Some people with dark triad disorders experience above-average empathetic capabilities

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People with “dark personality traits”, such as psychopathy or narcissism, are more likely to be callous, disagreeable and antagonistic in their nature. Such traits exists on a continuum – we all have more or less of them, and this does not necessarily equate to being clinically diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Traditionally, people who are high in dark traits are considered to have empathy deficits, potentially making them more dangerous and aggressive than the rest of us.

But we recently discovered something that challenges this idea. Our study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, identified a group of individuals with dark traits who report above average empathic capacities – we call them “dark empaths”.

Since this study, the dark empath has earned a reputation as the most dangerous personality profile. But is this really the case?

Credit: Psych2Go

Dark personality traits include psychopathy, machiavellianism and narcissism, collectively called the “dark triad”. More recently, it has been suggested that sadism be added, culminating in a “dark tetrad”.

Psychopathy is characterised by a superficial charm and callousness. People high in such traits often show an erratic lifestyle and antisocial behaviour. Machiavellianism derives from the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, a Renaissance author, historian and philosopher. He described power games involving deception, treachery and crime.

Thus, machiavellianism refers to an exploitative, cynical and manipulative nature. Narcissism is characterised by an exaggerated sense of entitlement, superiority and grandiose thinking, while sadism denotes a drive to inflict and enjoy pain in others.

The dark traits, particularly psychopathy and machiavellianism, have been consistently associated with aggressive and anti-social behaviour.

The empathy puzzle
Empathy can refer to the capacity to share feelings, namely “affective empathy” (if you are sad, I also feel sad). But it can also be the ability to understand other people’s minds, dubbed “cognitive empathy” (I know what you think and why you are feeling sad).

For example, the lack of (specifically affective) empathy is a well documented hallmark in clinical psychopathy used to explain their often persistent, instrumental violent behaviour. Our own work supports the notion that one of the reasons people with dark traits hurt other people or have difficulties in relationships is an underpinning lack of empathy.

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

This makes sense in a way, as to manipulate others for your own gain – or indeed enjoy the pain of others – you must have at least some capacity to understand them. Thus, we questioned whether dark traits and empathy were indeed mutually exclusive phenomena.

Dark empaths

We asked almost 1,000 people to complete assessments, based on questionnaires, on the dark triad and empathy. We then used a method called latent profile analysis that allows you to establish clusters of people with different profiles of certain trait combinations.

As expected, we found a traditional dark triad group with low scores in empathy (about 13% of the sample). We also found a group with lower to average levels across all traits (about 34% were “typicals”) and a group with low dark traits and high levels of empathy (about 33% were “empaths”). However, a fourth group of people, the “dark empaths”, was clearly evident. They had higher scores on both dark traits and empathy (about 20% of our sample). Interestingly, this latter group scored higher on both cognitive and affective empathy than the “dark triad” and “typical” groups.

We then characterised these groups based on measures of aggression, general personality, psychological vulnerability and wellbeing. The dark empaths were not as aggressive as the traditional dark triad group – suggesting the latter are likely more dangerous. Nevertheless, the dark empaths were more aggressive than typicals and empaths, at least on a measure of indirect aggression – that is, hurting or manipulating people through social exclusion, malicious humour and guilt-induction. Thus, although the presence of empathy was limiting their level of aggression, it was not eliminating it completely.

In line with this notion, empaths were the most “agreeable” (a personality trait showing how nice or friendly you are), followed by typicals, then dark empaths, and last dark triads. Interestingly, dark empaths were more extraverted than the rest, a trait reflecting the tendency to be sociable, lively and active. Thus, the presence of empathy appears to encourage an enjoyment of being or interacting with people. But it may potentially also be motivated by a desire to dominate them.

Moreover, dark empaths were a little higher in neuroticism, a type of negative thinking, but did not score higher on depression, anxiety or stress. Instead, their neuroticism may reflect sub-traits such as anger, hostility or self-doubt. Indeed, the dark empaths reported judging themselves more harshly than those with dark triad personalities. So it seems they may have a conscience, perhaps even disliking their dark side. Alternatively, their negative emotions may be a response to their self-loathing.

Hidden dangers

Though the aggression reported by the dark empaths was not as high as the traditional dark triad group, the danger of this personality profile is that their empathy, and likely resulting social skills, make their darkness harder to spot. We believe that dark empaths have the capacity to be callous and ruthless, but are able to limit such aggression.

It is worth noting, however, that those clinically diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder (often showing excessive levels of dark traits), most certainly lack empathy and are dangerous predators – and many of them are in prison. Our research is looking at people in the general population who have elevated levels of dark personality traits, rather than personality disorders.

We are continuing our quest to find out more about the characteristics of the dark empaths in relation to other psychological outcomes. For example, we are interested in their risk taking, impulsivity or physically aggressive behaviour. We also want to understand how they process emotions or facial expressions, or how they perceive and react to threats.

We are currently replicating and extending some of our findings using the dark tetrad instead. Our results are yet to be published, but indicate there are two further profiles in addition to the four groups we’ve already identified. One is an “emotionally internalised group”, with high levels of affective empathy and average cognitive empathy, without elevated dark traits. The other shows a pattern similar to autistic traits – particularly, low cognitive empathy and average affective empathy in the absence of elevated dark traits.

We are hoping this research may be able to shift our understanding of empathy in the context of the dark traits.


The Dark Triad of personality is a constellation of three socially aversive personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy; Paulhus and Williams 2002). Although research on the Dark Triad is flourishing (Furnham et al. 2013), little is known about the structure of the Dark Triad. As according to the Paulhus and Williams (2002), the Dark Triad traits were selected not on the basis of stringent criteria, but because they shared some commonalities such as social aversion, self-promotion, emotional coldness, and aggressiveness. Such a choice may be seen as intuitive but not exhaustive, which resulted in controversies on the number of dark traits within the constellation – are they the Dark Dyad, Triad, Tetrad or even a Tent?

The concept of the Dark Dyad assumes that Machiavellianism and psychopathy are closely related to each other and could be even treated as two facets of one construct. This hypothesis found support in different studies, where narcissism was least correlated, excluded from the models, and with different criterion validity (Egan et al. 2014; Kowalski et al. 2016; Petrides et al. 2011; Rogoza and Cieciuch 2017). Exclusion of narcissism reflects the idea that psychopathy and Machiavellianism are closely related as psychopathy is theorized to be a broader construct that includes Machiavellianism with the addition of impulsivity and risk-taking (Glenn and Sellbom 2015).

On the other hand, some researchers argued that there are more than three dark traits, and the Dark Triad should be extended to include status-driven risk taking (Visser et al. 2014) or everyday sadism (Buckels et al. 2014). Paulhus (2014) pointed out the key features of the Dark Tetrad (including sadism), and the only common element between the Dark Triad and sadism was callousness, which suggests that each personality trait that could be described as callous is a potentially new dark trait. Marcus and Zeigler-Hill (2015) noticed the need to broaden the view of dark personality features and instead of investigating three or four traits as a one construct, they advocate that there is a Big Tent under which all dark traits (such as greed, spitefulness, perfectionism, dependency) could be classified.

These controversies regarding the number of dark traits raise the questions of whether Machiavellianism is a derivative of psychopathy, and is narcissism is conceptually separate from the Dark Triad. Are the Dark Triad or Tetrad a finished constellation of the dark traits? Do any other dark traits meet these inclusion criteria? The study reported in the present paper may not be exhaustive in answering these questions; however, it is intended to provide evidence pertinent to them by investigating the structure of a pool of items developed to measure psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.

Structure of Narcissism
Narcissism, as a personality trait, was initially conceptualized as a unidimensional construct (Raskin and Hall 1979); however, more recent propositions posit that it is multidimensional. Two alternative models exist: a three-dimensional model proposed by Ackerman et al. (2011) and a two-dimensional model proposed by Back et al. (2013). Ackerman et al.’s (2011) model assumes the existence of adaptive (Leadership/Authority – self-perceived leadership abilities) and maladaptive (Grandiose Exhibitionism – self-absorption, vanity and exhibitionistic tendencies; and Entitlement/Exploitiveness – entitled beliefs and manipulative behaviors) aspects of narcissism. Within maladaptive narcissism, it is the Entitlement/Exploitiveness that is the socially toxic aspect, while Grandiose Exhibitionism has both negative and some positive aspects (Ackerman et al. 2011). The limitation of this model is the fact that it was developed on the basis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a questionnaire designed by Raskin and Hall (1979), which was meant to reflect the DSM-III (APA 1980) narcissistic personality disorder diagnostic criteria. Moreover, the NPI is focused on the grandiose and assertive aspects of narcissism, while the aggressive and antagonistic aspects of narcissism are underrepresented.

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept (NARC; Back et al. 2013) overcomes this limitation by introducing a new theoretical model of narcissism. The NARC model assumes that the main aim of the narcissist is to maintain the grandiose self, which can be achieved through two strategies: self-enhancing admiration and self-defensive rivalry. The components of admiration may be divided into striving for uniqueness (affective-motivational), preoccupation with grandiose fantasies (cognitive) and charming behavior (behavioral aspect), whereas rivalry may be divided into striving for supremacy (affective-motivational), devaluation of others (cognitive) and aggressive behavior (behavioral aspect). Although admiration represents the socially positive strategy and rivalry represents the socially malevolent strategy, both remain positively correlated (Back et al. 2013; Rogoza et al. 2016a).

Structure of Machiavellianism
Machiavellianism, unlike narcissism and psychopathy, does not have a clinical equivalent in either the DSM or ICD classifications. The trait Machiavellianism was named after Niccolò Machiavelli, who was a diplomatic senior official in Florentine Republic who wrote the book (Il Principe) in which he described how to be an effective ruler no matter at the cost. Machiavellianism is a personality trait that should characterize an efficient leader who is able to maintain his resources and privileges no matter what the costs; thus, such a leader should be pragmatic, tactical, and strategic but also immoral, manipulative and cynical (Christie and Geis 1970; Jones and Paulhus 2009). The structure of Machiavellianism is somewhat unclear, and the following facets are usually differentiated: cynical worldview, manipulative tactics, amorality, lack of empathy, agentic motives, and self-enhancement (Christie and Geis 1970; Fehr et al. 1992; Jones and Paulhus 2009); however, the results from the study of Gu et al. (2017) suggest that only desire for control can be meaningfully differentiated from global Machiavellianism.

Rauthmann and Will (2011) consolidated existing knowledge and proposed a multifaced theoretical conceptualization of Machiavellianism, which is expressed in desires, cognition, affect, and behavior. Machiavellian desires represent self-interest (self-promoting and self-protecting), agentic orientations and impulse control; Machiavellian cognition can be divided into negative world view (e.g., cynicism, immorality) and view of people (e.g., suspiciousness, instrumentalism), specific strategies and egocentricity; and Machiavellian affect includes a low level of remorse and emotional detachment. The broadest aspect is Machiavellian behavior, which could be characterized as follows: anti-social tendencies, bistrategic tactics, self-beneficial and antagonistic behavior, detachment, exploitation and manipulation. Manipulation is one of the core elements of a Machiavellian personality, and can be further analyzed into more specific behavior patterns, such as tactical manipulation, presentation management, flexible adaptation, deceit and duplicity, concealment (agenda, imperfection, state or personality-related), and specific manipulative tactics such as emotional manipulation, ingratiation, persuasion, supplication, intimidation, dominance and power, or self-disclosure. The multifaceted conceptualization of Machiavellianism (Rauthmann and Will 2011; Rauthmann 2012) emphasizes that the structure of Machiavellianism is complex but it also emphasizes that its complexity is on a very specific hierarchical level that may be difficult to differentiate.

Structure of Psychopathy
Hare and Neumann (2008) distinguished four dimensions of psychopathy: interpersonal (superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, pathological deception, and manipulative), affective (lack of remorse and empathy, shallow affect), antisocial conduct (poor behavioral control, criminal versatility, and juvenile delinquency), and lifestyle (stimulation seeking, impulsivity, and irresponsibility). Although this conceptualization was initially developed for clinical purposes, this four-factor psychopathy model (including: interpersonal manipulation, callous affect, erratic lifestyle, and antisocial behavior) was successfully adapted into personality assessment of community samples (Neal and Sellbom 2012; Paulhus et al. in press) and validated in different cultural contexts (e.g., Chegeni and Atari 2016). Hare and his colleagues also hypothesize two broader dimensions that incorporate these four, one grouping together interpersonal manipulation and callous affect, and the other grouping together erratic lifestyle and antisocial behavior (Dębowska et al. 2014; Hare and Neumann 2008). These could be compared to the conceptualization of primary and secondary psychopathy (Karpman, 1941; Levenson et al. 1995). Primary psychopathy is characterized as callous, manipulative, selfish, and untruthful; secondary psychopathy is characterized as antisocial behavior under the influence of an emotional disorder, manifested by impulsivity (Levenson et al. 1995).

Another proposition of the psychopathy structure is the triarchic conceptualization proposed by Patrick et al. (2009), which encompasses three distinct phenotypic constructs: boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. Boldness represents interpersonal dominance, fearlessness, high self-confidence, and risk taking; meanness represents callousness, lack of empathy, deliberate cruelty, shallow emotionality, and exploitativeness; disinhibition represents general problems with impulse control, poor self-regulation and failure in delaying gratification (Brislin et al. 2015; Patrick et al. 2009).

The structure of psychopathy is closely related to Machiavellianism due to their theoretical overlap (Glenn and Sellbom 2015; Miller et al. 2017; Vize et al. in press); in the terminology of the multidimensional Machiavellianism model, both traits have similar affective characteristics (emotionally detached and low remorse) and similar behavioral characteristics (manipulation, exploitation, antagonistic and anti-social tendencies), which could differentiate these traits only at specific hierarchal level (e.g., specific manipulation tactics), similar cognitive characteristics (negative world and person view and egocentricity) but with different strategies, and similar desires (self-interest and agentic orientations) but with different impulse control abilities (Hare and Neumann 2008; Levenson et al. 1995; Neal and Sellbom 2012; Patrick et al. 2009; Rauthmann and Will 2011; Rauthmann 2012). Thus, the theoretical overlap between these two traits is high, and only the impulse regulation ability sufficiently differentiates these two traits (Glenn and Sellbom 2015; Jones and Paulhus 2011; Rogoza and Cieciuch 2017).

Relationship between the Dark Triad and Personality Traits and Basic Values
The Dark Triad is located within the personality structure; thus investigating its relations with the Big Five traits (McCrae and Costa 1997) or value preferences (Schwartz 1992), which are complementary, basic characteristics of personality (Cieciuch 2012; McCrae 2009) is especially helpful. Some existing studies suggest that there are many similarities in relations between particular Dark Triad traits and personality or value constructs. For example, each of the Dark Triad traits on both the basic and facet level is related to low agreeableness and a strong preference for valuing power, achievement and hedonism (Balakrishan et al. 2017; DeShong et al. 2015; DeShong et al. 2017; Jonason et al. 2015; Kajonius et al. 2015; Krizan and Herlache 2017; Paulhus and Williams 2002; Rogoza et al. 2016a; Vernon et al. 2008). On the other hand, there are also some relations specific for some of the Dark Triad traits. For example, only narcissism tends to be related to extraversion and openness to experience traits, and self-direction and stimulation values, whilst psychopathy and Machiavellianism do not (Muris et al. 2017; O’Boyle et al. 2015; Rogoza et al. 2016a; Vize et al. in press). Although the relationship with neuroticism is not obvious, as the meta-analysis of Muris et al. (2017) provides support that the Dark Triad traits are uncorrelated with neuroticism, the study of DeShong et al. (2017) provided evidence that each of the Dark Triad traits are related to the angry hostility facet of neuroticism. Because personality traits have hierarchical structure, the relations were analyzed at a different level of the structure, including the level below the basic traits or values (McCrae and Costa 1997) and above the basic traits, the so called higher-order traits (Cieciuch and Strus 2017) or higher-order values (Schwartz et al. 2012). Also, it is worth noting that the Dark Triad traits, similarly to the basic personality traits can also adapt hierarchical structure, which makes such comparisons more meaningful; however, so far the empirical verification of the hierarchical structure was limited to narcissism as measured by the NPI (Ackerman et al. 2015).

reference link :https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-018-9834-6


Author: Nadja Heym and Alexander Sumich
Source: The Conversation

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