Does she feel empathy for those she squashed to get to the top?
The studies of Dr. Amber Abernathy say no.
“Every human should have a physiological response when they feel empathy,” said Abernathy, the Mary-Charlotte Bayles Shealy Chair in Conscientious Psychology. This empathy is measured through electro dermal activity, similar to a lie detector test.
She performed a study on individuals who scored high on the Machiavellian scale and the results were clear: The higher the Machiavellian score, the less empathetic the response.
In this research project – one of approximately 20 that she conducts at any given time – individuals were randomly assigned to watch one of three video clips. These videos, selected because they almost universally strike a chord of empathy, included five minutes of babies crying, a bullying scenario and a heartbreaking scene from “Legends of the Fall” in which one brother dies in the other’s arms.
Although the individuals reported feeling empathy, their skin and physiological responses showed no change. According to Abernathy, this could be due in part to false reporting by the subject to improve his or her image. She doubts it, because Machiavellians don’t usually care too much about others’ opinions of them. Or it could be that Machiavellians don’t know what true empathy feels like.
Abernathy, who teaches personality courses, says that although Machiavellians are known to be high in manipulation and neuroticism, they have positive qualities as well.
“They get things done,” she said. “They’re very goal-driven.”
This study, published in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, is inspiring another study to test for conscientiousness in Machiavellian personalities.
“How do you get on top?” asked Abernathy, who has published numerous peer-reviewed studies on dominance.
She’s talking about perceived popularity. Females use relational aggression, like “gossiping and backstabbing, where males might use physical aggression,” she said.
In another study published in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, she administered a survey to a group of adolescents to determine dominance. After that, the participants played a reward allocation game in order to study how their personalities would affect their physical bodies. She pre-tested each individual’s saliva for cortisol, a stress hormone, then continued to test it at regular increments.
“The dominant female would get more stressed out at the beginning of the game. Not because of the game, but before the game,” she said. “Mid-game, the girl would realize, ‘I got this,’ and her cortisol would decrease.”
She noted that the reactions from males in the scenario were completely opposite. What was novel, though, was that Abernathy discovered a correlation between the social positioning and stress level of the individuals that caused them to respond differently.
Her overarching research goal is to increase people’s conscientiousness, which is one of the big five personality traits in psychology. But she doesn’t want to just look at what conscientiousness is related to. She “actually wants to help people to work to change their personalities.”
This is a controversial topic, according to Dr. Jennifer Byrd-Craven, who served as Abernathy’s advisor at Oklahoma State University. Byrd-Craven sees personality as stable across the lifespan, while another of Abernathy’s research projects revealed that through structured goal-setting, participants increased conscientiousness (thus changing their personalities).
Byrd-Craven, who has also served as a co-author on several publications, supports Abernathy’s work wholly.
“I have no doubt that she will make significant contributions to our understanding of how personality and biological factors are related to leadership and overall health.”
Abernathy likes to connect the dots between the physical and the emotional. She recently completed a study in which individuals made intentional choices toward becoming more conscientious for five weeks, and results showed improvements in health and energy level.
“If you are organized, responsible, neat, tidy, prepared,” which is indicative of conscientiousness, she said, that can reduce stress. This could account for some health benefits, like relieving tension headaches.
But conscientious people also, “tend to be better at health practices,” like brushing teeth, regular doctor visits, taking medicine, and drinking herbal tea, she says as she stirs her cup.
“Basically, your life view of how things are going can overcome what you’re actually physically feeling” — Dr. Amber Abernathy
Dr. Norm Shealy agrees. He’s the developer of the TENS Unit (predominately used for nerve related pain conditions), a world-renowned neurosurgeon and chronic pain specialist who has narrowed his focus to holistic practices.
“Conscientiousness is the single critical personality trait for optimal health, longevity and income,” said Shealy.
Shealy maintains that 80 percent of disease is the result of lack of responsibility for healthy lifestyle. Because of this connection between conscientiousness and health, Shealy established – in his late wife’s honor – the endowed chair Abernathy now holds.
“Amber is a ball of fire,” Shealy added. “Hopefully Amber will develop tools to help everyone become more conscientious.”