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Developmental Trajectories and Manifestations of Empathy in the Presence of Dark Traits SSS26

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: SSS26

Individuals with aversive personality traits (Paulhus & Williams, 2002) have higher risk for socially maladaptive and aggressive behaviours. The “Dark Triad” refers to three interrelated aversive traits thought to share a common core, namely: Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. Whilst these traits have unique characteristics, jointly they are thought to be underpinned by callousness and a profound lack of empathy. However, recently Heym et al. (2021) discovered a sub-group of individuals within the general population who self-reported elevated scores in both dark traits and empathy (known as Dark Empaths). This profile challenges the traditional notion of the non-empathic Dark Triad. Moreover, the Dark Empath represents a distinct profile in terms of interpersonal function, indirect aggressive behaviour, and attachment style compared to the traditional Dark Triad (i.e., High Dark Traits, Low Empathy). This novel ground-breaking construct of the Dark Empath attracted widespread attention from the general public (>3 million views within 4 months of publication). However, there remains very little empirical understanding about how the Dark Empath differs from the Dark Triad in terms of the developmental trajectory of empathy and interpersonal attachment, alongside neurocognitive function, and their impact on behavioural outcomes.

The project will investigate the trajectories that differentiate the Dark Empath from the traditional Dark Triad, by exploring the role of stable attachment and internal representations of the self and others in the development of empathy, despite the presence of dark traits. To this end, it will:

  • Apply modern psychometric and experimental modelling to investigate the manifestations of the Dark Empath in the general population, and its relationship to attachment and interpersonal functioning.
  • Further differentiate the Dark Empath and Dark Triad profiles based on objective measures (e.g., neurocognitive brain function).
  • Examine trajectories of attachment (in)security in Dark Empaths in typical adolescents and those from adverse backgrounds (e.g., with a history of domestic abuse). Here we will focus on factors that mitigate maladaptive outcomes from dark traits through the development of empathy and secure attachment.
  • Identify mechanisms of prevention and recommend more tailored intervention approaches to improve interpersonal function and reduce risk for maladaptive outcomes in individuals with dark traits.

The project is the first to investigate the Dark Empath in relation to attachment and psychosocial function. It will leverage ongoing collaboration with our 3rd sector partners (Living Without Abuse) to support the UK and global mental health policy agenda, providing a solid scientific framework for understanding and for intervention targeting dark traits.

School strategic research priority

The project aligns well with the research priorities of the strategic ‘Health and Wellbeing’ research theme, at the core of the Affect, Personality and the Embodied Brain (APE) research group, within the Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience unit of assessment and School of Social Sciences.

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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