Dark Empaths: Is There Such a Thing as a Worst Personality Type?

Man looking away contemplatively

Pep Karsten/fStop/Getty Images

Key Takeaway

  • It is incorrect, in the view of researchers, to view dark empaths as the most dangerous personality type.
  • Research into dark empaths opens up pathways to treatment and the reduction of stigma.
  • Further research is underway to identify how other behaviors intersect with the concept of dark empathy.

The discussion of personality traits and types is a common feature of internet discourse—whether that’s the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the True Color Test, or another format. However, recent research led by two UK-based academics has dug deeper into a newer personality type: the dark empath. It's a story of YouTube, media, and society's deep fascination with how people can be classified when it comes to their behavior.

Newfound Popularity of "Dark Empaths" Sparks Research Interest

The two researchers at the forefront of studying the concept of dark empaths are Dr. Nadja Heym and Dr. Alexander Sumich, both of Nottingham Trent University. They co-authored a recent piece for The Conversation entitled, “‘Dark empaths’: how dangerous are psychopaths and narcissists with empathy?”

Their writing called into question whether the concept of dark empathy, a term the pair had studied previously, was being misinterpreted as—one YouTuber they cited put it—“the most dangerous personality type.” 

Heym says that the duo's research began after the concept of the dark triad—consisting of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism—became more widely known in the last few years.

“The dark triad became really popular in the field of psychology, in particular in the media, and so we diverted from the hardcore psychopathy science into this more dark triad understanding of different dark forms of personality traits, and how these have various deficits and are linked to various kinds of behaviors. Whether that's successful, adaptive, or maladaptive.”

Those dark traits, most notably a lack of affective empathy—the ability to identify with the feelings of another person and to take on those feelings—were what led the pair to be part of an earlier project called “Empathy at the heart of darkness.”

For Sumich, it was the inconsistencies they found in what he calls “the traditional idea” of a lack of empathy being part and parcel with the dark triad—as well as a previously proven link between the empathy and aggression—that made them interested in exploring further.  

“We thought, what if there is this group that is characterized by both these dark traits and by a presence of empathy? So that these two things, the dark triad and empathy, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.”

Dr. Alexander Sumich

We're flying in the face of theory with this, and so it has, therefore, the potential to be quite a big step shift in terms of [the] understanding of these traits.

— Dr. Alexander Sumich

Profile Sorting Allowed for Different Data Approach

Using the skills of one of their co-authors, statistician Fraenze Kibowski, those involved in the study used latent profile analysis to split their survey results of people from the general population into four possible profiles of respondents. Those four areas included the traditional dark triad, the traditional empath, typicals, and dark empaths.

They found that people sorted as dark empaths were as high in areas like perspective-taking as traditional empaths, while still maintaining dark trait levels close to that of their dark triad peers.

Sumich says the research is in rather clear opposition to other work in the field, a source of both anxiety and excitement.

“We're flying in the face of theory with this, and so it has, therefore, the potential to be quite a big step shift in terms of [the] understanding of these traits.”

Dr. Nadja Heym

We need to be a bit careful here because they’re probably not the worst of the worst because they still have empathic capacities.

So, Is It the Most "Dangerous" Personality Type? 

Heym’s response is to the point. 

“We need to be a bit careful here because they’re probably not the worst of the worst because they still have empathic capacities.”

Heym likens someone who is a traditional dark triad member as someone with “no brakes,” as opposed to dark empaths who have been found to be able to limit their aggression and other maladaptive behaviors.

However, one unexpected outcome of the research, Sumich says, is that people who identified with the dark empath label began to reach out.

“What they were pleased about was the fact that we had identified and put this notion forward that just because you're a psychopath doesn't mean you have to lack empathy. And so removing, in some way, the stigma around that as well.”

Much of the work on the triad has been focused on forensic populations—most commonly those in prisons.  Sumich and Heym say that their research, which is close to having a published replication and was done outside of the forensic system, opens up the doors for support. In particular, self-compassion training. 

“One of the things we found in the dark empath is that they were very low in self-compassion, very high in harsh self-judgment. So it's as if they are aware of the dark side, and perhaps, kicking themselves for it,” says Sumich, “These are likely the people who are going to come forward for treatment and benefit from it.”

What This Means for You

There is intense stigma for those who fall under the category of having dark triad traits. The research lens of dark empathy allows for the reduction of stigma and a possible increase in the availability of treatment for those identified as dark empaths.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Heym N, Sumich A. ‘Dark empaths’: How dangerous are psychopaths and narcissists with empathy?. The Conversation. 2022.

  2. Heym N, Firth J, Kibowski F, Sumich A, Egan V, Bloxsom CAJ. Empathy at the heart of darkness: Empathy deficits that bind the dark triad and those that mediate indirect relational aggressionFront Psychiatry. 2019;10:95. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00095

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.