Why Dark Empathy Is Such a Treacherous Personality Trait; Can You Recognize It?

Are you a dark empath? Learn more about the dangers and traits that come with this personality type.
dark empath

Generally, psychopaths, sadists, dark empaths, and narcissists are categorized as people with dark personality traits due to their tendency to exhibit unsympathetic, antagonistic, and callous behavior. Traces of these “dark personality traits” are often seen in the best of us, even though we may not necessarily show them on first contact. While this may be true, it doesn’t directly mean that individuals with these traits have a personality disorder.

Empathy deficits is a term used by society to classify people with high dark traits. This classification makes us understand their tendency to transfer aggression and maintain a treacherous lifestyle. However, a recent study gives a different opinion to this general conception.

A study on Personality and Individual Differences discovers peculiar cases where people with dark traits are equally capable of exhibiting empathetic behavior. These unique sets of people called “dark empaths” have a conscience, making them able to detest their dark side. Some corresponding opinion also suggests that their pessimistic behavior may be an unconscious retaliation to their self-loathing.


Findings from this study put dark empaths as the most dangerous personality type. However, an intuitive mind will ultimately ask, “How much of this is true?”

Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism, often grouped as the “dark tetrad,” are well-known dark personality traits. Granted that, Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy were the first set of dark traits to be studied – often referred to as “dark triad.”

Understanding the Dark Tetrads

Signs of AsPD 1
Signs of AsPD by MissLunaRose12 under CC BY-SA 4.0


Science Direct defines psychopathy as “a mental (antisocial) disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior, shows a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, express extreme egocentricity, and demonstrates a failure to learn from experience and other behaviors associated with the condition.”



Harley Therapy describes Machiavellianism as “a personality trait that sees a person so focused on their interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.” This definition is supported by the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, from which we understand Machiavellianism to be a power game involving deception, betrayal, and crime.


WebMD describes narcissism as extreme self-involvement to a level that causes the individual to ignore the needs of others. While that may be true, it can also be characterized as an inflated sense of entitlement, dominance, and ambitious thinking.


This refers to the derivation of pleasure from the infliction of pain and humiliation on others.


While we can identify these dark traits and the behavior, it is also worthy to emphasize that people with psychopathy and Machiavellianism tend to show aggression and anti-social behavior.

The Empathy Paradigm

VeryWellMind describes empathy as the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. 

While this is a general meaning of the term (empathy), it can further be broken down into affective, somatic, and cognitive empathy – each having its unique definition highlighted below.


Affective Empathy

empathy closeup

This kind of empathy describes the ability to understand the emotions of others and respond to them accordingly. This kind of empathy allows us to develop concerns for the well-being of others. It may also lead to feelings of personal distress caused by thinking about others.

Somatic Empathy

When you show a physical reaction as a form of retaliation to the experiences of others, it can be said that you’ve demonstrated somatic empathy. We often experience the feelings of our loved ones – when they’re sad, we are unhappy, and when they’re happy, we’re glad as well. Such feelings are regarded as somatic empathy.

People Showing Somatic Empathy

Cognitive Empathy

This involves understanding the mental state of others – what’s going through their head in response to the situation they’re experiencing.


It is possible to lack a specific type of empathy among these three. In most cases, this can mean you have an equally dark trait, although it doesn’t directly translate to callousness.

For example, a person who lacks affective empathy will most likely have persistent and violent behavior. While that may be true, this recent study suggests that lack of empathy is one of the reasons for dark traits. As a result, the question “are dark traits and empathy mutually exclusive?” is unanswered. 

The Dark Empathy Test

To perform the dark empathy test, the team used a latent profile analysis model–a method used to establish clusters of people with different profiles of a particular trait. A questionnaire-based assessment was conducted on 1000 people to assess their dark triads and empathy level.


True to form, the conventional “dark triad” group with poor empathy was about 13% of the sample size. Another group with sub-par levels of all traits (the typicals) was about 34%, while the empaths with subtle dark characteristics and high levels of empathy were about 33%.

However, the remaining 20% of the sample size was composed of “dark empaths” – people with impressive scores for both dark traits and empathy. It was evident that they had a higher cognitive and affective empathy score than the dark triad and typical groups.

Furthermore, the groups were categorized based on levels of aggression, personality, psychological vulnerability, and wellbeing. The results showed that dark empaths were not as aggressive as the conventional dark triad group. This is due to the presence of empathy which limits their level of aggression, even though it is not completely eliminated.


At any rate, it was clear that dark empaths were more aggressive than the typical empaths. While that may be true, dark empaths also showed a significant level of neuroticism, although they didn’t have a higher score on depression, anxiety, or stress.

Dark empaths ability to feel empathy means they have a conscience that can equally challenge their dark side.

What may trigger our Concern

Although dark empaths do not show as much aggression as dark triads, there should be a great deal of concern because their personality profile constitutes empathy making their dark side difficult to identify. They equally possess callousness and can be ruthless, even though they’re capable of controlling such traits.


However, it is also important to point out that people who often exhibit high dark traits (antisocial personality disorder) have empathy deficits and are minacious predators. While that’s the case, the research focuses on individuals with significant levels of dark traits and not personality disorders.

What’s next for the Researchers

The researchers hope to further investigate the characteristics of dark empaths as it relates to other psychological outcomes. They plan to focus on studying certain actions like risk-taking, impulsivity, or physical impulsive behavior. at the same time not neglecting parameters like how they process emotions, make facial expressions, and perceive and respond to threats.

Instead, they aim to replicate and extend their findings using the dark tetrad for comparison. Although, as of writing this article, there hasn’t been any result published, there are indications of two more profiles in addition to the four previously analyzed.


Hopefully, further discoveries will trigger our consciousness better to understand the relationship between empathy and other dark traits.

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