Dark Empaths Merge Empathy With Manipulations—And That Spells Big Trouble

Photo: Getty Images / Jonathan Knowles
When it comes to dark psychology and manipulation, the conversation is typically dominated by three personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism, known collectively as the Dark Triad. While this may sound like the name of a high school clique on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, empathy—arguably one of the most practical kinds of magic—is the uniting factor (not the supernatural). This concept can get confusing, though, if you’re unfamiliar with the definition of a dark empath and the empathy spectrum.

In fact, empathy is often considered “antithetical” to the very definition of the Dark Triad personality because, to psychology researchers, “dark implies no empathy,” according to Dan Jones, PhD, an Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) and a core faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Social Psychology Program, whose research focuses on the Dark Triad personality types. This is an intuitive distinction, since empaths are healers who absorb the emotions of others in a benevolent, loving way. Notably, this concept goes directly against the characteristics of the Dark Triad.

Experts In This Article

This sinister-sounding set of personality traits can present in a variety of ways and in people with a range of personality types. Put simply, a dark empath is someone with a high level of cognitive empathy, which allows them to manipulate other people through their words and actions to get what they want, according to recent research published in Personality and Individual Differences, a scientific journal. In this way, dark empaths exhibit a unique kind of empathy different from the type we might associate with a counselor, nurse, or veterinarian. A master manipulator, the dark empath might be the most dangerous personality type there is.

What is a dark empath, and how do they differ from other empaths?

As we’ve established, a dark empath is someone with high levels of cognitive empathy who uses their expert understanding of others to get what they want. Among experts, however, the term “dark empath” can get murky, largely because of its use of the word "empath,” which fails to describe the increased potential for emotional destruction exhibited by dark empaths.

Genuine empathy must have an intrinsic emotional and prosocial element, the opposite of a dark empath, according to Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of "Don't You Know Who I Am?": How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. A true empath is highly sensitive and aware of others’ emotions to the point that they feel the other person’s pain and anxieties as their own. This kind of empathy is void of malevolence, which is not the case with dark empaths.

So, if empathy has historically been considered literally “antithetical” to the Dark Triad personality by the experts who study it, what makes the dark empath the exception to this longstanding rule of thumb? The key lies in a nuanced approach to empathy itself, and an understanding of the different types of empathy that exist. Here’s a simple breakdown:

The empathy spectrum

Alternatively, a dark empath has difficulty with emotional empathy, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. In other words, they can’t feel the emotions of another person. This is where cognitive empathy comes in: while a manipulative empath doesn’t emotionally connect with someone else’s feelings, they do identify the other person’s viewpoint and use that to their advantage.

"The way the term is being used in the 'dark empath' variant is as manipulation," Dr. Durvasula says, noting that dark empathy is not a diagnosable mental health condition, but rather a personality trait. "It's giving a surgical, almost razor-precision focus on another person to understand what makes them tick with the goal of almost mining data that could be used to the advantage of the dark empath." Mirrored empathy can put the other person at ease, and they "may relax and [become] putty in the hands" of the dark empath.

While dark empaths’ cognitive empathy skills give them a solid intellectual understanding of what others are feeling, they still lack the emotional understanding required to forge real connections with others, says Judy Ho, PhD, triple board-certified and licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and author of The New Rules of Attachment. “They really just use cognitive empathy to then feign a connection,” Dr. Ho explains. “So they look at you, and they think, ‘Okay, I know this person must be feeling insecure right now, they must be doubting themselves, they must be in a vulnerable place,’ and they're using that information based on what they think you're feeling at a certain moment.”

What are the main characteristics of a dark empath?

Since the general consensus is that dark empaths are bad news, how can we spot them and steer clear? If you want to avoid letting dark empaths into your life, you have to start by taking note of the way their characteristics may present in different social situations.

1. A dark empath is charming

Even though everything about the definition of a dark empath might scream at you to get away—and fast—don’t be surprised if you find yourself instantly drawn to a manipulative empath if you encounter them IRL. It might seem counterintuitive to predict you would be drawn to someone with a “dark” personality, but Dr. Jones points out that it’s actually a key component to mastering the superficial charm that people with Dark Triad personality traits so often use to their advantage.

“Being a curmudgeon, or argumentative, has nothing to do with the duplicity [of Dark Triad types]. If anything, it's antithetical to some of the superficial charm that these traits possess,” Dr. Jones says. “So, if you bump into somebody at a cafe and they start up a political argument with you, they're likely not high in any of the Dark Triad traits—they're just argumentative.”

2. A dark empath has malicious humor

Dark empaths have also been found to have higher degrees of malicious humor, a term that refers to laughing at individuals, and often entire groups, they think are beneath them. Dr. Hafeez adds that a dark empath’s biting humor and sarcastic commentary are indirect ways they affect, bully, and belittle others.

3. A dark empath gaslights and guilt trips others

Dark empaths also rate higher when it comes to guilt-tripping and gaslighting the people in their lives. “They will use these tactics to continue staying in control,” Dr. Hafeez says. “Dark empaths have no emotion as to how the other person feels and will twist the scenario around to work in their favor. If the ‘victim’ catches on to the dark empath's tactics, the latter will likely question your sanity instead of taking accountability.”

4. A dark empath uses other people

Using other people for personal gain is another manipulative tactic dark empaths employ. “Since dark empaths have the ability to read people so well, they sense what others need and play the complementary role to satisfy their own personal agenda,” Dr. Hafeez says. “The dark empath will guilt trip you into thinking you’re at fault for something you’re not.” Although others may feel like there’s a closeness in the relationship, this is only a facade.

5. A dark empath fakes sincerity

Dark empaths are pros at faking sincerity as a way to mask their manipulative motives. Although a dark empath’s emotions may come off as empathetic, Dr. Hafeez says there is always a lack of genuineness in their expression, so don’t be fooled. Pay attention to intonation, facial expressions, and context because dark empaths are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities they can exploit, adds Dr. Ho.

“Essentially [dark empaths are] looking for people who are especially in a vulnerable place and then using that information to either feign a connection and say, ‘Oh, I've been there,’ or to manufacture a story about their own childhood that makes you feel like, ‘Okay, this is my soulmate,’ and then essentially placing themselves in a way that would be the answer to all your problems,” Dr. Ho says of the dark empath’s M.O. “So that's what a dark empath does: they fake the emotion, and then manipulate you using your vulnerabilities.”

6. A dark empath has a lot in common with Machiavellians

At first glance, it might seem like dark empaths are most closely related to the narcissists of the Dark Triad because of their shared focus on the self. According to experts, though, dark empaths have even more in common with another of the core Dark Triad personality traits: Machiavellianism, or the tendency to strategically manipulate others in pursuit of one’s own goals. “Machiavellianism, I think, is the most connected to the idea of the dark empath because of that idea of conscious exploitativeness and manipulation—and then that cynicism of like, ‘Even if I leave these people in the dust, whatever, I don't really care,’” Dr. Ho explains.

What causes a person to become a dark empath?

Like so many personality traits psychologists study, dark empathy is complex. When examining the origins of a manipulative empath and what causes a person to become a dark empath, researchers must tackle the age-old question of nurture vs. nature. According to Dr. Ho, personality traits are always a mix of the two.

“Nature vs. nurture is always in play; it's more like how much of each one is really affecting the development of the trait,” she explains, adding that nature will almost always play a measurable role when it comes to dark empathy. “I think that, for the most part, most individuals who emerge as a dark empath always have some kind of biological trait or tendency, like maybe a random family member [with similar traits]. Or, if you had the chance to scan some of these people's brains—and there have been studies done on that—there's certain things that [physically] look different.”

Studies examining the brain scans of people with traits like dark empathy demonstrate a tendency for less emotional connectivity in the parts of the brain tied to feeling joy and rewards. This lack of emotional connectivity is a key factor influencing a dark empath’s drive to employ risk-taking behaviors. Still, the biological component alone isn’t enough to create a dark empath. “Just because you have these brain abnormalities, and just because you have a genetic link, doesn't mean you’re going to actually become somebody in the Dark Triad or be a dark empath,” Dr. Ho stresses. “Environment has a huge part to do with it.”

This makes sense, given the overlap between dark empath traits and Machiavellianism. According to Dr. Jones, twin studies—which focus on twins who were raised apart to gauge the relative impact of nature and nurture in developing specific traits—have found that narcissism and psychopathy are mostly genetic, whereas Machiavellianism is an innate, as well as learned trait. In other words: While nature takes most of the credit for those in the narcissism and psychopathy wings of the Dark Triad, nurture plays an important role in determining if someone will develop Machiavellian tendencies, even if they’re already genetically predisposed to do so.

What personality type is most likely to be a dark empath?

Spoiler alert: Extroverts are more likely to be dark empaths. Being extroverted and agreeable are key components in cultivating the superficial charm dark empaths rely on to pull others into their orbit. For dark empaths, though, these traits often coincide with a dose of neuroticism.

This neuroticism, a negative thinking pattern associated with distress and dissatisfaction, may be a reflection of sub-traits including anger, hostility, and self-doubt, according to a 2021 study on dark empathy. “Indeed, the dark empaths reported judging themselves more harshly than those with dark triad personalities,” Nadja Heym and Alexander Sumich, two of the psychologists behind the study, wrote. “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.”

"The closer you are to someone, the more you can hurt them." —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist

According to mental health professionals, the dark empath might also be more emotionally hazardous to folks than those with other Dark Triad personality types. "A dark empath may actually be more dangerous than a more cold and unfeeling Dark Triad type, because the so-called dark empath can draw you in closer—and do more harm as a result," says Dr. Durvasula. "The closer you are to someone, the more you can hurt them." So, while other individuals with Dark Triad traits, like psychopaths, are generally more physically dangerous, dark empaths can be more emotionally dangerous, says Dr. Hafeez. (Although, thankfully, they typically won’t cause bodily harm to others.)

In this talent for emotional manipulation lies the real danger of dark empaths, who can expertly—and sans remorse—weaponize their mastery of cognitive empathy to effectively devastate their targets. The thing that makes a dark empath the most dangerous is “the fact that they can tailor their manipulation,” according to Dr. Jones. “There's the old expression that the most dangerous person to an army campaign is not the opponent, but the right hand of the leader,” he explains. “The more they know about you, the more bandwidth and attack surface they're going to have. So, naturally, their ability to stay detached while getting close is a particularly insidious combination.”

Just how dangerous this insidious combination is depends, at least in part, on the individual. Even though dark empaths do have a conscience, it's ultimately up to them whether they pay attention to it or not. “Dark empaths may identify what one is going through and choose not to feel sympathy or any desire to assist,” Dr. Hafeez says. “This can give them an advantage, as they can either listen to their conscience and do good or use their skills to get what they want without remorse.”

Dark empath vs. narcissist: What’s the difference?

While dark empaths are often compared to (or even lumped in with) narcissists, the two are actually very different. The key ingredient in narcissism, as a Dark Triad trait, is grandiose thinking and an exaggerated sense of entitlement, Dr. Ho says. While dark empaths will generally need to have at least some narcissistic tendencies to engage in manipulation in the way they do, narcissism is actually the Dark Triad trait least related to dark empaths.

“I think narcissism is almost always part of it, but I don't think that's a necessary ingredient to be a dark empath, because you don't have to necessarily think the highest of yourself to be a dark empath,” she says, explaining that a degree of narcissistic behavior will help a dark empath believe in their ability to manipulate others, particularly if they’re attempting to perpetrate love cons or other forms of fraud. “I think it's still an element of it, but I would say it's the least crucial element.”

Another important distinction between a narcissist and a dark empath is their capacity for accountability, according to Dr. Jones. “When you're dealing with an abusive narcissist, there's no ownership—there's usually gaslighting in lieu of ownership,” he says. “There's very little remorse in there when it comes to a true dark personality, whereas with a dark empath, [the issue] seemingly stems from this irritable, misanthropic, argumentative, and insecure disposition. And so if the person has empathy, that means they're going to have remorse and that would be a fundamental differentiation between the two.”

How rare are dark empaths?

Dr. Hafeez says this is a tricky thing to quantify since it’s a relatively new term. It’s also difficult because being a dark empath is not necessarily a trait you’re born with; rather, it’s a mix of experience, biological makeup, and character. While getting exact data on the number of dark empaths might be impossible, Dr. Jones is confident that they are “exceedingly rare,” because they have to be, based on the available data about Dark Triad traits in the population.

“[Psychologist] Robert Hare has famously estimated that one percent of the general population meets the diagnostic criteria threshold for psychopathy,” says Dr. Jones. Upon closer examination, Dr. Jones estimates that, realistically, dark empaths make up a mere subdivision of the two percent of the population who demonstrate Dark Triad traits and the capacity for cognitive empathy, making them “exceedingly rare.”

Are dark empaths capable of love?

When it comes to dark empaths and their ability to feel love, Dr. Jones admits it’s a difficult question to parse. The answer, though, may come down to emotional empathy, which dark empaths famously lack (for the most part).

“I think love stems from being vulnerable to somebody. So, if you don't have the capacity for emotional connection—which means that you can feel what somebody else is feeling and you tie your successes, failures and identity to that person—then, no, I don't think you can feel love,” says Dr. Jones. “Without that emotional vulnerability, I don't see that ever being able to take place, and I don't think you'd get that without emotional empathy. I mean, most of the dark personalities treat their partners as property; it's just about status and utility. So I don't see where love factors into the equation.”

For her part, Dr. Ho is more optimistic about dark empaths’ potential for love, explaining that some people develop into dark empaths as a “very extreme coping strategy” designed to protect themselves from emotional manipulation. She adds that working through these underlying traumas is the first step to genuine love and connection for a dark empath looking to become more empathetic, emotionally.

“It takes a lot of work, it takes a long time,” she says. “But a person can start to learn that this coping strategy is actually not super helpful. For a lot of dark empaths, what's really underneath it all is a huge amount of self-insecurity and low self-esteem that they're not going to admit to most people. If you're able to break past that, it will help them to actually have a meaningful connection to other human beings.”

Are dark empaths aware of their manipulative behavior?

As with so many factors related to dark empaths, there’s still debate among experts about the degree to which they’re aware of their manipulative behavior. In general, however, most experts agree that people with this personality type are aware of their manipulations to at least some extent.

“I would say it's very difficult to manipulate somebody by accident with any effectiveness,” Dr. Jones says. “If you're manipulating someone, even if it’s to avoid hurting their feelings and you're manipulating someone by not technically lying, we're still aware of those conscious decisions. The truth is a default that we have; prevarication [or lying] is what takes some kind of intentionality behind it. So I don't think anybody's going to be manipulating accidentally.”

Dr. Ho points out that the psychological waters are likely to get muddied if dark empaths are confronted about their behavior, thanks to tendencies to jump to self-defense and self-justification. “Usually, there's a very conscious level of that understanding. Sometimes it's a little bit more subconscious, but you can't say that they don't know,” she says of dark empaths’ awareness of their manipulative ways. “But when they're confronted with that, if somebody ever calls them out on that, they'll have every excuse in the world for why they weren't doing that at all, or that they have no idea what you're talking about. And that's a self-preservation strategy.”

How can I protect myself from a dark empath’s manipulation?

As we’ve established, dark empaths are naturally charming and often don’t seem dangerous—or dark at all, for that matter—when you meet them. On the surface, you’ll see their connected, extroverted nature, and they’ll come off as understanding and agreeable. Each of thees traits that can help create the illusion of genuine emotional empathy (or, if you’re into astrology, qualities of the empathic zodiac signs). Dr. Hafeez says, however, that these traits serve as distractions to a dark empath’s malevolent tendencies, like malicious humor, gaslighting, guilt-tripping, and maintaining emotional distance from others.

If you realize a dark empath has made their way into your life, here’s how to deal, according to experts.

1. Set boundaries

Experts agree that the first step in maintaining (or regaining) control if you’re dealing with a dark empath is to set very clear—and very firm—boundaries. “It’s really important to set good boundaries, because if you don't set good boundaries, [dark empaths] are just going to keep pushing on them and asking for more from you,” Dr. Ho says. “So really establish what your boundaries are and really know where your true line is, and be able to communicate that very clearly. They'll probably push back on that boundary, but don't get swayed.” Dr. Jones recommends taking things a step further and rehearsing what you plan to say to the dark empath in question before you talk to them about any issues, which will help you feel prepared to weather their inevitable pushback.

2. Limit contact

Setting boundaries often isn’t enough when it comes to dealing with a dark empath, Dr. Ho warns. She says that limiting contact will probably be necessary and that you should be the one to limit it. “When [dark empaths] do start to push on you a lot, you have to be the person to try to limit contact and be the person to manage it,” she says. When a dark empath senses they’re losing their grip on you, there’s a good chance their panic will manifest in an onslaught of calls, texts, and any other form of communication they can initiate. “It's up to you to not pick up those calls, to set some boundaries, even in terms of how long you’ll engage with them when you do speak,” Dr. Ho adds.”

3. Document everything

If a dark empath shows up in the workplace, setting boundaries and limiting contact can be difficult or even impossible. In this case, Dr. Jones says that “documentation is always going to be the key” and that it’s important to keep records and deal with them in writing when possible. This way, if a dark empath coworker (or worse, a superior) crosses a line, you’ll be prepared to take action.

4. Connect with your support system

If you’ve been burned by a stealth attack from a dark empath who manipulated their way into your life and even your heart, your instinct might be to shut everyone out as a way of protecting yourself against future attacks, but fight this impulse and reach out instead of turning inward. “It’s really important to try to connect with other people who are helpful during this time and kind of almost have a gut check, because a lot of times dark empaths will manipulate your own thoughts,” Dr. Ho says. “They will make you question yourself, they will isolate you from your social circle. So make sure to stay connected to the important people in your life.”

5. Don’t be embarrassed

It’s common for people who have been manipulated by a dark empath to feel embarrassed when they realize what’s happened and to try to hide any evidence of the emotional manipulation from other friends out of fear of being seen as gullible or stupid, Dr. Ho says. “The smartest people get manipulated by dark empaths,” she says. “So, it's really just important to not close yourself off and to keep seeking support.”

6. Practice self-compassion and self-care

We all know that self-compassion and self-care are important. These processes are especially easy to lose sight of after an encounter with a dark empath, though, which can often leave people questioning everything about themselves and suffering from low self-esteem, says Dr. Ho. There’s a bright side to everything, however, and that even includes being manipulated by a dark empath.

“It’s so important just to say that this is a common thing and that the part of you that's being manipulated is the most beautiful, human quality we have, which is caring for others and having an emotional experience,” Dr. Ho says. “So you're only being manipulated because you're a kind, loving person. Please be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for doing things for a dark empath that you wish you didn’t, and just practice self-care strategies whenever you can.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Heym, Nadja, et al. “The Dark Empath: Characterising Dark Traits in the Presence of Empathy.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 169, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110172.

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