The 'dark side' of emotional intelligence

Manipulation, narcissism, gullibility

Employers seek candidates with strong "people skills," also known as emotional intelligence (EI), but the characteristic is not always used for good, reports Andrew Giambrone for The Atlantic.

The term for EI was coined in 1990, and its effect on people's lives has since been studied immensely. Studies show that, when compared with people who have average EI, those with higher levels are healthier, more satisfied with life, and advance further at work.

The 'dark side' of EI

Not all traits associated with high EI are positive, however. Researchers have found a "dark side" of being able to read other people.

In the office, those with high EI may focus "self-serving" efforts "on strategically important targets," such as rivals, superiors, or subordinates to "distort, block or amplify rumors, gossip, and other types of emotion-laden information," according to a 2010 article in Research in Organizational Behavior

In 2014, Austrian psychologists found a correlation between narcissism and EI, suggesting that narcissists with high EI may employ their "charming, interesting, and even seductive" traits for "malicious purposes." Another study the same year found a connection between "emotion recognition" and "narcissistic exploitativeness;" people who manipulated others often were also advanced at reading others' emotions.

Other issues with EI

Even those who are not intentionally using their EI against others should be somewhat wary of their skill set, writes Giambrone.

A 2013 study showed that college students with high EI were more likely than their peers to be fooled by news footage of families begging for the return of missing persons—even though half the time, the families were responsible for the disappearance themselves. Students rated the sincerity of the pleas, and those with higher EI were more easily tricked, possibly because of overconfidence in their people-reading skills.

"So don't underestimate people skills—but don't overestimate them, either," writes Giambrone, concluding, "Reading emotions doesn't mean you can read minds" (Giambrone, The Atlantic, May 2015).

The takeaway: A string of studies shows that emotional intelligence can be used in destructive ways, reports Andrew Giambrone for The Atlantic.

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