The Dark Side of Empathy: Good people with bad intentions

Suhani Hirpara

Vedika Basu

Everyone knows about empathy, and everyone has experienced it at some point in their life. Usually, we feel empathetic when a friend is going through a difficult time or while watching a sad movie. However, empathy also has two distinct categories that can be a defining trait of an empath. Firstly, there is cognitive empathy, where you can put yourself in other's shoes. Secondly, there is affective empathy, where you can feel and vibe with other's emotions.

One of the common traits of all empaths is that they have a powerful intuition. Their ability to sense an individual's emotional state makes them unique. Naturally, our impression of an empath is good because of their caring nature. However, do all empaths have good intentions?


What if some people are aware of your emotional state but choose to use your feelings to manipulate you. Empathy like this does exist, and people who use this kind of cognitive empathy are called "Dark Empaths". These kinds of empaths are very empathetic, but at the same time, they also possess traits from the dark triad. The dark triad personality was first discovered by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002. This personality is defined by three main traits: subclinical narcissism, subclinical psychopathy and Machiavellianism. This means that individuals can display mild signs of these disorders, but they are not severe enough to be diagnosable.


Usually, people with dark triad traits rate low in empathy. Contrastingly, it has been found that dark empaths rate high in empathy, but they also rate high in the dark triad. This means that dark empaths have the ability to sense your emotions, but they also demonstrate signs of malevolent traits like narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Nevertheless, then the question always remains that how are dark empaths distinct from other dark personality types?


What makes dark empaths so different from others is their ability to mimic others. They usually watch numerous TV shows and movies and try to adapt the normal human responses to different situations. This is also how they develop cognitive empathy- so they develop awareness about how other people feel, but they cannot feel the same emotions as others. Through adaptive learning from their environment, dark empaths always say the right thing at the right time. So much so that it may appear forced or fake to the receiver. However, it is essential to note that many individuals can also please others, but it does not necessarily mean that they are dark empaths.


Furthermore, as mentioned previously- dark empaths usually display signs of Machiavellianism. They know precisely how to manipulate you for their benefit. They are aware of how you feel in certain situations, and they can use your feelings against you to get what they want. For instance: if you are in an argument with a dark empath, they will know how to turn around the fight so that they are shown as the victimised one, even if it is their fault. They will end up making you feel guilty about something you have not done.


Dark empaths have also shown signs of passive-aggressive behaviour. If something is not going according to their plan, they will not directly tell you- but they will display indirect aggression. They will often make hurtful comments and mask them as jokes. Alternatively, they may give you the cold shoulder and act innocent if you confront them. Dark empaths love situations like these because it makes them feel superior to others, and it feeds their narcissistic side.


It is difficult to point out the dark empaths from the crowd, but it is easier to understand this concept of dark empathy when we contextualise it in terms of movies. For instance, Severus Snape from The Harry Potter series is a classic example of a dark empath.  Similarly, Rapunzel's mother would also be an example of a dark empath. Characters like these are manipulative and toxic, but this does not mean they are incapable of feeling. For this reason, dark empaths are one of the most dangerous personality types. They do not fit into the classic black and white spectrum of good and evil- they possess both sides' traits.