Empathy is good until it isn’t. If you’re on the wrong side of the emotion, you could be in serious trouble. Scientists have recently found that there is darkness attached even to something as positive and constructive as empathy. ‘Dark empaths,’ as they are called, could be dangerous to those they befriend, according to a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. To understand ‘dark empaths,’ you need to understand the nature of empathy, with psychologists now beginning to see it as a layered entity.
Broadly speaking, there are three types—cognitive, wherein one has a sound intellectual understanding of the feelings of others. People with heightened cognitive empathy are able to resonate easily with the other and are able to understand the workings of their mind. “They think more from the head than the heart and are, therefore, able to be logical while offering help,” says Delhi-based community psychologist Manisha Tripathi, whose area of work largely focuses on rehabilitating young psychopaths. “Then there is effective empathy where one has a great ability to connect emotionally, but without getting sucked into their pain. Finally, there is empathy where compassion is heightened. This is where your feelings reign high and can sometimes influences everything you do or say more than you’d want,” says Tripathi.
‘Dark empaths’ show signs of cognitive and affective empathy. “Along with this, these people also display characteristics from the ‘dark triad’—a term used to group three malevolent traits in psychology or the three dark personality types—Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.
While all humans will exhibit these at some or the other points in their lives to varying degrees, the triad traits are strongly etched in the personality of ‘dark empaths,’ says Tripathi. But dark empaths have an edge over cognitive empathy and they use it to their advantage by saying and doing the right things, that often have a hidden agenda. “They can be master manipulators who can use your vulnerability against you by putting up ostensibly good behaviour. Because they have strains of straight empathy too, they can draw you closer, gain your trust and cause harm,” says Tripathi.
She adds: ‘dark empaths’ sometimes have more empathy than others because it serves as a weapon for them to achieve their ends. They may use tactics such as domination and gaslighting. Having said that, being a ‘dark empath’ is not all that evil. This section of people have shown above-average empathic capacities, as reported in the study, which means that they may be threatening but don’t completely lack conscience.
Perhaps, it is time to look at empathy differently. Move away from a black and white perspective to delve into the grey areas of empathy, which is turning out to be a mix of good and bad.
Recognising a dark empath
✥ Their words seem empty and lack sincerity
✥ They use indirect aggression such as blackmail or guilt-tripping
✥ Use defamatory humour
✥ Find it hard to set boundaries and cross the line often
✥ Try to dominate and want to have their way
Types of empathy
Looks at the intellectual understanding of the feelings of others
Being able to relate to the emotions of others as your own
An amalgamation of cognitive and emotional empathy
show signs of cognitive and affective empathy, along with characteristics from the ‘dark triad’—Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism