‘Dark empaths’ may hide some of their most dangerous personality traits

(ORDO NEWS) — People with “dark personality traits” such as psychopathy or narcissism are most often callous, hostile, and antagonistic in nature. Such traits exist on a continuum each of us has more or less of them, and does not necessarily lead to a clinical diagnosis of a personality disorder.

Traditionally, people with high levels of dark traits are thought to have empathy deficits, potentially making them more dangerous and aggressive than others. But recently we have discovered something that refutes this idea.

Our study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, identified a group of people with dark traits who have above-average empathic abilities – we call them “dark empaths.”

After this study, the “dark empath” earned a reputation as the most dangerous personality profile. But is it really so?

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

Psychopathy is characterized by superficial charm and callousness. Individuals with these personality traits often exhibit erratic lifestyles and antisocial behavior.

Machiavellianism comes from the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, a Renaissance writer, historian and philosopher. He described games of power that involved deceit, betrayal, and crime. Thus, Machiavellianism means an exploitative, cynical and manipulative nature.

Narcissism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-worth, superiority, and grandiose thinking, while sadism refers to the desire to inflict pain on others and enjoy it.

Dark traits, especially psychopathy and Machiavellianism, are consistently associated with aggressive and antisocial behavior.

The riddle of empathy

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

For example, a lack of (specifically affective) empathy is a well-documented hallmark of clinical psychopathy, used to explain their often stubborn, instrumental violent behavior.

Our own work supports the idea that one of the reasons people with dark personality traits hurt others or experience relationship difficulties is their underlying lack of empathy.

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

This makes a certain sense, since in order to manipulate others for your own selfish purposes – or to enjoy the pain of others – you must have at least some ability to understand them. Thus, we wondered if dark traits and empathy are really mutually exclusive phenomena.

Dark Empaths

We asked nearly 1,000 people to complete questionnaires based on the dark triad and empathy. We then used a technique called latent profile analysis, which allows us to identify clusters 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 percent of the sample). We also found a sub-average group for all traits (about 34 percent “typical”) and a group with low dark traits and high empathy (about 33 percent “empaths”).

However, the fourth group of people, “dark empaths”, was clearly expressed. They scored higher on both dark traits and empathy (about 20 percent of our sample). Interestingly, this last group scored higher on both cognitive and affective empathy than the “dark triad” and “typical” groups.

We then characterized these groups based on indicators of aggression, general personality, psychological vulnerability, and well-being. Dark empaths have not been shown to be as aggressive as the traditional “dark triad” group, suggesting that the latter are likely more dangerous.

However, dark empaths were more aggressive than typical and empaths, at least in terms of indirect aggression that is, harming or manipulating people through social isolation, malicious humor, and instilling guilt. Thus, although the presence of empathy limited their level of aggression, it did not completely eliminate it.

According to this view, empaths were the most “likeable” (a personality trait that indicates how nice or friendly you are), followed by typical, then dark empaths, and lastly dark triads. Interestingly, dark empaths were more extroverted than others, reflecting a tendency to be outgoing, lively, and active.

Thus, the presence of empathy seems to contribute to the enjoyment of communicating with people. But potentially it could also be motivated by a desire to dominate them.

What’s more, dark empaths were slightly higher on neuroticism, a type of negative thinking, but did not score higher on depression, anxiety, or stress.

Instead, their neuroticism may reflect traits such as anger, hostility, or self-doubt. Indeed, dark empaths have reported being more judgmental of themselves than those with the dark triad personality.

So it looks like they have a conscience, maybe they don’t even like their dark side. Alternatively, their negative emotions may be a response to self-hatred.

Hidden Dangers

While dark empaths’ levels of aggression were not as high as those of the traditional dark triad group, the danger of this personality profile is that their empathy, and likely the social skills that result from it, make their dark side more difficult to discern. We believe that dark empaths are capable of being callous and ruthless, but are able to limit such aggression.

However, it is worth noting that people with a clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (often displaying an excessive amount of dark traits) are certainly empathic and dangerous predators – and many of them are in prison.

In our study, we study individuals in the general population who have elevated levels of dark personality traits rather than personality disorders.

We continue our search to learn more about the characteristics of dark empaths in relation to other psychological outcomes.

For example, we are interested in their risk-taking, impulsiveness, or physically aggressive behavior. We also want to understand how they process emotions or facial expressions, or how they perceive and respond to threats.

We are currently reproducing and extending some of our results using the dark tetrad instead. Our results have not yet been published, but they indicate the existence of two more profiles in addition to the four groups we have already identified.

One of them is an “emotionally internalized group”, with a high level of affective empathy and an average level of cognitive empathy, without increased dark features.

The other group shows a pattern similar to autistic traits – in particular, a low level of cognitive empathy and an average level of affective empathy in the absence of increased dark features.

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


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