The Dark Empath: Characterising dark traits in the presence of empathy (2023)


Conceptualised as the Dark Triad (DT), Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism cluster as three interconnected and potentially maladaptive personality constructs. Machiavellianism describes an exploitative, cynical and manipulative nature; psychopathy comprises affective-interpersonal (superficial charm, callous affect) and behavioural (erratic lifestyle, antisocial behaviour) deficits; and narcissism is characterised by an exaggerated sense of entitlement, superiority, and grandiose thinking (Hare & Neumann, 2008; Jones & Paulhus, 2014). A well-established literature associates these dark traits with empathy deficits; that is an impairment in the ability to take the perspective of others, understand their viewpoints, and share their emotions to attain interpersonal reciprocity (Ali, Amorim, & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2009; Hepper, Hart, & Sedikides, 2014; Heym et al., 2019; Jonason & Krause, 2013; Jones & Figueredo, 2013; Ritter et al., 2011; Szabó & Bereczkei, 2017; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Indeed, evidence suggests deficits in certain facets of empathy may be at the very heart of a dark constellation, binding psychopathy and Machiavellianism in particular (Heym, Firth, et al., 2019).

Despite the often-reported negative associations between DT and empathy (Jonason & Krause, 2013; Vachon & Lynam, 2016; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012), questions remain around (i) whether impaired empathy is indeed necessary and/or sufficient for the presence of dark traits (Mihailides, Galligan, & Bates, 2017), (ii) whether the dark shades may present with enhanced capacity to empathise, and if so, (iii) how this constellation may differ from the traditional DT and those without dark traits in its associations with other personality constructs and relevant mal/adaptive outcomes. Answering these questions will provide further understanding of the intimate relationship between dark traits and empathy, critical to the conceptualisation of these constructs, as well as their relationship to other personality traits, maladaptive behaviours (e.g., aggression) and psychological wellbeing (e.g., depression, anxiety). To this end, the current study seeks the dissociation between impaired empathy, and in particular, investigates the existence of darkness in the presence of empathy – a combination we refer to as the ‘Dark Empath’.

Mihailides et al. (2017) suggest that state psychopathy (induced using the moral inversion paradigm) and empathy are not mutually exclusive, at least in the general/non-clinical population, and that conjoined psychopathy and empathy may have survival benefit (adaptive psychopathy hypothesis). Less is known about the conjoining of psychopathy and empathy on a trait level, an investigation of which might explain some inconsistencies in the literature. That is, although empathy and the dark traits are often inversely related, there are several reports of non-significant and even positive associations (Davis & Nichols, 2016; Nagler, Reiter, Furtner, & Rauthmann, 2014; Veselka, Schermer, & Vernon, 2012). Such findings have in part been explained by construct multidimensionality (Szabó & Bereczkei, 2017), including differential associations between dark traits and empathy subdivisions (i.e. cognitive and affective; Davis, 1983; Reniers, Corcoran, Drake, Shryane, & Völlm, 2011; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Cognitive empathy refers to the capacity to know and understand another's mental state (e.g., the ability to perspective take; seeing from another's viewpoint), whereas affective empathy is the capacity to resonate with another person (or situation) on an emotional level (i.e., vicarious sharing of their feelings; Davis, 1983; Jonason & Krause, 2013; Reniers et al., 2011).

Several studies suggest direct associations between both cognitive and affective, empathy deficits and the dark dyad - Machiavellianism and psychopathy (Heym, Firth, et al., 2019; Jonason & Krause, 2013; Vachon & Lynam, 2016; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). On the other hand, cognitive empathy (particularly perspective taking) is more consistently found spared, or even enhanced, in narcissism (Hepper et al., 2014; Nagler et al., 2014; Szabó & Bereczkei, 2017; Veselka et al., 2012; Vachon & Lynam, 2016; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). Positive relationships have also been reported, albeit less commonly, for Machiavellianism (Szabó & Bereczkei, 2017; Turner, Foster, & Webster, 2019), and psychopathy (Veselka et al., 2012). Such mixed findings might further support the notion that there are different subpopulations with elevated dark traits: with and without the capacity to empathise.

Dissociating the Dark Empath from the traditional dark triad (with empathy deficits), one would expect some general trait differences in terms of the five-factor model (FFM) of personality. Firstly, meta-analyses (O'Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, Story, & White, 2015; see also Vize, Lynam, Collison, & Miller, 2018 for similar results) support strong links between low Agreeableness (A) and DT traits, particularly Machiavellianism. Accordingly, Antagonism is proposed as a “Dark Core” (Vize, Collison, Miller, & Lynam, 2019). Machiavellianism and psychopathy appear most similar in their FFM profile, with reliable negative associations with Conscientiousness (C), whilst Narcissism is related more to Extraversion and Openness (only weakly with C). Weaker associations are seen with Neuroticism (N; positive for Psychopathy and Machiavellianism, negative for Narcissism). However, large credibility intervals indicate N as a moderator – at least for psychopathy and Machiavellianism (O'Boyle et al., 2015). In other words, in some subpopulations, dark traits may present with exceedingly high levels of N, in others with very low N (Czibor et al., 2017; Miller et al., 2010). Indeed, primary and secondary psychopathy are distinguished by opposite relations to N and anxiety (e.g., Falkenbach, Reinhard, & Zappala, 2019; Skeem, Poythress, Edens, Lilienfeld, & Cale, 2003). Whilst affective empathy is most strongly associated with A, it has also been linked to increased N, whereas cognitive empathy has been negatively associated with N (Melchers et al., 2016). Thus, whether the presence of empathy in conjunction with the dark triad is reflected in different FFM profiles (e.g., higher levels of A and N) needs to be determined.

The DT are implicated in several aggressive behaviours. Psychopathy is the strongest predictor of physical and premeditated aggression (Jones & Neria, 2015; Lämmle, Oedl, & Ziegler, 2014; Muris, Merckelbach, Otgaar, & Meijer, 2017; Paulhus, Curtis, & Jones, 2018) and bullying behaviours in adults (Baughman, Dearing, Giammarco, & Vernon, 2012). Narcissism may mediate aggression in response to ego-threat (Jones & Paulhus, 2010) and, along with Machiavellianism, promote indirect methods of intimidation (Baughman et al., 2012). Both psychopathy and Machiavellianism have been associated with increased relational aggression (damaging relationships and social status, such as peer group exclusion, rumour spreading, gossiping) in, adults (Abell & Brewer, 2014; Heym, Firth, et al., 2019) and children (Kerig & Stellwagen, 2010).

Empathy has been traditionally viewed as a key trait in mitigating aggression (e.g., Heym, Firth, et al., 2019; Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). According to the Violence Inhibition Mechanism model (VIM; Blair, 1995), impairment in the recognition and affective empathic response to distress cues (e.g., fearful or sad facial expressions) are thought to underpin physical aggression in psychopathy (Blair, 2005; Blair et al., 2004). However, whether VIM is relevant outside the context of psychopathy and physical aggression is unclear. Moreover, cognitive (rather than affective) empathy deficits have been shown to partially mediate the relationship between indirect interpersonal aggression and dark traits – at least for psychopathy and Machiavellianism (Heym, Firth, et al., 2019). However, a recent meta-analysis (86 studies) revealed only a weak (mean effect size of −0.11, though still statistically significant) association between (multiple types of) empathy and aggression, which was generalised across age, race and sex (Vachon, Lynam, & Johnson, 2014). Thus, whether the presence of empathy in conjunction with the dark triad is reflected in reduced aggression in the Dark Empath needs to be determined.

Investigation of the Dark Empath may have implications for understanding increased risk for vulnerable dark traits (Miller et al., 2010), which include aspects of secondary psychopathy (impulsivity, emotional dysregulation), vulnerable/covert (in contrast to grandiose) narcissism and borderline personality traits. Vulnerable dark traits manifest significant positive relations to Neuroticism and several aspects of wellbeing (e.g., depression, anxiety, stress, self-compassion; Barry, Loflin, & Doucette, 2015; Miller et al., 2010; Miller, Gentile, Wilson, & Campbell, 2013), which in turn have been associated with increased affective empathy (Heym et al., 2019; Melchers et al., 2016). Nevertheless, empathy did not strongly differentiate grandiose from vulnerable narcissism, though they did load slightly more on the former (0.35) than the latter (0.29; Miller et al., 2013). Thus, it is not clear whether the capacity to empathise may put the Dark Empath at increased risk of vulnerability.

Recent models highlight the interplay between empathy and self-compassion in the development of mood disorders, including depression, whereby greater capacity for affective empathy might underpin greater risk of depression (Schreiter, Pijnenborg, & Aan Het Rot, 2013). However, the literature on the role of empathy in wellbeing is mixed with reports of some facets, particularly cognitive empathy, reducing risk. For example, harsher self-judgment and over-identification with one's own thoughts (as indicators of low self-compassion) were linked to affective empathy, whilst only self-judgment together with reduced cognitive empathy predicted increased cognitive depression (Heym, Heasman, et al., 2019). Moreover, impoverished affect may manifest as poor empathy and negative symptoms in depression, such as social anhedonia (Wang, Neumann, Shum, et al., 2013) and poor affiliative reward, which has been proposed to underpin CU traits (Waller & Wagner, 2019). In this case, the lack of empathy in conjunction with dark traits might be predicted to be associated with poorer wellbeing. Indeed, the traditional DT constructs Machiavellianism and psychopathy (but not narcissism) have shown significant positive associations with internalising in a recent meta-analysis (Vize et al., 2018) and large cohort (n=791; Gómez-Leal et al., 2019) studies. In any case, whether the presence/absence of empathy in conjunction with the dark traits reflects a predisposition to vulnerable traits and wellbeing remains to be determined.

A series of studies are presented that investigate conjoined trait empathy and the dark triad. Latent profile analysis is applied to a large dataset to identify latent groups based on scores for empathy and the dark traits (study 1). Subsequent studies investigate differences across latent classes in (i) the big five personality traits and indirect relational aggression (study 2); (ii) sub-facets of dark traits (i.e. vulnerable vs grandiose narcissism, primary vs secondary psychopathy, Machiavellian tactics, morality and views; study 3); and (iii) related aspects of wellbeing (depression, anxiety, stress, anhedonia, self-judgment, over-identification; study 4).

Section snippets


Data were compiled across 4 cross-sectional online psychometrics studies. For all studies, ethical approvals were obtained from the University Ethics Committees.

Study 1: Latent profile analyses (LPA)

Table 2 shows fit parameters for latent Profiles 1–6, estimated from the entire sample (N=991). Of the entire sample, n=20 had missing data for sex and/or age and were not included in subsequent analyses. A further n=20 had missing data from other psychometric scales, and were not included in MANOVA analyses. Whilst LMR supports the 5-class solution, the smallest group – characterised by low empathy (all subscales), narcissism and psychopathy, but average Machiavellianism – represented


The current study is the first to identify and characterise the Dark Empath, a novel psychological construct that describes a subpopulation who demonstrate a cluster of dark personality traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) combined with elevated levels of empathy. This contrasts the traditional conceptualisation of the Dark Triad (DT) with reduced levels of empathy – a group also identified in the latent class analysis; alongside Empaths (high in empathy, low in dark traits)

Summary and conclusion

This is the first study to identify and characterise the Dark Empath, a novel psychological construct with elevated levels of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism in the presence of empathy. The Dark Empath differs from the traditional Dark Triad with respect to general personality profile (higher E, lower A), lower levels of interpersonal aggression and better wellbeing (e.g., lower anxiety and anhedonia), suggesting a more adaptive level in psychosocial functioning. However, the

Credit authorship contribution statement

Nadja Heym: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal Analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Fraenze Kibowski: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Claire A.J. Bloxsom: Data curation. Alyson Blanchard: Data curation, Formal Analysis, Writing - original draft. Alexandra Harper: Data curation, Writing - original draft. Louise Wallace: Writing - original draft. Jennifer

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