Instrumental Empathy: The Basis of Psychological Manipulation

Instrumental empathy is very common in narcissistic and psychopathic people. These people can sense the emotions of others, but they choose to use them for their own benefit.
Instrumental Empathy: The Basis of Psychological Manipulation
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Instrumental empathy is a trait that’s often characteristic of narcissistic or psychopathic people. These people are able to identify and read the emotions of others better than you realize. Once they know how the people around them are feeling, they take advantage of this connection to manipulate them and fulfill their own objectives. They manage to do all of this without feeling even a shred of remorse.

In social situations, the ability to empathize is usually a positive and desirable trait. However, it’s easy to forget the other side of the coin when it comes to empathy, a side that’s much less shiny and much more complex. In fact, it’s often said that those who harm others, whether physically or mentally, lack the ability to empathize with others.

A study published in the scientific journal Brain, by doctors Harma Meffert and Valeria Gazzola, brought to light the “mirror system”. This is the ability to tune into the emotions of others using “mirror neurons”. These neurons are present even in people who are considered “psychopaths” and who are convicted criminals.

However, this empathy is usually brief, deliberately timed, and has a specific purpose. In reality, it’s not empathy at all. If they appear to be empathetic towards someone who’s suffering, it’s rarely because they’re able to truly identify with their emotions. In short, the only thing they desire is to manipulate others.

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche-

An angry woman.

Instrumental empathy: I feel your pain, but I don’t care

Cognitive neuroscience experts have discovered a great deal about human behavior. One thing they found is that showing empathy involves many parts of the brain. A person needs several skills to connect with and understand the emotions of others, to understand how they think, and to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Experts in this field, such as doctor and primatologist Frans de Waal, have found that empathy manifests differently in different people. In other words, some people (and even primates) can understand the emotions of those around them and want to help them. On the other hand, others can identify those emotions, but choose not to do anything in response. They don’t feel the need to help.

However, those aren’t the only types of people. A third type also use instrumental empathy; those who are aware of other’s emotions and use them for their own benefit. While they do act, their only intention is to manipulate others and cause them harm. They manage this without having a guilty conscience or feeling any remorse.

An image representing instrumental empathy.

Characteristics of instrumental empathy

People who use instrumental empathy are often extremely charming. Their goal is to convince the people around them that they really care for them. They convince others that their empathy is real and that their actions are noble.

However, these people have a goal. This behavior is, as we mentioned above, very common not only in psychopathic and narcissistic people but also in people who are selfish and egotistical. Here are some of their other characteristics:

  • They demonstrate cognitive empathy. In other words, they watch someone’s behavior, expressions, and tone of voice to understand how they’re feeling. They understand the emotions of others, but they don’t delve any deeper. They never demonstrate any emotional empathy or truly “feel” what others feel.
  • Christian Keysers, from the University of Groningen, has demonstrated that people with psychopathic tendencies feel the emotions of others. However, they’re able to switch their empathy off and on. They can choose to show empathy for short and specific periods of time, always with a goal in mind. They learn about other people’s insecurities to use them to manipulate them.

What can you do when someone doesn’t emotionally empathize with you?

You can’t compare instrumental empathy with emotional empathy. Those who use instrumental empathy don’t seek to establish a deep connection with others. They don’t put themselves in the shoes of others or want to make them happy. The consequence of instrumental empathy, both in the short and long term, is pain and the violation of others’ emotions. But the question that remains is: what do you do when someone doesn’t emotionally empathize with you?

A study conducted in 2011 and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that narcissistic people are often aware that other people don’t see them in a positive way. They’re aware that others distrust them. However, they don’t care or see any reason why they should change their behavior.

These people not only lack the ability to emotionally connect with others but they also don’t care if they harm others or if others seem them in a negative light. They’re often quite neurotic people who suffer from several psychological disorders. Therefore, they’ll rarely look for or accept professional help in order to change their behavior.

The faces of two men.

Randall Salekin, an expert in personalities from the University of Alabama, is currently carrying out programs to “mentally remodel” people with these issues. These programs have quite an ambitious goal: to activate true emotional empathy.

If you do ever come across someone who uses instrumental empathy, the best option is to keep your distance from them. You can protect your emotions by creating a safe personal barrier.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • De Waal, Frans. The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. Broadway Books, 2010.
  • Decety, J. (2015). The neural pathways, development and functions of empathy. Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, 3, pp. 1-6.
  • Shirtcliff, E. A., Vitacco, M. J., Graf, A. R., Gostisha, A. J., Merz, J. L., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2009). Neurobiology of empathy and callousness: Implications for the development of antisocial behavior. Behavioral Sciences and the Law.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.