July 25, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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