For dark empaths, being able to identify other people’s needs can become a way to benefit from a situation.

The ability to relate to other people’s circumstances can be a powerful tool. In fact, empathy is often a personality trait among people driven to help others.

Sometimes, however, having the ability to understand what someone else is going through may be used for personal gain or as a manipulation tactic. This is what some people refer to as “dark empathy.“

A dark empath is someone who uses cognitive empathy at the expense of others, often for personal gain. They can recognize someone’s situation without sympathizing with them.

Cognitive empathy is one of three types of empathy outlined by researchers Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman. It’s the ability to see someone’s perspective without necessarily feeling the emotions that come with it.

In other words, you identify what they’re going through, even if you don’t feel sympathy for them or the desire to support them.

Dark empathy isn’t a formal mental health symptom or diagnosis.

The three types of empathy

Cognitive empathy. The ability to understand someone’s perspective and thoughts without emotional involvement.

Emotional empathy. Being able to feel the emotions someone else is feeling as though you were going through their experience, too.

Compassionate empathy. A combination of cognitive and emotional empathy where you understand another perspective and your emotions respond as though you were in that situation.

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Research suggests a dark empath often feels:

  • a lack of pleasure from social rewards, despite feeling the need for attention
  • high attunement to others’ experiences and circumstances
  • emotional distance or detachment
  • a drive toward grandiosity conflicted by intense self-criticism

The same research identifies these common behaviors among dark empaths:

Cali Estes, a positive psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist from Miami, Florida, explains that the most common behaviors in dark empathy are based on dishonesty.

“They may love bomb you, act amazing around your family, and appear the perfect partner to your family, but inside they only want you for your money or value you can give them,” she says.

Nicole Cain, an integrative mental health expert from Phoenix, indicates manipulation tactics used by dark empaths vary widely; however, they tend to be indirect and subtle.

She explains this subtlety may be due to a dark empath’s ability to logically understand psychological interworkings.

Their insight allows them to identify ways to manipulate social situations in a way that makes them appear blameless.

Common tactics of manipulation may include:

  • gaslighting
  • love bombing
  • ghosting
  • playing the victim
  • sarcasm
  • intimidation
  • gossiping

“They can be very charming and put you on a pedestal and then be the very person who will knock that pedestal down,” adds Mary Joye, a mental health counselor and Certified Florida Supreme Court Family Mediator in Winter Haven, Florida.

Example of a dark empath’s manipulation tactic, according to Joye

“That’s a beautiful dress on you. I bet you’ll be glad when you lose 50 pounds so it looks even better.”

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According to Cain, dark empaths possess what she calls “fractured empathy,” a type of empathy missing critical aspects of what it means to be fully empathic — like concern for others.

This so-called fractured empathy occurs alongside three traits known in psychology as the dark triad:


Narcissism is a trait that exists on a spectrum. It can also be a mental health diagnosis. Narcissism often presents as:

  • an inflated sense of self
  • a need for attention and admiration
  • feelings of grandiosity


Psychopathy isn‘t a diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). In clinical settings, traits of psychopathy are covered under a condition called antisocial personality disorder.

The main characteristics associated with psychopathic traits include:

  • indifference toward someone else’s needs or well-being
  • use of manipulation tactics
  • low impulse control
  • inability to feel remorse


Machiavellianism isn‘t a formal mental health condition. It’s a combination of personality traits and behaviors that might include:

  • cynicism
  • abusive behaviors
  • vindictive behaviors
  • use of emotional manipulation tactics

Dark empaths usually experience cognitive empathy only, which allows them to maintain their distance emotionally.

While cognitive empathy is one of the three types of empathy outlined by Ekman and Goleman, some experts believe dark empathy is not accurate terminology because empathy, in general, involves a concern for another’s well-being.

“I am of the ilk that a dark empath is just a new term to call someone with dark emotional intelligence something palatable,” says Joye. “In reality, this term desensitizes us.”

Joye believes most empaths want to help people, and that dark empaths don’t fit the mold of what’s traditionally known as an empathetic person.

She says of empaths, “They comprise about 20% of the population and keep people safe. This is the opposite of what we now call a dark empath.”

The exact cause of dark empath traits is unknown.

Many theories exist on how personality develops, but most experts agree it’s a complex mixture of worldly experiences, disposition, and innate biological function.

When it comes to empathy, a 2007 study revealed that structural or functional changes in the brain can alter how empathy is perceived and expressed.

Narcissism is one of three traits contributing to the dark empath personality.

According to Cain, people living with narcissistic personality disorder also live with a sense of grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority, as do dark empaths.

The difference, however, can be that someone living with a narcissistic personality may not be as self-critical as dark empaths tend to be.

A common symptom of narcissism is that people lack the ability to evaluate themselves or be insightful.

People with narcissistic personality disorder are also typically low in all types of empathy.

In addition, Cain points out dark empaths express components of all three dark triad traits, not just narcissism.

The difference between dark empathy and psychopathy is not well understood.

Some experts, such as Joye, believe there’s no difference.

“I know many of my colleagues may disagree with me,” she says, “but a dark empath and a sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable terms. I have deduced this from research and in professional practice and private conversations.”

Cain agrees that the exact point of separation between dark empathy and psychopathy is a gray area that requires more research.

From her view, she indicates dark empaths possess traits of psychopathy, but psychopathy does not necessarily embody all the traits of a dark empath.

“For example,” she says, “the dark empath may be strategically malicious and cruel, whereas the psychopath tends to not be able to comprehend or even be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others.”

Dark empathy can describe a form of emotional intelligence that allows you to identify the thoughts and feelings of others and then use them for personal gain.

When you display dark empathy traits, your focus is often on how a situation can benefit you, and not how it will affect the other person.

While dark empathy can be considered a form of cognitive empathy, some experts believe this terminology is misleading, and that in general, being an empathetic person means having a benevolent mindset.

Dark empathy is not a mental health disorder, and it features traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.