If, as research suggests, the psychological trait of sensation seeking is the catalyst for youthful delinquency, might high emotional intelligence (EI; having empathy for other people’s emotions and good control over one’s own) act as a calming restraint? That was the question Alison Bacon her colleagues posed in their study of 96 undergrads (average age 20; 48 women).
Their “surprising and unprecedented” discovery was that for women, not only did high EI not moderate the link between sensation seeking and delinquency, in fact high EI went hand in hand with higher rates of self-reported delinquency, including playing truant from school, taking drugs and violence.
Why should this be? The researchers are left speculating. They think high EI might fuel acts of indirect aggression like “psychological bullying, deliberate social exclusion or malicious gossip” that tend to be performed more by young females than males. Unfortunately the researchers’ measure of delinquent behaviour didn’t include these kinds of behaviours, but they reasoned perhaps the same young women who perform these less visible acts were also more likely to commit the forms of delinquency that were on the scale, such as rowdy behaviour and smoking cannabis. If so, this would help explain the high EI / delinquency link in women.
“A high level of trait EI may facilitate an enhanced ability to present Machiavellian behaviour in a positive light, understand victims’ emotions and predict likely responses in order that social manipulations are successful,” Bacon and her team said.
What about the male students? Their answers were more in line with the researchers’ predictions. For men, higher EI acted as a moderator, weakening the link between sensation seeking traits and delinquency. High EI also had its own direct inverse relationship with delinquency – that is, men with higher EI tended to be less rebellious.
“Trait EI is known to predict a wide array of positive, practical and health-related life outcomes,” the researchers concluded. “Understanding how the perpetration of negative behaviours is linked to trait EI may be an important step towards promoting well-being.”
Bacon, A., Burak, H., & Rann, J. (2014). Sex differences in the relationship between sensation seeking, trait emotional intelligence and delinquent behaviour The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 25 (6), 673-683 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2014.943796