Study of Families Reveals Evidence of Intergenerational Transmission of Dark Triad Traits and Emotional Reactivity

A recent study published in Research in psychology and behavior management attempts to determine the relationship between parental dark triad traits, emotional reactivity, and the dark triad and emotional reactivity of their children. The research team set out to find out if the dark triad and emotional reactivity of the parent generation can pass these personality traits and behaviors on to their offspring.

Their findings indicate that dark triad traits and emotional reactivity are passed down from generation to generation. Additionally, 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 the children, the more the personality traits of the dark triad parents would have a negative effect on the emotional reactivity of their children.

The dark triad refers to three related personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Machiavellianism as a personality trait includes the lack of a robust moral code and manipulation for personal gain. Behaviors that make up psychopathy include impulsiveness as well as lack of remorse and empathy. Finally, attention-seeking and selfishness are indicative of narcissism.

Like the dark triad, emotional reactivity has individual, measurable elements. These include emotional sensitivity, emotional persistence, and emotional intensity. People with a high degree of emotional sensitivity are likely to experience mood swings in response to small environmental changes. Those with high emotional persistence have a hard time getting rid of bad emotions, and emotional intensity is the difference between feeling mildly uncomfortable and raging.

Students over the age of 16 whose parents were married were recruited online. In the end, a total of 486 families participated. In this study, families were defined as a couple, consisting of a man and a woman, and a college-aged son or daughter. Each member of the family group completed the Emotional Reactivity Scale and a questionnaire known as the “Dirty Dozen”. The Dirty Dozen assesses the three dimensions of the Dark Triad.

Statistical analysis revealed an unexpected result when it was found that for parents and children, there was no difference in emotional reactivity scores between genders. Previous research had shown that women tended to demonstrate greater emotional reactivity. One hypothesis supporting this result was related to the participant’s culture of origin.

All of the participants were Chinese citizens, and emotional regulation is highly valued and practiced in Chinese culture. A culture that values ​​the emotional expression of one gender, if not both, may result in a different outcome.

Gender has had consequences for the intergenerational transmission of Dark Triad traits. The study revealed that boys were much more vulnerable than girls.

Regarding their findings, Wei Li and his colleagues acknowledge the difficulty of disentangling the relationships between parent and offspring traits and emotional reactivity. Nevertheless, they state, “there is evidence that on the one hand, the emotional reactivity of the individual and their spouse can be influenced by the parental dark triad, which in turn affects the emotional reactivity of their children via the transmission intergenerational. 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.

Recognized limitations of the study include the cross-sectional nature of the research. First, comparing individuals at a given time may not produce reliable data. Second, using only university students ignores the experiences of younger children. Finally, the data represents the experience of Chinese families. This search in more individualistic societies can yield different results.

The study, “A Study of Intergenerational Transmission of the Dark Triad and Emotion Reactivity,” was authored by Wei Li, Xiangxin Cong, Zhiguang Fan, and Fei Li.

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