Psychologists explain the hidden danger of ‘dark empaths’

People with “dark personality traits” like psychopathy or narcissism tend to be callous, uncomfortable, and antagonistic in nature. Such traits exist on a continuum – we all have more or less of them, and this does not necessarily equate to a clinical diagnosis of a personality disorder.

Traditionally, people with many dark traits have been thought to have empathy deficits, making them potentially more dangerous and aggressive than the rest of us. But we recently discovered something that challenges this idea. Our study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, identified a group of individuals with dark traits who report above-average empathic abilities—we call them “dark empaths.”

Since that study, the dark empath has earned a reputation as the most dangerous personality profile. But, is this really the truth?

Dark personality traits include psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism, collectively referred to as the “dark triad.” More recently it has been proposed to add sadism culminating in a “dark tetrad”.

Psychopathy is characterized by a superficial charm and callousness. People with such traits often exhibit erratic lifestyles and antisocial behavior. Machiavellianism dates back to the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, a Renaissance author, historian and philosopher. He described power games involving deception, betrayal and crime. Thus, Machiavellianism refers to an exploitative, cynical, and manipulative nature. Narcissism is characterized by excessive entitlement, superiority, and grandiose thinking, while sadism denotes the urge to inflict pain on others and take pleasure in it.

The dark traits, particularly psychopathy and Machiavellianism, have been consistently associated with aggressive and antisocial behavior.

The Empathy Puzzle

Empathy can refer to the ability to share feelings, namely “affective empathy” (if you’re sad, I’m sad too). But it can also be the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, which is called “cognitive empathy” (I know what you’re thinking and why you’re sad).

For example, the lack of (specifically affective) empathy is a well-documented feature of clinical psychopathy that is used to explain their often intractable, instrumental violent behavior. Our own work supports the notion that one of the reasons people with dark traits hurt other people or have trouble in relationships is an underpinning lack of empathy.

Paradoxically, however, some researchers have previously reported average or even higher levels of some aspects of empathy in some people with dark traits.

This makes sense in a way, because in order to manipulate others for your own benefit—or actually enjoy the pain of others—you must have at least some ability to understand them. Therefore, we questioned whether dark traits and empathy are actually mutually exclusive phenomena.

Dark Empaths

We asked nearly 1,000 people to fill out questionnaire-based assessments of dark triad and empathy. We then used a method called latent profile analysis, which allows you to create groups of people with different profiles of certain combinations of traits.

As expected, we found a traditional dark triad group with low empathy scores (about 13% of the sample). We also found a group with lower to average scores on all traits (about 34% were “typical”) and a group with low dark traits and high levels of empathy (about 33% were “empaths”). However, the fourth group of people, the “dark empaths,” was obvious. They had higher scores on both dark traits and empathy (about 20% of our sample). Interestingly, this latter group performed better than the “dark triad” and “typical” groups on both cognitive and affective empathy.

We then characterized these groups based on measures of aggression, general personality, psychological vulnerability, and well-being. The dark empaths weren’t as aggressive as the traditional dark triad group – suggesting the latter are likely more dangerous. Nonetheless, dark empaths were more aggressive than typicals and empaths, at least in terms of some level of indirect aggression—that is, hurting or manipulating people through social exclusion, malicious humor, and blame. Although the presence of empathy limited their level of aggression, it did not eliminate it entirely.

Consistent with this notion, empaths were the most “pleasant” (a personality trait that shows how nice or kind you are), followed by typical people, then dark empaths, and final dark triads. Interestingly, dark empaths were more extroverted than the others, a trait that reflects a tendency to be sociable, lively, and active. Therefore, the presence of empathy seems to promote joy in being or interacting with people. But it may also possibly be motivated by a desire to dominate them.

Additionally, dark empaths scored slightly higher on neuroticism, a type of negative thinking, but did not score better on depression, anxiety, or stress. Instead, their neuroticism may reflect underlying traits such as anger, hostility, or self-doubt. In fact, the dark empaths reported that they judged themselves harsher than those with dark triad personalities. So it seems that they have a conscience and maybe even dislike their dark side. Alternatively, their negative emotions may be a reaction to their self-loathing.

Hidden Dangers

Although the aggression reported by the dark empaths has not been as high as that of the traditional dark triad group, the danger of this personality profile is that their empathy and the likely resultant social skills make their darkness harder to spot. We believe that dark empaths have the ability to be callous and ruthless, but are able to limit such aggression.

However, it’s worth noting that those clinically diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (often displaying excessive levels of dark traits) are certainly lacking in empathy and are dangerous predators — and many of them are in prison. Our research is more concerned with people in the general population who exhibit elevated levels of dark personality traits than with personality disorders.

We continue our quest to find out more about dark empath traits in relation to other psychological outcomes. For example, we are interested in their willingness to take risks, their impulsiveness or their physically aggressive behavior. We also want to understand how they process emotions or facial expressions or how they perceive and react to threats.

We are currently replicating and extending some of our results using the dark tetrad instead. Our results have yet to be published, but indicate that there are two other profiles in addition to the four groups we have already identified. One is an “emotionally internalized group” with high levels of affective empathy and average cognitive empathy, without increased dark traits. The other shows a pattern similar to autistic traits—specifically, low cognitive empathy and average affective empathy in the absence of elevated dark traits.

We hope this research can change our understanding of empathy in the context of the dark traits.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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