Individuals with Psychopathic Traits Have the Ability to Empathize, They Just Don’t Want To

Humans are social beings that can feel for others. There is a popular belief that those people who score high in “dark triad” personality traits are unable to empathize. But, according to new research, this belief is not true at all.

The “dark triad” personality

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In the first place, you should know what the “dark triad” personality means. It refers to the individuals who score highly in tests on psychopathy (cynicism), narcissism (entitled self-importance), and Machiavellianism (acrimony).

According to new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, those individuals mentioned before are capable of empathy. They just do not care about others and are more concerned about themselves.

Researchers invited 278 participants to complete an anonymous online survey to measure their dark triad levels and cognitive abilities. Their empathy was evaluated in two different ways.
First of all, the participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). It measures how disposed people are to be empathetic by listing statements like “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place”.

After that, every participant was shown pictures of people expressing different emotions and asked to recognize how the people in the picture feel. This test is called the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET) and led to a new perspective.

An “empathy switch”

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Yogesh Pedamkar from Unsplash

It appears that the people that scored highly for the dark triad could perfectly recognize the emotions of others based on the MET, but they just didn’t seem interested in others’ feelings.
The research suggests that psychopaths possess something like an “empathy switch” that they can turn on and off when they want to. Unfortunately, they do not want to do it often, being more concerned about their point of view.

But, as in the case of many other studies, this one has limitations as well. First of all, the study used a self-assessment questionnaire. So, the individuals were not diagnosed with psychopathy or narcissism.

Then, the exclusive use of an internet approach may be a huge problem. Why? Because the researchers couldn’t access the English competency of the participants. After all, they selected educated LinkedIn users.

The study’s limitations

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Photo by Gery Wibowo from Unsplash

“These results don’t inform us on clinical samples (people diagnosed with psychopathy or narcissism). These people may very well be lacking the ability, and not only the disposition, to empathize.

Furthermore, the study rests on a rather small sample and the trait scales are based on self-reported questionnaire items, which arguably holds some social desirability-error,” Kajonius explained.

All things considered, the study is called “Individuals with dark traits have the ability but not the disposition to empathize“ and it was authored by Petri J. Kajoniusa and Therese Björkmana.

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