It may seem that people with elevated Dark Triad traits are not empathic, but it isn’t so simple. In a basic sense empathy serves people higher in dark traits. Dark traits may be a “necessary evil”, arguably important for group survival at critical times. Empathy, while serving altruism, is also a tool for the Machiavellian mind, which needs good “intel” for appraising, and potentially taking advantage of, others.
Two basic types of empathy
Empathy comes in two flavors—cognitive and affective. They are independent of one another, but also often work in tandem. Cognitive empathy is the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Affective empathy is the capacity to vibe with others’ emotions. Cognitive empathy is stronger in narcissism, while affective empathy is weaker.
Psychopathy may serve the greater good. In performance-demanding situations such as those faced by first responders, health-care workers, soldiers, and others in high-stakes situations, emotions may fade away, opening up to cool, streamlined calculation. Mihailides, Galligan and Bates (2017) call this “adaptive psychopathy,” describing the “quarantine vector” within which empathic information marries with psychopathic mental processes useful for dealing with threatening, alien experiences that conflict with one’s own values and beliefs.1
We need to understand the role of empathy in the Dark Triad because it relates to important factors including aggression, personal and professional functioning, and well-being. Research has not systematically looked at the role of empathy in the Dark Triad, or whether there is an empathic version of the Dark Triad—a “Dark Empath.”