Can empaths be mean or evil? (A Complete Guide)

In this article, we will answer the question ‘Can empaths be mean or evil?’. We will do that by defining empaths. This will follow up by describing empathy on a spectrum. We will move on to discussing evil or mean empaths and the dark side of empathy. Finally, we will discuss how empathy can be used for evil.

Can empaths be mean or evil?

Yes, Empaths can be mean and evil. According to the spectrum point of view, people do not purely possess one trait. They can lie at any point on the spectrum i.e negative extreme (people with low empathy), the middle (people with average empathy), and positive extreme (people with high empathy). According to this perspective, a person may have empathy and can be evil at the same time. Usually, such individuals are dark empaths i.e people who have empathy and dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism. In addition to that, some people who are evil e.g. psychopaths can learn cognitive empathy to show ‘empathically correct behavior’ to get what they want from others.

Empaths

An empath refers to an individual who is sensitive and able to feel the emotional pain of other people.  People consider them to be a subset of Highly sensitive people (HSP). They have a good awareness of another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand their perspective and worldview. It’s like empaths can hear the words and listen to the body language of other people including their tone of voice, posture, facial expressions, and even their silence. Such people are driven to help and heal others.  Usually,  they hold the other person’s feelings and help them process it together.

Empathy on a spectrum

If we look at empathy from a spectrum point of view, we come to understand that an empathic person is not necessarily an angel. Even a psychopath may have some level of empathy. A criminal may lie in the middle of the empathic spectrum but may turn off his emotional responses before detonating a device. In other words, we have an empathic circuit, which if damaged can be temporarily or permanently turned off. 

In a similar way sometimes, our beliefs can help us identify more with the in-group and less with the outgroup. Consequently, such people may be more empathic to the in-group rather than the out-group. In addition to that, context matters. A person cannot be empathic all the time. In one situation, he may be nice and friendly but in another, he may not have the same positive responses. 

Evil or Mean Empaths

Research studies have shown that empaths do not always have pure intentions. They have a dark side as well. Sara Konrath and her colleagues found that emotionally intelligent people could be exploitative. In the same way, Yuki Nozak and Masuo Koyasu’s experimental study revealed that emotionally intelligent people could use their skills of understanding other people’s emotions to direct them into doing what they want. 

This points to the idea that people with cognitive and affective empathy can be evil or mean. In other words, they can use their skills to exploit others, hurt them, or intimidate them. Their empathic value is neutral i.e. they use their empathic skills to alternate between helping and hurting others. 

In addition to this, another study found that a version of empaths exist called the dark empaths i.e. an empathic version of the dark triad traits of . Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. These people were extroverted, agreeable, neurotic, and aggressive. They also had high malicious humor and guilt induction which meant that they could use their humor to look down on others and induce guilt in them to get what they want. They were cold, exploitative but with warmth and ability to charm others. They could understand other people’s intentions and use such empathic information to their advantage.

The Dark Side of Empathy

According to Fritz Breithaupt, sometimes people commit atrocities not due to the absence of empathy but as a consequence of successful empathy. According to him, empathy can lead us away from the right path. The ability to understand other people’s emotions can sometimes lead to dysfunctional and violent behavior. 

According to science, we are biologically primed to be empathic. However, Fritz Breithaupt argues that empathy should be viewed from a balanced perspective i.e. its ability to do both good and bad. He says that empaths can be selfish as they learn information from people to feel less alone. 

He defines vampiristic empathy where empaths use empathy to experience the world of other people in a way they enjoy. It is similar to helicopter parenting where parents steer their kids in the right direction but with the right intention. However, these parents rob their children of their independence. They project their own self into the kids.  A similar concept can be applied to empaths who can intentionally or unintentionally understand people from a biased perspective and direct them into behaving according to their own wishes.

In the same way sometimes, empathy enables us to see the negative and painful parts of life. This can direct people to act in a way that can be harmful in order to end their own suffering i.e. their empathy serves their self-interest. 

How Empathy can be used for Evil

  • Use of Cognitive empathy by dark personality traits

People with dark triad personalities can learn cognitive empathy i.e. intellectually understand how people think, feel, and behave and not actually employ affective empathy i.e. feel the emotions of others. As a result, these personalities use this information to display ‘correct behaviors’ to get advantages from others. In other words, their empathy may be fake empathy used as a tool. 

  • Sadistic side of Empathy

Sometimes people with cognitive empathy may show affective dissonance responses. Affective dissonance is when a person experiences contradictory emotions from others. People with this aspect may love others getting angry or enjoy hurting people etc. Such people are more likely to be aggressive and have externalizing disorders. They may enjoy watching others in pain. 

  •  The impact of empathy on decision making

According to Paul Bloom, empathy can be biased and can numb us to the suffering of a greater number of people who are unlike us. In other words, we are more empathic to people who are like us and only to a few people. We miss out on the rest of the world. As a result, we may be polarized in our thinking and engage in us vs them dichotomy and start to even hate other groups. 

  • Empathy as a source of victimhood

Sometimes, people use their empathy to get the advantage of being the victim. This means that they justify their ability to understand other people’s emotions and feelings by presenting themself in a good light. 

FAQs: Can empaths be mean or evil?

What are empaths?

An empath refers to an individual who is sensitive and able to feel the emotional pain of other people.  They have a good awareness of another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand their perspective and worldview. Such people are driven to help and heal others.  Usually,  they hold the other person’s feelings and help them process it together. 

Can Empaths be dangerous?

Usually, empaths are a danger to themself rather than other people. They may turn to drugs, alcohol, or sex to numb their sensitivities to feeling the pain of others. 

Can empaths be manipulative?

Empaths can be manipulative. Recent studies have revealed that there are people who have both traits of cognitive and affective empathy along with the dark triad traits i.e. narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. These people can use their skills of emotional intelligence to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings. Consequently, they can use this information to their advantage and exploit others. In other words, they enjoy both the empathic advantage and exploitation advantage of people with. dark triad traits.

Can empaths have a dark side?

Yes, Empaths can have a dark side. Such individuals are called dark empaths who possess both empathy and dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and machiavellianism.

Conclusion

In this article, we answered the question ‘Can empaths be mean or evil?’. We found that Empaths can be mean and evil. According to the spectrum point of view, people do not purely possess one trait. They can lie at any point on the spectrum i.e negative extreme (people with low empathy), the middle (people with average empathy), and positive extreme (people with high empathy). According to this perspective, a person may have empathy and can be evil at the same time. Usually, such individuals are dark empaths i.e people who have empathy and dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism. In addition to that, some people who are evil e.g. psychopaths can learn cognitive empathy to show ‘empathically correct behavior’ to get what they want from others.

I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/moral-universe/using-empathy-to-use-people-emotional-intelligence-and-manipulation/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/202008/introducing-the-dark-empath-0

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/12/712682406/does-empathy-have-a-dark-side

https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-are-dark-empaths

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/conditions/evil-and-empathy-scientists-shed-light-on-hearts-of-darkness/article588816/

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.