Dark Empaths: Definition and Key Traits

27 January, 2021
Psychology reveals a new personality type: dark empaths. This personality type defines those people who seem cold and have dark personality traits, but who also are kind, compassionate, and emotionally connect to others.

If there’s one popular belief in the field of psychology, it’s that psychopaths, Machiavellians, or even narcissists lack authentic empathic traits and competencies. However, this issue is more complex than you might think. So much so that, in recent years, psychological studies on personality are revealing a new variable that’s as interesting as it is revolutionary: dark empathy.

Now, what does it consist of? It’s a new psychological construct that would define a small percentage of the population. They’re individuals who, although they present certain “classic” dark personality traits, reveal a brighter side, a side that’s almost compassionate. This fact has steered experts’ attention, and research on this subject is on the rise.

Some experts describe dark empaths as the anti-heroes of classic movies and novels, such as the Harry Potter character Severus Snape. To a large extent, these are people who, despite displaying somewhat cold behaviors and mastering the art of manipulation, hide their inner talent, personal responsibility, and basic kindness.

Dark empaths are an interesting personality type.

What’s dark empathy?

In the field of evolutionary psychology, it’s often believed that “dark traits” could confer a sense of impetus to humanity. Skills such as conflict resolution, the ability to lead others, make quick decisions in complex conditions, or not give up on one’s goals are clearly positive traits.

Now, what do we mean when we talk about dark traits? These define a construct that’s referred to as the dark triad (coined in 2002 by Paulhus and Williams). This term refers to the personality characteristics of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Dark traits define a clearly malicious interpersonal character in which emotional coldness, aggressiveness, and inauthenticity stand out.

However, what if we were to say that within that wide spectrum of traits that define that dark profile, there’s a more compassionate and civic type of personality? Recent studies have revealed a new psychological construct: dark empathy. This newly coined trait would, in some way, represent that more conciliatory side of the dark triad. Let’s analyze it.

Dark empaths: high empathy and dark traits

This research paper was published in July 2020. Along with Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand), the University of Nottingham and Bishop Grosseteste University (UK) conducted a study to better understand the role of empathy in the dark triad.

  • There’s a widespread assumption that neither the psychopathic nor the narcissistic and Machiavellian personality posses an empathetic dimension in their personality. However, its use isn’t always positive.
  • Most of the time, they do empathize. They perceive the emotional reality of the other but, to them, it’s a resource with which to better manipulate people. In other words, their empathy is clearly instrumental.
  • However, in this research conducted on a sample of almost a thousand people, experts discovered something striking. In spite of showing dark characteristics, 19.3 percent of that population showed another type of high empathy. They were able to connect and feel the reality of others and even experience compassion.
  • People with this type of empathetic personality are known as dark empaths (DE).

Can you be an empathic psychopath? Do compassionate narcissists really exist? Actually, what this study shows us is that there may be some people with “certain” psychopathic, Machiavellian, or narcissistic traits, who are also defined by dark empathy.

A dark empath.


What are the characteristics of the dark empath?

They’re mostly men. Dark empathy is represented in the world of cinema and literature as the typical mysterious or evil character who, in the end, turns out to have a good heart. He’s the vampire who doesn’t drink blood; or the cold and antisocial detective who always stands up for and takes care of the needy. The calculating thief, who leads his gang to commit a criminal act for a good cause.

These are prototypical images that can show us how so-called dark characteristics can be positive. Hence psychology’s interest in them. In the end, these personalities portray a series of characteristics that can be useful for certain jobs: spies, soldiers, doctors, and even public positions. Let’s have a look at how to define them.

Extroverts and neurotics

Dark empathy is characterized by clearly extroverted, dynamic behaviors of high openness and ease in expressing feelings to others.

Likewise, a neurotic character is often part of these personalities. In other words, they’ll most likely go through marked emotional ups and downs (anxiety, depression, and phobias, for example) These people often suffer from emotional pain.

They’re friendly and social

Their kindness is authentic. They don’t fake what they feel and they delight in relating, meeting people, and connecting with people.

They like to have power but they encourage participatory leadership

One of the common traits that usually dominates the dark triad is the need for power. They like it, it defines them, and they feel fulfilled by being leaders.

However, dark empathy has an advantage: it can lead to a more humane sense of leadership. These people are able to bring out the best in others for the good of all. They’re the leaders who inspire, participate, and drive others towards common success.

Vulnerable narcissism

Another characteristic of this highly empathic personality is a type of vulnerable narcissism. They get hurt easily. They’re able to understand and respect the realities of others. However, they get very upset when they hear negative comments about them.

Imperfect, but talented

Finally, it’s interesting to see how dark empaths are highly competent in many areas. They’re talented, they’re good leaders, they connect very well with people. Of course, they still show complex traits, such as a certain narcissism and clear manipulative skills.

In short, studies on this psychological construct will continue in the coming years. In no time, we’ll likely know many more things about the role that people with this personality type play out in society.

  • Jonason, P. K., & Kroll, C. H. (2015). A multidimensional view of the relationship between empathy and the dark triad. Journal of Individual Differences36(3), 150–156. https://doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000166
  • Nadja Heym, Fraenze Kibowski, Claire AJ Bloxsom, Alyson Blanchard, Alexandra Harper (2020) The Dark Empath: Characterising dark traits in the presence of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences Available online 29 July 2020, 110172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110172
  • Szabó, E., & Bereczkei, T. (2017). Different paths to different strategies? Unique associations among facets of the Dark Triad, empathy, and trait emotional intelligence. Advances in Cognitive Psychology13(4), 306–313. https://doi.org/10.5709/acp-0230-7
  • Jonason, P. K., & Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences55(5), 532–537. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.04.027