Having empathy is a critical part of emotional intelligence. First, if you can “feel” another’s feelings, you have more information than if you can’t, and you are more likely to respond to them and their situation in a constructive, even compassionate way.

Many suggest that seeing the personal pain that Covid caused has prompted a higher level of empathy. Images of the devastating human consequences of the war in Ukraine seems to have also raised sympathy for others. Both circumstances, however, hit up against a feature of empathic functioning–people are not able to relate well to more than 150 others. So, a single poster child for any situation–such as President Zelenskyy has become–helps focus and engage our empathy by giving us a real person to relate to. Images of thousands or even hundreds of thousands suffering have less of an impact because of “compassion overload.” There is so much suffering and it is diffused over such a large group that our emotional empathy is overcome.

There is some evidence that women have a slightly higher capacity for empathy than men, who have slightly higher capacities in other areas. There is also evidence that in both professional and personal settings, having robust empathy can work against you–monopolizing your feelings and eventually overwhelming them and your cognitive abilities. For those subject to that kind of impairment, learning to regulate your feelings–learning to focus your empathy’s exposure and to cap how much those feelings affect you becomes essential.

On the other side of the empathy spectrum, psychopaths, Machiavellians and narcissists are distinguished for having low set levels of empathy, making them particularly dangerous in the workplace, where unbridled self-interest can damage an organization.

A recent landmark study reviewed those who have “dark” traits (the “Traditionals”) compared to a group who have dark traits but also a relatively high level of empathy, labeled “Dark Empaths.” Men outnumbered women among both groups. The study concluded that the Dark Empaths had higher extraversion, lower direct and indirect aggression and were generally more “agreeable” than the Traditionals. However, they remained selfish, untrusting and/or contentious and did not differ in their grandiosity and their vulnerability to depression and self-loathing. Notably, the Dark Empaths did display a higher sense of wellbeing,  suggesting they are at least somewhat better at relating interpersonally.

The study points out that some have posited a “Dark” side to Emotional Intelligence, meaning that empathy can facilitate emotional manipulation, deceit and other antisocial behaviors. The difference between such “Dark EI” and the Dark Empath, they point out, is the difference between the ability (Dark EI) and the propensity (Dark Empath) to engage in antagonistic behaviors using effective emotion monitoring and management. Future studies are recommended to determine what that ability vs. propensity means.

One explanation may lie in the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, which the study admits was not controlled for. Cognitive empathy refers to the capacity to know and understand another’s mental state, while emotional empathy is the ability to resonate with another person on an emotional level, i.e., to vicariously share their feelings. Emotional empathy is usually the type that is referred to in emotional intelligence frameworks.

Why do we in law practice care? The percentage of Traditionals in law practice has been estimated to be 4-6%. The number of Dark Empaths who don’t fully meet the low empathy thresholds may be even greater. The behavior of both groups should be a concern for firms and departments everywhere. But their attributes are not set in stone. Studies have shown that low empathy in psychopaths can be reset at a higher level by consciously and repeatedly going through the thought process of what the other person might be feeling and what that would mean for the appropriate response. It’s a slog, evidently, but still can raise empathic awareness, which can at least improve interpersonal functioning.