Recognizing emotions: What’s personality got to do with it?

            It’s safe to assume that there has been a moment (at least one) in our lives, where we wished we could recognize another person’s emotions. It may have been that interviewer whose decision could affect your career prospects, or maybe it was your crush when you were telling him/her how you felt about them. For some people, reading others’ emotions is as simple as adding 1 and 1. But for some others it can be the most difficult task. A majority of research examining such differences has found that the answer might lie in the most integral part of an individual’s identity – their personality.

            Common knowledge suggests that the capacity for empathy is perhaps one of the most important aspects of an individual’s personality that is linked to their ability to understand, experience and recognize others’ emotions. In fact, studies focusing on human empathy have bifurcated the concept into affective and cognitive empathy. While the former is the ability to experience others’ emotions, the latter refers to the ability to comprehend others’ emotional states. So it seems that if you score higher on a test measuring cognitive empathy, you would be far better at emotion recognition than if you scored higher on a test measuring affective empathy. This differentiation is particularly interesting in the study of a specific set of independent, yet related personality traits, namely Machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathy and subclinical narcissism, collectively known as the Dark Triad (DT).

             Research has revealed that individuals who possess the DT traits tend to be manipulative, exploit others, possess a sense of superiority and grandiosity, and most often use social influence or charm while targeting their ‘victims’. At the same time, studies have also highlighted those personalities rich in the DT suffer from certain deficits, one of which are empathic deficiencies. However, this field of research remains unclear. While some studies have found that DT is associated with low levels of affective empathy with no impairment in cognitive empathy, other studies have found that in fact, DT personalities score poorly on cognitive empathy tests. Based on such contradictory findings, we cannot conclusively know whether individuals with DT traits target and interact with their ‘victims’ by recognising and playing on the target’s emotions. In a bid to clear the air and add to existing research, researchers at the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala are currently conducting a new study that examines this association, i.e. between the DT and emotion recognition. Obviously, we are very excited about this development. Let me elaborate a little on this study, and maybe, by the end, you, dear reader, will also share our enthusiasm.

            Our study has a very simple design. We administer (through an online medium) certain personality questionnaires followed by a very recently developed emotion recognition test. This emotion recognition test is the most exciting bit. Past studies in this field haven often employed very basic emotion recognition tests, such as testing for a very small number of simplistic emotions (such as happiness, sadness, anger), or using still pictures or images of people displaying emotions. This has prevented researchers from truly replicating the complexity of human emotions, which are often expressed through multiple modalities, i.e. not only via facial expressions, but also via body gestures or voice tones. To overcome this limitation, we have employed a new measure of emotion recognition called the Geneva Emotion Recognition Test. This test is not a boring paper-pencil test. Rather, it includes a number of short 3-4 second video clips of actors (males and females) displaying a range of 14 different emotions whilst speaking. Moreover, what adds to the novelty of this test is that the actors speak gibberish, i.e. a non-existent language. This makes the test more universal in its appeal, communicates tone information in an unbiased manner, and therefore measures emotion recognition in an authentic manner. Simply put, the test can measure any population’s ability to recognise emotions. Pretty neat, I think.  

            Another important (read exciting) aspect of our study is that we are also examining sex differences within the DT population with respect to the emotion recognition. Essentially, previous findings have provided us with two bits of information. First, men tend to score higher on DT measures as compared to women. This suggests that either there is a higher incidence of men with DT traits than women in the general population, or that the DT traits are stronger and more firmly expressed in men than their female counterparts. Second, women tend to be better at recognising others as well as their own emotion, suggesting that, on an average, women can be more empathic than men. However a finding worth mentioning in this area has been termed the ‘alluring effect’ – this is when men recognise the emotions displayed a female actor more accurately than the emotions displayed by a male actor (evolution is pretty awesome, right?). Since there is very little information on the interaction of DT, emotion recognition and sex, our study is attempting to marry these strains of information and investigate them in a single experiment.

The DT of personality traits is an exploding area of exploration within personality and social psychology realms, whereas the study of emotion recognition, and by extension, empathy, occupies an important place in the understanding of daily human functioning, interactions and interpersonal relationships. We hope to bridge the gap between these two areas, and uncover new related information. Do you see now why we are so excited?

Ahuti Das