Many psychologists have dedicated their careers to studying the so-called “dark triad”, a mix of maladaptive personality traits like narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. The textbook description of a dark triad individual is manipulative, exploitative, often charming, and constantly seeking admiration, validation, and special favors from others. Most defining of their personality is that they do so in a callous way with little consideration for others, lacking remorse. But then there are also dark empaths. According to a new study, these people display the dark triad traits to a degree except they actually have the capacity for empathy — and that may make them much more dangerous.
Psychologists Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman, the foremost emotional intelligence ‘gurus’, have outlined three distinct types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize someone’s perspective and thoughts without being actively emotionally involved. It’s an intellectual acknowledgment of the other person’s emotional state; you know what they think and why they might feel the way they do. Emotional empathy, or affective empathy, refers to going through the same emotions someone else is feeling as though you were the one going through their experiences. If you feel sad and then my state changes and I feel sad too, that’s affective empathy at play. And then there’s compassionate empathy, which is a combination of the former two.
Some people lack any of these, a hallmark of clinical psychopathy. This explains why psychopaths often engage in violent behavior, sometimes physical violence. But there are also dark triad people with average or even above average empathy, which allows them to be even more capable manipulators. If you want to manipulate someone, it helps to understand them at an emotional level and then use that against them.
In their new study, psychologists Nadja Heym and Alexander Sumich from Nottingham Trent University asked almost 1,000 people to complete a series of questionnaires that measured dark triad traits and empathy. The researchers found patterns in the replies that separated the participants into four groups.
The traditional dark triad group with low empathy scores comprised about 13% of the sample, which was expected. People with lower to average levels of all traits (empathy but also narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) comprised 34% of the participants — these were the “typicals”. About 33% of the sample had low dark triad traits and high empathy, the “empaths”. But much to the researchers’ surprise, about 20% of the participants scored high on both dark triad traits and empathy. In fact, this latter group scored higher on both cognitive and affective empathy than the typicals.
The dark empaths were not as aggressive as the traditional dark triad group. That makes sense since they’re less likely to hurt other people if they feel guilty doing so. However, the dark empaths nevertheless were more aggressive than typicals and empaths, in the sense that they were more inclined to inflict emotional harm or manipulate people through social exclusion, malicious humor, and guilt-induction. Dark empaths display a form of soft aggression, one that can still be dangerous in combination with their other traits.
For instance, dark empaths were the most extroverted out of all groups. Their heightened empathy likely helps them to connect with others and be social. But the researchers add that they may be secretly motivated by a desire to dominate others.
“Though the aggression reported by the dark empaths was not as high as the traditional dark triad group, the danger of this personality profile is that their empathy, and likely resulting social skills, make their darkness harder to spot,” Heym and Sumich wrote in an article for The Conversation.
“We believe that dark empaths have the capacity to be callous and ruthless, but are able to limit such aggression.”
The findings appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.