It may seem that people with elevated Dark Triad traits are not empathic, but it isn't so simple. In a basic sense empathy serves people higher in dark traits. Dark traits may be a "necessary evil", arguably important for group survival at critical times. Empathy, while serving altruism, is also a tool for the Machiavellian mind, which needs good “intel” for appraising, and potentially taking advantage of, others.

Two basic types of empathy

Empathy comes in two flavors—cognitive and affective. They are independent of one another, but also often work in tandem. Cognitive empathy is the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Affective empathy is the capacity to vibe with others' emotions. Cognitive empathy is stronger in narcissism, while affective empathy is weaker.

Psychopathy may serve the greater good. In performance-demanding situations such as those faced by first responders, health-care workers, soldiers, and others in high-stakes situations, emotions may fade away, opening up to cool, streamlined calculation. Mihailides, Galligan and Bates (2017) call this “adaptive psychopathy," describing the “quarantine vector” within which empathic information marries with psychopathic mental processes useful for dealing with threatening, alien experiences that conflict with one’s own values and beliefs.1

We need to understand the role of empathy in the Dark Triad because it relates to important factors including aggression, personal and professional functioning, and well-being. Research has not systematically looked at the role of empathy in the Dark Triad, or whether there is an empathic version of the Dark Triad—a “Dark Empath."

To investigate this possibility, researchers from Nottingham Trent University, UK (Heym et al., 2020) conducted surveys of 991 participants, in their early 20s to 30s and about 30 percent male. They completed the following:

  • Dark Traits: The Dark Triad of Personality Scale, to measure Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, along with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to look at grandiose narcissism, the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory to measure vulnerable narcissism, the Levenson Self-report Psychopathy Scale estimating lack of care and callousness, impulsivity, and antisocial tendencies, and the Machiavellianism scale looking at attitudes about human nature, moral deficiency, and manipulativeness.
  • Empathy: The Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy, to look at aspects of cognitive empathy including perspective-taking and the ability to imagine others’ inner worlds in real time (online simulation), and affective empathy, including automatically mimicking others’ emotions (emotional contagion), responding to others’ emotional signals (proximal responsivity), and responding to the emotional tone in various settings (peripheral responsivity).
  • Big Five Personality: The Five Factor Personality Model, measured with the International Personality Item Pool, to estimate Openness to New Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).
  • Relational Aggression: Using the Indirect Aggression Scale, participants indicated where they landed on three scales for tendency to socially-exclude others (Social Exclusion), the use of mean-spirited humor (Malicious Humor) and how much they try to make others guilt (Guilt Induction).
  • Depression, Anxiety, Stress: Using the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale to look at emotional well-being.
  • Ability to enjoy life: Measuring anhedonia using the Motivation and Pleasure Scale, assessing social, professional and recreational pleasure, drive for closeness, and motivation to engage in activities.
  • Self-criticism: Measured with subscales of the Self-Compassion Scale to look at self-judgment and overidentification with negative self-evaluations.

Findings

The analysis revealed 4 different categories: Class 1 was the standard Dark Triad (DT, 13 percent), Class 2 Typical (34.4 percent) with average DT traits and empathy, Class 3 Dark Empath (DE, 19.3 percent) with higher empathy alongside DT, and class 4 Empath (33.3 percent) with low DT and higher empathy. Men were more likely than women to be in the DT or DE groups.

Dark Empaths showed higher extroversion overall, and higher neuroticism than the Typical group. While DT was higher on aggression across the board, DE was higher on the subscales of Malicious Humor and Guilt Induction than Empaths and Typicals (who were higher on Malicious Humor than Empaths).

DE and DT were similar on vulnerable narcissism, leadership, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, and generally higher than the other classes on the Dark Traits. Compared with DT, DE was higher on grandiosity and lower on exploitativeness. Dark Empaths, along with Empaths, had higher levels of shame than Typicals.

In terms of well-being, Dark Empaths fared better than Dark Triads on many measures including anxiety, social pleasure, and close relationships. Compared with Typicals and Empaths, both DE and DT had poorer close relationships, but DE enjoyed greater social pleasure than DT. These findings highlight the protective effects of empathy.

Source: Photo by Suvan Chowdhury from Pexels

Who do you think of when you think of Dark Empaths?

This study is the first to identify the Dark Empath, suggesting a unique group similar to, but distinct from, the classic Dark Triad—and from Typical and Empath groups.  Notably, Dark Empaths made up almost 20 percent of this sample, even more than Dark Triads.

As with all pilot studies, additional research is required to see if this finding stands the test of time, and if so how it shows up in other populations.

The Dark Empath is a familiar character in literature and media, different from the cold, more exploitative classic Dark Triad individual. We are drawn to the combination of sexy darkness alongside the sparkle and charisma of warmth. It’s totally rock-star, it’s super-hero, it's vampire-vegan, it’s straight-up bad*ss — a dark crusader for good, flawed yet gifted, burdened with power and responsibility, typically compassionate at least partly from overcoming personal trauma, however imperfectly.

A bit of edginess spices things up, resonating with both extroversion, relative agreeableness, and lower aggression (compared with Dark Triad), and neuroticism, suggesting as the study authors note that empathy appears to temper socially-disadvantageous dark antagonism.

It takes all kinds

Why would there be Dark Empaths? Presumably, dark traits convey evolutionary advantage otherwise they wouldn’t be as common as they are. People who are able to manipulate and exploit others and who are able to deploy psychopathic thinking have an advantage at times. They may be critical for community survival, furnishing a contingent freed from inhibition, higher in aggression, able to focus in and do the job. It’s a delicate balance, as too much Dark Triad harms groups from within their own ranks.

Dark Empaths have a greater ability to make sense of others’ motives and needs to help make decisions while retaining the ability to engage adaptive psychopathy when necessary, paralleling the relationship between Empaths and Typicals. The four groups together may provide checks and balances to sustain a dynamically-adaptive community.

Dark Empathy will resonate for those who have observed both dark traits and empathy in themselves and others but can't fully connect with the conventional Dark Triad. Greater empathy coupled with dark traits may preserve relationship quality while also allowing access to empathic information to further less savory machinations—the best of both worlds.

Facebook image: mavo/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

References

1. "The quarantining facility of processing was formulated as a human birthright, for annexing alien, threatening socio-sexual, sociospiritual and socio-cultural features that conflict with a person’s own. Territoriality of the psychopathic modular mind was a core feature defined for the quarantining mechanism. The content of a directional vector—that is, elements of threatening alien materials—triggering psychopathic cognition, were formulated as occurring within the quarantined zone with directional vectors. This feature is viewed as domain-specific adaptation, within evolutionary theory, occurring as part of a computational, modular theory of mind. Critically the directionality of psychopathic cognition allows for dual processing of both empathic cognitive events as well as psychopathic cognitive events. Empathic processing annexes targets outside the territory of the quarantine zone, while psychopathic processing occurs within the quarantined zone." (Mihailides et al., 2017)

Note: An ExperiMentations Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice, or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third party comments on Our Blog Post. Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publishers/Psychology Today. Grant H. Brenner. All rights reserved. 

Find a Therapist

Get the help you need from a therapist near you–a FREE service from Psychology Today.