Empathy is identified as one of the most positive and vital abilities of human beings, but new research warns that in some people – this blessed trait can actually make them far more dangerous than opaque and insensitive people
Humans’ life, like those of other animals, can be difficult and upsetting. Surrounding ourselves with individuals who understand us and can also hold and release the unpleasant things we encounter is one method to make life simpler. This trait is known as empathy, and it is seen not only in humans but also in other mammals in the wild. The same skill has a significant impact on survival, health, and mental stability – but, as we’ll see, it may also be deadly.
A recent study published in February 2022 casts a new and intriguing perspective on the ostensibly favorable characteristic. To comprehend the conclusion, it is necessary to linger briefly on the many components of empathy. This feature can be classified into three categories in general:
Cognitive empathy: the ability to understand other people’s feelings without feeling them for ourselves.
Effective empathy: the ability to feel what people are going through as if we are experiencing it for ourselves.
Compassion: This is a skill that consists of combining the other two abilities – that is, the ability to understand and identify with the feelings of others.
All human beings are located at different points on the broad scale of empathy across all three components. For example, if we see a person who is in pain, we may be able to explain to ourselves why he is in pain, but we will feel less of his pain in ourselves.
It could be that he felt sorry for him, without understanding exactly what he was going through, and it could just be that it would hurt us without us being able to explain why. It is possible, of course, that we will both understand, identify and express compassion, but this is not as obvious as one tends to think.
“To maneuver people, one must understand them”
In the present study, they analyzed a particular type of empathy that has so far not exactly been talked about. Researchers have called this “Dark Empathy”. In their view, empathic people, whether they understand the feelings of others or even identify with them, can be very dangerous if they hold on to one of the personality structures defined in psychology as the “dark trio.”
The same dark trio includes people with narcissistic, psychopathic or Machiavellian character traits.
Machiavellianism is a professional term used to describe unscrupulous, manipulative, deceitful and cunning people.
In many circumstances, people who are members of the same infamous trio do not feel empathy for one another. In the current study, scientists identified approximately 13% of participants as having a “dark” personality and a low level of empathy after conducting psychological tests on 1,000 people. With medium levels of empathy and dark qualities, 34% of participants were classified as “normal,” while 33% had strong empathy and low dark features.
However, the study’s most important and intriguing result concerns a fourth group that has yet to be thoroughly investigated. These persons were dubbed “dark empaths” by the researchers, who noticed that they constituted up 20% of all study participants.
According to them, the empathy of those people was higher than average and was expressed both on the cognitive and the emotional level.
And why is it so dangerous? Because it will be much easier for these people to exploit and hurt – without others around them even realizing it is happening.
“In a sense, it makes sense, because in order to manipulate others for personal gain, or in extreme cases even to enjoy their pain, one must have the ability to understand them,” the researchers noted.
More dangerous than physical violence
When the researchers analyzed those “dark empaths,” they found that relatively, they show lower levels of aggression and violence. Many of them were also well aware of their negative traits and even testified that they did not like these sides themselves. Some have even testified that they suffer from self-loathing, which also adversely affects their attitude toward others.
However, the high awareness, the experts explain, is not reflected in the attitude they actually give to those around them.
Dr. Ramani Durbasula, a clinical psychologist who was not involved in the study, explained this in an article to PsychCentral:
“Dark empathy can be more destructive than colder and less sensitive personality structures. Such a person can pull you closer – and cause more harm and suffering as a result. The closer you are to someone, the more power you have to hurt them.”
Experts expect that the new findings will throw new light on how we study empathy and handle empathic persons. It can potentially be used as a weapon in the wrong hands.
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