Empathy is widely considered a quality in “good people”. But being human beings, even empathy can be misused by some individuals. This is the dark side of empathy: a combination of sensitivity and darker, more dangerous personality traits.
An aspect of personality that has only recently been discovered
To understand what a dark empath is, one must first know what an empath is. The term empath comes from empathy, a person’s ability to understand the experiences and feelings of others outside of their own perspective. Simply put, empathy is what allows someone to understand someone’s pain, even if you’ve never had a similar experience. This is what professionals refer to as cognitive empathy. In some people, the empathy is even more advanced, and allows them to share the emotional experience and the distress of the other.
In this case, we speak of emotional empathy. Finally, there is the combination of the two, and this is what is referred to as compassionate empathy, or in a more common term: caring. But whether it is one or the other, empathy may not exist in a person, and it is generally a parameter that defines the personality of a psychopath. But not all psychopaths lack empathy. And it is this capacity of psychopaths to feel empathy, and to misuse this capacity without benevolence, which defines what is called a “dark empath”.
Just invented in 2020 in a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the term “dark empath” thus designates an individual with dark personality traits – such as psychopathy, Machiavellianism or narcissism –, but still having the capacity for empathy. In this kind of individual, empathy is not a benevolent ability that is used to understand and help others, but an asset to be used to manipulate and deceive others.
A personality that combines the dark triad and empathy
According to researchers at Nottingham Trent University, the form of empathy seen in dark empaths is cognitive empathy. In other words, they are able to know someone’s emotions. It should be noted that in normal empaths, emotional empathy tends to dominate. According to experts, dark empathy can thus be considered to be one of the most dangerous personality traits that exist in human society, as they are inherently evil people, but with apparently very positive traits, reported The Conversation.
To reach these different conclusions, the researchers conducted the survey on nearly 1,000 people who were asked to complete questionnaires measuring the traits of black triad (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism) and empathy. The researchers found patterns in the responses that separated the participants into four groups. The first being individuals with low empathy scores and high dark triad scores. They represented approximately 13% of the sample. Then there were people with average levels for all traits. They represented 34% of the participants.
There were those who had low scores for dark triad traits and very high scores for empathy. They made up 33% of the participants, and those are the empaths. And to the researchers’ surprise, about 20% of the participants scored high on all traits, and they labeled them the dark empaths. The researchers also found that while they were indeed more aggressive than normal people and empaths, they were less so than those in the dark triad group. They were notably more prone to manipulation, guilt-inducing, and malicious humor.