Do dark empaths exist?

August 5, 2020 in Blog

Many of you have heard of the “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism (exaggerated sense of entitlement, superiority, and grandiosity), Machiavellianism (exploitation and manipulation), and psychopathy (cynicism, callousness, thrill seeking).

Also, many of you have heard of the “empath“, those who automatically feel the emotions of others and who get overwhelmed with too much stimulation, intimacy, and criticism.

But is it possible to show a blend of empath traits and dark triad traits? Is it possible to be a dark empath?

New research suggests that while they are a minority of the population, dark empaths exist. Nadja Heym and her colleagues looked at different profiles of personality traits across a total sample of 991 people. They found four profiles.

The two most common profiles were the “typicals” (34.4%;) and the empaths (33.3%). However, dark empaths (those who demonstrated a cluster of dark personality traits combined with elevated levels of empathy) did make up 19.3% of their sample. Only 13% of the sample were dark triad only.

So, dark empaths exist, and might even make up as much as 1/5th of the general population (although more research needs to be conducted on larger sample before such conclusions can be made). But what separates dark empaths from people who are more pure dark triad?

Unsurprisingly, dark empaths were more agreeable than those scoring higher on the traditional dark triad traits. They also showed lower levels of indirect interpersonal aggression (guilt induction, malicious humor and social exclusion) than the traditional dark triad. With that said, dark empaths were more likely to engage in indirect aggression (particularly guilt induction and malicious humor) compared to typicals and the empaths. Therefore, there was still higher levels of aggression (although indirect) among dark empaths compared to the general population and those who are simply empaths.

Interestingly, typicals and empaths showed similar levels of interpersonal aggression. This goes against the idea that empathy is a protective factor against aggression. However, these findings are consistent with a surprising large meta-analysis which found that empathy (outside the context of dark traits) is only weakly related to aggression.

It seems that just because someone isn’t an empath doesn’t mean they are a psychopath. This is why researchers such as David Vachon and Donald Lynam have devised new measures of empathy that do a better job capturing the multidimensionality of the empathy construct– specifically the importance of “affective dissonance” (the experience of a contradictory emotional response) for predicting aggressive behavior. For instance, these aspects of the empathy construct seem to be particularly predictive of aggressive behavior:

  • I love watching people get angry.
  • I enjoy seeing strangers get scared.
  • When my friends are having a good time I often get angry.
  • People who are cheery disgust me.
  • I like making other people uncomfortable.
  • I admit that I enjoy irritating other people

Other dimensions of empathy that have traditionally been studied in the empathy literatures such as cognitive empathy (“I can tell when someone is afraid”) and affective resonance (“I feel awful when I hurt someone’s feelings”) are not as strongly related to the presence of aggression.

Anyhoo, back to dark empaths. Heym and her colleagues also found that both dark empaths and empaths reported higher levels of stress and critical self-judgment compared to “typicals”. Higher stress and harsher self-judgment seems to be associated with empathy irrespective of the presence of dark traits. Interestingly, similar brain networks involving the right frontal and medial temporal regions are implicated in mood disorders, empathy, and psychopathy (see here, here, and here). The common theme here is a difficulty regulating one’s own emotions and responding to the emotions of others.

This is a fascinating line of research and I am currently working on a paper with my colleague Craig Neumann looking at different profiles of light vs. dark traits all around the world. So stayed tuned for more on this topic!

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