What do Bernie Madoff, Jim Jones and Charles Ponzi have in common?

Each of these infamous criminals deeply understood their victims’ emotions and used that knowledge to get what they wanted. While the term ‘dark empath’ wasn’t around when any of these men were running riot, chances are they all shared this dangerous personality.

In this article, we take a look at what a dark empath is, the traits they display, how to spot one, and what to do about it. Here’s everything you need to know about dark empaths. 

What Exactly is a Dark Empath?

Let’s start out with a simple definition. While not a formal diagnosis, those with this personality “demonstrate a cluster of dark personality traits combined with elevated levels of empathy,” states research from the Personality and Individual Differences Journal.

Dark empathy — which the research suggests is more prevalent in men than women — is likely to be one of the most dangerous. That unique combination of malicious traits and high empathy drive these individuals to manipulate others.

Whether it’s tricking you into buying a product or convincing you to do them a favor, dark empaths instantly detect what you’re feeling and employ tactics to gain control over you. The most concerning part? You may not even realize it’s happening until it’s too late.

“They will try to motivate you to help them in any way. They may be able to read my face for my nonverbal cues to see whether their pitch is working,” explains Romeo Vitelli Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in the Toronto area and author. “I've encountered that in real life, for example, with pyramid scheme operators. They motivate others by reading cues.”

Vitelli previously worked in a maximum-security prison for 15 years where, he says, he encountered many dark empaths and recognized similar motivations in each of them.

“It’s usually as a means to win or to take advantage in some way. When I worked in the prison system, I encountered an amazing number of con artists — people who could read people to get the other side's approval or get the better of people.”

The Different Types of Empathy (and Why They Matter)

Of course, empathy is a powerful trait. It’s the innate ability to relate to other people’s emotions. Most of the time, those with empathy use their talent for good. They are nurturers, those who instantly understand what’s wrong and know just what to say.

However, in the wrong hands, empathy can become a weapon. People who are prone to narcissism, for example, may use people’s feelings against them to get what they want.

“As one study points out, empathy is an extremely complex behavior that can be linked to prosocial and antisocial behavior alike,” says Vitelli.

“Affective empathy involves emotional sharing, cognitive empathy allows someone to have a rational understanding of someone else's thoughts and feelings, and sympathetic empathy relates to caring about someone else's distress and wanting to help.”

People may experience one, two, or even all three types of empathy at any given time. However, as Vitelli explains, when someone is a dark empath, it’s likely they experience only cognitive empathy whilst being entirely devoid of the other two.

“It's important to identify the type of empathy dark empaths are displaying,” he continues. “While they are not unlikely to experience sympathetic or affective empathy, cognitive empathy can be an essential part of their manipulative behavior since it allows them to gain a perspective of what other people are thinking or feeling.”

The ability to understand how someone is feeling, without caring or wanting to help, can be dangerous. It allows dark empaths to know which buttons to press to get their way.

“This means that they understand another person’s situation or feelings but won’t necessarily sympathize with them,” says Pareen Sehat, MC, RCC, the clinical director of Well Beings Counseling. “Their understanding of an individual’s circumstance is usually for their personal gain, highlighting a complete lack of emotional empathy.”

Dark Empathy and the Dark Triad of Personality Traits

The dark triad of personality traits certainly sounds ominous — and it is. This name is given to three of the most common harmful characteristics a person can have.

“When exploring what may drive dark empaths, it's essential to discuss the dark triad of negative personality traits that are linked to any type of antisocial behavior. These include psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism,” explains Vitelli.

Understanding each of these dark personality traits helps to shed light on a dark empath’s behavior. With that in mind, here’s what you should know about each of them.


Psychopathy is a disorder that causes "deficient emotional responses" and "poor behavioral controls" which oftentimes lead to "persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior."


Next up, narcissism is a personality-based disorder in which a person has an inflated ego or sense of importance. These people often need "excessive attention and admiration."


Finally, Machiavellianism is a personality type in which someone uses "flattery and deceit" or being "aloof or cynical" to get their way. These people tend to have amoral viewpoints.

What are the Main Personality Traits of Dark Empaths?

So, what does a dark empath look like? As the previously mentioned research suggests, most dark empaths share the following set of traits:

They are highly extraverted

“Dark empaths often have great social skills,” says Sehat. “They tend to be extroverted and quite open in their opinions and behaviors. A dark empath will express their thoughts and opinions of others. As you can probably guess, those opinions are not very nice.”

They constantly look for validation

Since they have a strong inner self-critic, dark empaths are in continual need for attention from those around them. This may cause them to show off, be the loudest person in the room, or put other people down in a bid to appear superior to them.

They easily understand others’ emotions

“They are observant and intelligent enough to understand another's emotions. However, they won't be using this information to help anyone out,” says Sehat. “Rather, they will use this to take advantage of others.”

But, they tend to be emotionally distant

As dark empaths only experience cognitive empathy, they may be emotionally distant from those around them. Sure, they understand your feelings, but they are detached from them. That may mean they avoid talking about deep topics or sharing their own emotions.

How To Spot a Dark Empath in Your Life

Dark empaths have complex personalities, often stemming from an intense need to be validated by others. However, left unchecked, these people can wreak havoc on your life.

Spotting a dark empath means picking up on certain behaviors. The previously-discussed traits directly impact how these individuals act when they are around other people. The research into dark empathy suggests that people with this personality type may: 

  • Continually guilt-trip people around them
  • Make cruel jokes at other peoples’ expense
  • Gossip, be vindictive, or bully others
  • Manipulate people to get their own way

Recognizing this behavior in the people closest to you may be tough. However, if you are constantly being controlled or manipulated by someone in your life, that is a problem.

“These signs are not necessarily diagnostic of a dark empath,” says Sehat. “But, you must look out for signs of emotional manipulation, bullying, and gossip. Moreover, if someone has the habit of using others for their own gain, chances are they have dark empath traits.”

What to Do if You Encounter a Dark Empath

These individuals can control, manipulate, and abuse you, if you never take action. Should you know someone who acts in a vindictive way and uses their understanding of you for their own gain, you have to do something about it. There are three good options here.

Suggest they see a therapist

“If the dark empath in your life has verbalized a desire to change then the first thing you could suggest is seeing a therapist,” advises Sehat. “If they are open to it, therapy can facilitate a different perspective, which can help to create change.”

Start setting some healthy boundaries

“If they are unwilling to change and you are experiencing the negative effects of this relationship in your life then it is time to set some boundaries,” says Sehat. “This can be very difficult, but keep in mind this is an effort to keep them in your life, not punish them.”

If all else fails, cut off contact with them

“If they are not open to seeking help or respecting your boundaries then it is in your best interest to cut off contact with them,” says Sehat. “This can be quite tricky to do and you may be afraid of the backlash. It can be helpful for you to work through how to do this with a therapist, in a way that protects yourself from further harm.”

Final words

The dark empath is a dangerous personality type — and one we don’t know everything about yet. While there is still a great deal of research needed here, we’ve covered the generally agreed-upon facts within this article.

As a final word, it’s unfair to tar any person as inherently "evil." Humans, by our very nature, are multifaceted. Even those who display signs of being a dark empath likely do so in response to traumatic experiences. For that reason, we should seek to understand them, while, of course, protecting ourselves from their negative behaviors.

Charlotte Grainger
Charlotte Grainger is a freelance writer, having previously been published in Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Brides Magazine and the Metro. Her articles vary from relationship and lifestyle topics to personal finance and careers. She is an unquestionable ENFJ, an avid reader, a fully-fledged coffee addict and a cat lover. Charlotte has a BA in Journalism and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sheffield.