There’s a lot of psychological terms bandied about that appear to have very similar meanings. Take, for instance, emotional empathy and emotional intelligence, aren’t they kind of the same thing?

Actually, they are completely different but both can relate to psychopathy. Let’s look at emotional empathy first.

What Is Emotional Empathy?

Emotional empathy is where you feel the other person’s emotions as strongly as they do. You can easily put yourself in their position and completely understand what they are going through.

There are good sides of emotional empathy and bad sides. Emotional empathy is essential in healthcare professions such as counselling. Here, being able to emphasise with patients is crucial. The bad side of emotional empathy is when a person becomes overwhelmed by their feelings for others.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is almost the opposite of emotional empathy. It is an ability to manage and control your emotions. Those with emotional intelligence are able to identify not just their emotions but those of others as well.

Emotional intelligence is said to be made up of three key abilities:

  1. Identifying one’s own and others’ emotions
  2. Being able to harness these emotions and use them to solve problems
  3. The ability to control one’s own, and other’s emotions

Experts have recognised that emotional intelligence is an important leadership skill. People who possess it typically have other good leadership abilities as well. They are self-aware, motivated, are good at self-regulating and have above-average social skills.

They can also have empathy, which brings us back to emotional empathy. But are the two connected when it comes to psychopathy?

Psychopathy and Emotional Empathy

Psychopaths are noted for their lack of empathy. In fact, a deficit of emotion appears to be a prerequisite for psychopathy. There are studies that have shown psychopaths are unable to respond normally to emotionally-charged words or pictures. They also have trouble recognising emotional faces.

So does this mean that because they do not feel emotion themselves, they cannot recognise emotions in others? Well, according to psychopathy expert Robert Hare, they might not be able to recognise it, but they can certainly feign it to their advantage. Hare believes that psychopaths can perceive emotion in others, they just don’t care.

Psychopathy and Emotional Intelligence

Psychopaths are renowned for using superficial charm and manipulation to get what they want from others. This means they are highly skilled at reading people’s emotions. Therefore, by inference, they have to have some degree of emotional intelligence.

Psychopaths use their emotional intelligence as a form of manipulation. This is to inflict the greatest amount of harm to their victims. They will be able to identify a person’s weakness or vulnerabilities and attack without remorse.

The Link between Emotional Empathy, Emotional Intelligence and Psychopathy

One study revealed surprising results regarding psychopaths, emotional empathy and emotional intelligence. It looked at the difference between primary and secondary psychopaths, intelligence and emotional response.

Let’s first remind ourselves about primary and secondary psychopaths:

Characteristics of Primary Psychopaths:
  • Aggression
  • Dominance
  • Organised
  • Grandiose
  • Fearless
  • Extrovert
  • Lack of Emotion
  • No Anxiety
Characteristics of Secondary Psychopaths:
  • Impulsive
  • Unorganised
  • Risk-taking
  • Reactive aggression
  • Normal to high levels of anxiety
  • Prone to boredom
  • Depression that could lead to suicide

There have been numerous studies supporting the notion that psychopaths have reduced emotional responses when viewing disturbing or upsetting material. However, no study ever examined how the emotional intelligence differs between the primary and secondary psychopaths.

Would this have impacted their emotional responses and why should this be important anyway?

Because there has been some early research that shows a direct connection between psychopaths and intelligence. In fact, some psychopaths are able to control some of their bodily responses to emotional stimuli in order to manipulate others and benefit themselves.

Emotional Empathy and Primary Psychopaths

Early theories suggested that all psychopaths were highly intelligent. However, this didn’t take into account the primary and secondary types or emotional intelligence.

Specifically, results from a recent study showed that individuals who fit into the primary category of psychopathy, with high levels of emotional intelligence, were less likely to have emotional responses.

Remember, characteristics of primary psychopaths are manipulative, callous and lack of empathy. We would expect to see these traits in someone who wasn’t bothered about viewing distressing images.

Emotional Empathy and Secondary Psychopaths

Results for secondary psychopaths showed a connection with lower levels of intelligence but a higher emotional empathy. This is quite surprising.

All previous research has suggested a negative connection with psychopathy and empathy. Secondary psychopathy traits include risk-taking and boredom. This might explain why these individual are aroused by provocative and disturbing images. Individuals with a low boredom threshold, secondary psychopathy traits and low emotional intelligence may then seek out these types of images to relieve boredom.

So what does all this mean? Think about your typical psychopath. The ones portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters, individuals such as Hannibal Lecter or Anton Chigurh in ‘No Country for Old Men’. These are all lone predators who are cunning and manipulative. They are also all likely to have high emotional intelligence and low emotional empathy.

Then there is the less commonly well-known secondary psychopath. The one who is impulsive, takes risks and is easily bored. You could count Iron Man – Tony Stark as such an individual. He has all these secondary psychopathic traits. These types are likely to have low emotional intelligence but high emotional empathy.

So, how does this knowledge help us as a society moving forward?  I suggest you avoid both types!



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