The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

Emotional intelligence is generally regarded as a good thing — the skill, defined by the Oxford psychology dictionary as the “[a]bility to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour,” is an important tool for forming and navigating interpersonal relationships. But new research suggests it also has a dark side: Young women with higher emotional intelligence are more likely to commit acts of delinquency, finds a study recently published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology.

For the study, led by Plymouth University’s Alison Bacon, researchers asked 96 college students a series of questions to evaluate them on a spectrum of thrill-seeking tendencies, delinquent behavior, and emotional intelligence. They had expected that while people with thrill-seeking tendencies might also have delinquent impulses, if these people also had high levels of emotional intelligence, that intelligence would help them curb those impulses. This was true — but only for males. Females were actually more likely to engage in delinquent acts if they reported higher levels of emotional intelligence.

Why might that be? Part of it may come down to the fact that, young females tend to process their emotions differently than males and to gravitate toward different forms of delinquency. Troubled young men, the researchers note, externalize their emotions and tend toward violent acts in their delinquency — acts that don’t generally require a sophisticated understanding of how other people think. Young women, on the other hand, tend to internalize negative emotions and may be channeling this energy into forms of delinquency that require more emotional understanding, such as bullying and social exclusion.

When you think about manipulative behavior or Machiavellian ways of relating, for that to be a successful social strategy, you have to have some degree of emotional intelligence,” said Bacon. “You have to understand what effect your behavior is going to have on other people, in terms of their thoughts, or feelings or emotions … otherwise you won’t have the social skills to pull that off.” In other words, in the wrong hands, emotional intelligence is more than a valuable skill for navigating daily life — it’s also a potentially potent weapon.