Study uncovers the unique links between dark triad traits and specific empathic deficits

New psychology research suggests that the so-called “dark triad” of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism are three independent personality traits. The findings indicate the dark triad traits are not just different manifestations of the same underlying lack of empathy.

The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

“Aggressive and violent behaviour has serious impact on individuals and society as a whole. I want to understand what drives or underpins aggressive or antisocial tendencies in individuals with maladaptive personality traits,” said Nadja Heym, a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University and corresponding author of the study.

“Initially my PhD and then subsequent research looked at the associations of psychopathy with different forms of empathy, direct aggression and antisocial behaviour. Examining these associations in the context of the dark triad and more indirect (manipulative) forms of aggression is simply an extension to this research.”

The researchers used a dark triad personality survey and a multifaceted measure of empathy to assess 301 participants. Heym and her colleagues also assessed how often the participants engaged in interpersonal acts of indirect aggression, such as trying to embarrass someone, excluding someone from activities, or using emotional blackmail to coerce someone.

The three dark triad traits each had their own pattern of empathic responses. The three traits also had different relationships with aggression.

Those with high in psychopathy tended to score low on all five facets of empathy and psychopathy was also associated with all forms of indirect aggression.

But participants with high Machiavellianism scores only showed reduced empathy in two areas. They were less likely to put themselves in another person’s position by imagining what that person was feeling and also tended to be less responsive to emotional cues in immersive settings.

In other words, those high in Machiavellianism tended to disagree with statements such as “I always try to consider the other fellow’s feelings before I do something” and “I often get deeply involved with the feelings of a character in a film, play, or novel.”

Machiavellianism was also associated with guilt induction, but not any other form of indirect aggression.

Participants with high narcissism scores were also less responsive to emotional cues in immersive settings, but actually scored higher in one area of empathy; they were more likely to say they could see things from someone else’s perspective. Narcissism was unrelated to indirect aggression.

“Different maladaptive or dark traits are linked to different forms of aggression, and whilst narcissism has been traditionally seen as a dark trait and linked to aggression – this may be simply due to its links (or overlap) with the other two, much darker traits – psychopathy and Machiavellianism,” Heym told PsyPost.

“Our research suggests that narcissism is not as badly affected as these – in terms of its preserved empathic capacities and lack of association with indirect manipulative forms of aggression. Thus, just because someone is too self-involved and narcissistic, it doesn’t make them necessarily aggressive or dangerous.”

“It’s is therefore questionable whether we should lump these three traits together and see them as equally problematic – personally, I am a splitter and prefer a more fine-tuned approach – that is to look at them individually to better understand their unique impact on behaviour,” Heym explained.

“In a similar way, we need to also differentiate amongst different forms of empathic deficits (or capacities) in order to understand more precisely which aspects of functioning are affected, and thus, underpin specific forms of aggressive behaviour.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Firstly, this study measured dark traits in the general population – that is, we did not measure personality disorders at the extreme ends of personality dysfunction. The findings therefore only pertain to individuals from the general population with elevated levels of certain constellations of dark traits. Though they partly mirror what we also see and expect at the extreme ends (e.g., in psychopaths), they need replicating in forensic/clinical populations,” Heym said.

“Secondly, indirect aggression was measured using self-reports, which have their own inherent limitations. Future research could include other-reports and more importantly, experimental paradigms to measure aggressive behaviour more directly.”

“Thirdly, whilst narcissistic traits were not uniquely (only by association) related to the indirect types of aggression studied (malicious humour, guild induction and social exclusion), it doesn’t mean that they are not aggressive per se. Narcissism, particularly the vulnerable type, may be more likely to behave aggressively in response to ego threat (such as personal criticism) – though as this is a reactive form of aggression, self-control might be a moderating factor here,” Heym explained.

The findings suggest that some concerns about narcissism could be overblown.

“From a societal viewpoint, there is concern that we live in a more ego-centred, attention seeking and self-obsessed narcissistic society where youth (and old) post never-ending streams of selfies on never-ending streams of social media. Our research is interesting in terms of suggesting that having elevated narcissistic traits is less problematic in the absence of the other dark traits,” Heym told PsyPost.

“So one contention is that there is an overlap with certain psychological constructs such as high levels of self-esteem, extraversion and lower levels of neuroticism or anxiety, which might reduce risk for internalising psychopathology (depression, anxiety disorders, etc) in the long term.

“On the other hand, the sought perfectionism in appearance might increase risk for vulnerable narcissism and anxiety. However, these notions need to be further studied to better understand the impact of such potential societal transitions towards more online/social media presence,” Heym added.

“Currently, I am taking the next step, looking at the Dark Tetrad – that includes sadism – and sexual aggression and violence. Testing different theoretical and aetiological models in order to understand the underpinning of deviant behaviour is important in order to inform intervention strategies.”

The study, “Empathy at the Heart of Darkness: Empathy Deficits That Bind the Dark Triad and Those That Mediate Indirect Relational Aggression“, was authored by Nadja Heym, Jennifer Firth, Fraenze Kibowski, Alexander Sumich, Vincent Egan and Claire A. J. Bloxsom.