Psychopathic individuals have the ability to empathize — they just don’t like to

Individuals with high levels of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — known as the “dark triad” of personality traits — do not appear to have an impaired ability to empathize, according to new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. But these individuals are not inclined to use this ability.

“There seems to be so many misunderstandings about ‘normal’ psychopaths among us,” remarked study author Petri Kajonius, an associate professor in psychology at University West in Sweden.

“Sometimes psychopaths (people with dark traits) are understood as callous persons, not being able to empathize with others, while at other times they are understood as fully functional in that regard, but just don’t care. We wanted to find out what the data in a HR-community sample, purposed to be in tune with personnel, would say?”

The study of 278 participants found that dark personality traits were negatively related to the disposition to empathize, but had no relationship with the ability to empathize.

People who scored high on a measure of Dark Triad traits tended to agree with statements such as “Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems” and “Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal.”

But the Dark Triad traits were unrelated to scores on the Multifaceted Empathy Test, in which the participants were shown pictures of people expressing different emotions and asked to identify which feeling the person in the picture was experiencing.

“The results show that overwhelmingly, HR-people with dark traits, are not lacking the ability to empathize, but score low in their dispositions to do so,” Kajonius told PsyPost.

“In other words, psychopaths, Machiavellians, and narcissists in the common population (i.e. non-clinical) don’t care much about other people’s feelings, but still have the ability to empathize.”

“This may clear things up about the nature of the Dark Triad, which is becoming a more and more used psychological measurement, especially in work psychology.”

The researchers also found that cognitive ability was positively related to the ability to empathize.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“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.

The study, “Individuals with dark traits have the ability but not the disposition to empathize“, was authored by Petri J. Kajoniusa and Therese Björkmana.