The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

While emotional intelligence is often praised for its positive aspects, it’s essential to acknowledge that there is also a dark side to it.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to perceive our own and other’s emotions, discriminate between them, and use this information to regulate our thinking and behaviors (Goleman, 1996).

Many scientific studies have provided compelling evidence of the importance of EI across different life domains, including work, personal health, and relationships.

Namely, EI has shown positive correlations with job satisfaction, subjective well-being (both physical and emotional), and levels of social support and is an indicator of overall psychological adaptability (Sanchez-Alvarez et al., 2016; Cobos-Sanchez et al., 2020).

dark side emotional intelligence

According to Goleman’s theory, there are four attributes that commonly define EI: 

  • Self-awareness: the ability to recognize our own emotions and the impact they have on others;
  • Self-management: the capacity to regulate emotions and impulsive reactions and flexibly adapt to changing circumstances;
  • Social awareness: the ability to understand and empathize with the emotions of others;
  • Relationship management: a set of social skills comprising positive influence, teamwork, clear communication, and conflict management.

The dark side of emotional intelligence

Although EI has been shown to predict various positive outcomes, there is also a “dark side” of EI that has often been overlooked, where this skill might have deleterious effects for a person and those they interact with (Davis and Nichols, 2016). 

Emotional manipulation

New evidence suggests that when people hone their emotional skills, they can also become better at manipulating others (Grant, 2014).

Indeed, “when we can control our emotions, we can also disguise our true feelings. When we are able to notice other people’s feelings, we can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests”.

This represents the dark side of EI: using one’s knowledge of emotions to strategically achieve self-serving goals. 

In research conducted by the University of Cambridge, when a leader was giving an inspiring speech filled with emotion, the audience was less likely to scrutinize its content.

It seems that through EI, people can fabricate favorable impressions of themselves, expressing emotions strategically and reducing others’ ability to think critically (Grant, 2014).

The link between EI and manipulation has been further explored by other studies, which found that people who are lower in the Big Five Trait ‘Agreeableness’ (i.e., cooperativeness, soft-heartedness, tolerance, and altruism) are more likely to use EI skills with manipulative purposes (O’Connor and Athota, 2013). 

The dark triad 

Further research investigated the relationship between EI and dark triad personality traits, including Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Narcissism (Figure 1).

These three aversive personality styles share common characteristics, such as a lack of empathy, a need for attention, gravitation toward power, deceit, and callous manipulation (Furnham, Richards, and Paulhus, 2013). 

People who score high on these traits appear to be better able to manipulate others using mood worsening (e.g., criticizing others) and inauthentic displays (e.g., flattery and sulking) (Austin et al., 2014).

In a study led by the University of Toronto, employees with Machiavellian tendencies and high EI were more likely to engage in harmful behaviors toward their colleagues, including demeaning and embarrassing them for personal gain (Côté et al., 2011).

Psychopathy has also been associated with the tendency to adopt hard tactics in the workplace, with more evident threats of punishment and manipulation of people and situations.

Individuals high in narcissism seem instead to rely on softer or more charming workplace tactics, for example, the promise of reward and integration (Jonason, Slomskiv, and Partyka, 2012).

Their aim is to make good impressions initially and create positive relationships with colleagues that can be later exploited to offset work obligations.

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What other types of people are likely to use EI to their advantage?

Because EI has some conceptual overlap with empathy but it also represents a separate construct, it has been hypothesized that people with high EI but reduced empathy are more likely to engage in antisocial and manipulative behaviors (Akamatsu and Gherghel, 2021).

Without empathy, EI could, therefore, be ‘abused’ and lead to aggressive as opposed to prosocial behaviors (Figure 2).

This is particularly evident in EI individuals with goal-driven persistence, sensitivity to rewards, and impulsivity, where the adoption of both prosocial and aggressive behaviors is strategically used to obtain greater control of resources and thrive in the social world. (Bacon, Corr, and Satchell, 2018).

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How to tell if someone is using emotional intelligence in a manipulative way?

People with manipulative tendencies might initially appear friendly and charismatic, while their primary intent is to use social interactions for their own personal gain, disguising them as benefits to others (Bradberry and Greaves, 2009).

The first step to avoid being the target of their controlling behavior is recognizing some typical signs that these individuals display.

  • Inconsistent behavior: When actions are not aligned with specific values or ethics but are rather serving to change personal needs, behaviors appear inconsistent or do not match the initial words emotional manipulators made you believe. 
  • Charisma: They can easily influence people’s ideas or change their minds – the so-called ‘awestruck effect’ – using their personal energy to activate positive emotions in others and ultimately gain control over them. 
  • They leverage feelings of guilt: Emotional manipulators know other people’s weak spots and use their insecurities to elicit feelings of guilt to more easily manipulate them. 
  • They share too much too soon: To make us feel part of their inner circle, they will share many details about themselves or information that will make them appear sensitive and friendly. The real intent is to gain our confidence and trust so they can fast-track the relationship and influence us to behave in a way that matches their expectations.
  • They rely on reciprocity: They might initially attempt to flatter us or do small favors, expecting us to do bigger ones in return.

We might also try to reflect on our feelings when we interact with these people and use them as warning signs:

  • Doubt: Because manipulators tend to show us only one side of the story, we might often find ourselves questioning their honesty and transparency. We might also feel confused by their inconsistent behaviors and doubt our ability to correctly perceive and interpret reality.
  • Fear: Emotional manipulators will often exaggerate facts to make us feel the urgency to act towards a desired direction. The unpredictability of their reactions might also cause us general discomfort when we are around them.
  • Anger: We might easily feel frustrated and resentful as these people have the tendency to speak over us, wanting to impose their own opinions and to tell us the way we should think or feel.
  • Hopelessness: If we develop a strong connection with the person, we might feel like we are trapped in the relationship and we have little power to escape. As manipulators are also often emotional black holes, we might feel completely sucked into their emotions and feel obliged to comply with them.

Can you have too much emotional intelligence?

While emotionally intelligent people are better equipped to interpret others’ emotions and have more successful social interactions, their empathy can also lead them to take things too personally and easily feel emotionally exhausted.

This has been illustrated by a 2016 experiment where university students were asked to complete a series of questions to assess their EI, including judging the emotional expression of human faces (Bechtoldt and Schneider, 2016).

Those who displayed greater sensitivity to emotions also exhibited a higher stress response in a subsequent task requiring them to give job talks in front of judges, assuming stern facial expressions.

Similar studies have shown that attention to emotion was positively associated with greater experience of negative emotions in victims of cyberbullying (Elipe et al., 2015) and more severe symptoms in people with mental health disorders (Lizeretti, Extremera and Rodríguez, 2012).

Overall, it appears that heightened emotional sensitivity may mediate the relationship between EI and over-reactivity to stress. Specifically, individuals with an ‘uneven’ pattern of EI skills – for example, increased emotional awareness coupled with reduced stress management – display lower levels of psychological adaptability.

By contrast, people with uniformly high or average EI profiles seem to respond more successfully to challenging life circumstances, including demanding academic/work environments and traumatic events (Davis and Nichols, 2016). 

In the workplace, too high EI has been associated with various negative outcomes (Chamorro-Premuzic and Yearsley, 2017). For example, people with high interpersonal sensitivity might have difficulty delivering genuine, negative feedback to their colleagues, possibly impacting their growth potential.

In addition, they might be reluctant to make unpopular decisions that often leadership roles require to bring innovation and change to an organization.

People with high EI also tend to take fewer risks due to their high conscientiousness, which can result in excessive self-control and perfectionism.


Can emotional intelligence be faked?

Although faking EI might work in the short term, with people trying to appear likable, open to listening, and emotionally balanced, it is not a sustainable approach for success in the longer term.

EI represents a skill that needs to be developed from the inside out, requiring building greater self-awareness and empathy towards others.

Even the most capable leaders will eventually fail if they struggle to show genuine openness to others’ views and authentic willingness to accept feedback to continuously improve professionally. 

Do dark empaths use emotional intelligence?

A dark empath is a person who uses their ability to understand how other people feel and think (i.e., cognitive empathy) for their personal gain.

They share the personality traits of the dark triad – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – but with higher levels of empathy. They, therefore, represent potentially more dangerous individuals, as they can connect to people easily and read their emotions to eventually use them to their advantage.

Some of the most common strategies emotional empaths use to manipulate others are gaslighting, love bombing, ghosting, and intimidation (Heym et al., 2021).

What should I do if I suspect someone is using emotional intelligence to manipulate me?

Being a victim of manipulation is often emotionally draining. Although the first step is recognizing common behaviors and strategies that manipulators use, it is also important to identify our personal weaknesses, for example, the tendency to please others, low confidence and self-esteem, and being emotionally dependent on others.

We should try next to be assertive about our needs, stating them directly and persistently. Manipulators will try to change our views and it is therefore important to maintain personal boundaries to prevent them from taking advantage of us (Braiker, 2004).


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Bacon, A. M., Corr, P. J., & Satchell, L. P. (2018). A reinforcement sensitivity theory explanation of antisocial behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 87-93.

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Elipe, P., Mora-Merchán, J. A., Ortega-Ruiz, R., & Casas, J. A. (2015). Perceived emotional intelligence as a moderator variable between cybervictimization and its emotional impact. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 486.

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and personality psychology compass, 7(3), 199-216.

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Grant, A. (2014). The dark side of emotional intelligence. The Atlantic, 2.

Heym, N., Kibowski, F., Bloxsom, C. A., Blanchard, A., Harper, A., Wallace, L., … & Sumich, A. (2021). The Dark Empath: Characterising dark traits in the presence of empathy. Personality and individual differences, 169, 110172.

Jonason, P. K., Slomski, S., & Partyka, J. (2012). The Dark Triad at work: How toxic employees get their way. Personality and individual differences, 52(3), 449-453.

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Sánchez-Álvarez, N., Extremera, N., & Fernández-Berrocal, P. (2016). The relation between emotional intelligence and subjective well-being: A meta-analytic investigation. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(3), 276-285.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Sara Viezzer

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc in Applied Neuropsychology

Sara Viezzer is a graduate of psychological studies at the University of Bristol and Padova. She has worked as an Assistant Psychologist in the NHS for the past two years in neuroscience and health psychology. Sara is presently pursuing a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.