A recent study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management attempts to determine the relationship between parental Dark Triad traits, emotional reactivity, and their children’s Dark Triad and emotional reactivity. The research team sought to discover if the Dark Triad and emotional reactivity of the parent’s generation can transmit these personality traits and behaviors to their offspring.
Their results indicate that Dark Triad traits and emotional reactivity are transmitted intergenerationally. In addition, the children had much higher levels of Dark Triad traits and reactive emotions. Finally, the more emotionally reactive the parents were, and the greater the Dark Triad in children, the more likely parental Dark Triad personality traits would have a negative effect on their children’s emotional reactivity.
The Dark Triad refers to three related personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Machiavellianism as a personality trait includes an absence of a robust moral code and manipulation for personal gain. Behaviors that make up psychopathy include impulsivity as well as lacking remorse and empathy. Finally, seeking attention and selfishness are indicative of narcissism.
Like the Dark Triad, emotional reactivity comprises individual measurable elements. These include emotional sensitivity, emotional persistence, and emotional intensity. Those with high degrees of emotional sensitivity are likely to experience mood changes in response to minimal environmental changes. Those with high emotional persistence struggle to shake off bad emotions, and emotional intensity is the difference between feeling mildly inconvenienced and rage.
College students who were older than 16 and had married parents were recruited online. In the end, a total of 486 families participated. In this study, families were defined as a couple, comprised of one male and one female, and a college-aged son or daughter. Each family group member completed the Emotional Reactivity Scale and a questionnaire known as the “Dirty Dozen.” The Dirty Dozen assess the three dimensions of the Dark Triad.
Statistical analysis revealed an unexpected result when it was discovered that for both parents and children, there was no difference in emotional reactivity scores between the genders. Prior research had found that women tended to demonstrate greater emotional reactivity. One hypothesis for this finding was related to the participant’s culture of origin.
All participants were Chinese citizens, and emotional regulation is highly valued and practiced by the Chinese culture. A culture that values emotional expression for one gender, if not both, may elicit a different result.
Gender did have consequences for the intergenerational transmission of Dark Triad traits. The study found that male children were significantly more vulnerable than females.
Concerning their findings, Wei Li and colleagues recognize the difficulty of unraveling the relationships between parental and offspring traits and emotional reactivity. Nevertheless, they state, “it is demonstrated that on the one hand, one’s own and their spouse’s emotions reactivity is able to be influenced by parental Dark Triad, which in turn affects the emotions reactivity of their children via intergenerational transmission. On the other hand, the Dark Triad of children is influenced by the Dark Triad of their parents through intergenerational transmission, which further affects their emotional reactivity.”
Acknowledged limitations of the study include the cross-sectional nature of the research. First, comparing individuals at a single point in time may not produce reliable data. Second, using only college students leaves out the experiences of younger children. Finally, the data represents the experience of Chinese families. This research in more individualistic societies may yield different results.
The study, “A study in Intergenerational Transmission of Dark Triad and Emotion Reactivity“, was authored by Wei Li, Xiangxin Cong, Zhiguang Fan, and Fei Li.