I was listening to an episode of The Nerdist podcast the other day with guest Penn Jillette (the big loud guy from the magician duo, Penn & Teller), and I was fascinated to hear Penn suggest that when you need a doctor or a lawyer to really fight for you, he believes it’s best to find one who’s a sociopath, because that person is going to focus on the job at hand without getting squeamish about the details.
A sociopath (or psychopath; the terms are interchangeable) is someone who lacks empathy for other human beings, a condition that’s thought to exist in every 1 out of 100 people in the world. Sociopaths are typically skilled liars who think very little of manipulating other human beings, and they tend to show up in high proportions in both prisons and corporate executive levels. (If you’re interested in learning more about that, I’d suggest reading Jon Ronson’s fascinating book, The Psychopath Test, or listening to the This American Life episode of the same name.)
I bring all of this up because a recent study from the journal Legal and Criminal Psychology has found that those with a high level of emotional intelligence (a controversial measure of one’s ability to control the emotions of oneself or others) are more easily fooled by deceptive claims.
The study itself was conducted by having 116 participants view a sample of 20 videos where people were pleading for the safe return of family members. Half of these videos featured people who were telling the truth, and half of these videos featured people who were actually responsible for the disappearance or murder of the loved one. The participants were aware that some of the videos were false and were supposed to judge each plea by examining cues and reporting their emotional reaction.
The study concludes that those with a higher level of EI may make poor decisions on the basis of their perceptions of emotions, and the discussion of the findings of the study suggest it’s due to those with high ability to perceive and express emotion (a component of EI) having overconfidence in their ability to read things, but it may also be due to their levels of sympathy and empathy with other humans.
What this suggests to me is that those who are on the empathetic end of the scale are most likely to be putty in the hands of those who are on the sociopathic end of the scale. Which means that I had better watch out, since I scored high on this test, and I am pretty sure I’ve been manipulated by sociopaths before. That puts a lot of things in perspective…