Learn How to Recognize and Protect Yourself From Instrumental Empathy

We associate the term empathy with sensitivity, help, and collaboration. However, this isn't always the case as there are different types of empathy.
Learn How to Recognize and Protect Yourself From Instrumental Empathy
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Relationships with selfish, narcissistic, or psychopathic people can be devastating. When you see someone in a relationship with one of them, you wonder how they could’ve chosen someone who clearly doesn’t care about their feelings. However, the truth is that these individuals are true chameleons and experts in using instrumental empathy.

As you probably know, these types of people lack empathy and others’ needs are never at the top of their scale of priorities. However, the fact that they don’t care about the well-being of their victims doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to read their emotions. In fact, they’re perfectly capable of doing so. Furthermore, they use this knowledge for their own purposes.

Man talking on the phone
Those who possess instrumental empathy sense the emotional states of others but don’t get affected by them.

Instrumental empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to transfer our consciousness to another. There are several elements to this ability. Firstly, it means being able to perceive and identify what another is thinking and feeling. Secondly, it involves identifying or permeating their emotional state. Finally, it concerns the motivation to act in order to reduce their pain.

As you can see, empathy is a complex skill. Therefore, when we say that certain people don’t have it, we mean that they don’t meet all the parameters. This is where the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy comes in. For example, someone might sense how another is feeling, but not be affected emotionally by that state. In effect, they can sense that the other is sad, but on an emotional level, the sadness doesn’t reach them.

This can be confusing for people who possess little emotional empathy. That’s because they don’t have the information that other people who are skilled in emotional identification possess.

It happens in instances of psychopathy. Research has found that these people are capable of tuning into the emotions of others, in the sense of detecting and reading them. Empathy activates in their brains, but only briefly and in a cognitive way.

Unfortunately, this emotional disconnection makes them prone to intentionally exploiting the other’s emotional state. Indeed, they manipulate, deceive, and use the other person in order to satisfy their own needs or desires. This is instrumental empathy. It’s the ability to connect with the emotions of others but it’s only used for personal gain.

How to recognize it?

Knowing how to identify when the person in front of you shows instrumental empathy is important. If you don’t pay attention, you can end up being victims of selfish, interested, or manipulative people such as psychopaths or narcissists. These are some of the main characteristics that you should pay attention to:

  • When you’re first getting to know the person they’re charming. They seem really interested in you and make you believe that their interest in you is genuine.
  • They’re really good at reading your body language and expressions, as well as identifying your emotions. Indeed, don’t expect them to behave strangely or appear to be maladjusted in any way. They’re real chameleons who know how to perceive how you feel and can reflect it back to you without any problem.
  • Remember that their goal is always to take advantage of the situation. Therefore, try and figure out if they’re using empathy to manipulate you and what benefits they’re getting. Their answers, even if they seem sincere, will never be truly altruistic.
  • They show no remorse, guilt, or desire for change. They don’t admit their mistakes and don’t learn from experience because they don’t ever consider that they’ve done anything wrong. For the same reason, they’ll almost never seek professional help.
two people talking
Instrumental empathy is used to manipulate others.

Protect yourself from instrumental empathy

Instrumental empathy isn’t only typical of the criminals you see on tv. Actually, it’s present in many people and some of them may live in your environment. They might even be your relatives, friends, or partner. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily have to suffer from a psychological disorder. However, even if they do have some mental condition, this disorder may be so integrated that you have a hard time recognizing it.

For this reason, if you suspect that someone close to you is only using you and that their supposed empathy is never backed up with selfless actions, you must protect yourself. As we’ve said, these people rarely change, they don’t really connect with your emotions, and they don’t care about your well-being.

The best thing you can do is keep a safe distance. If it’s not possible to walk away from them completely, remember their intentions and don’t be taken in by their charm. Always look at the facts and don’t be afraid to set boundaries. After all, it’s your emotional integrity that’s at stake.

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.

  • Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., Den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain136(8), 2550-2562.
  • Pozueco, J. M., Moreno, J. M., Blázquez, M., & García-Baamonde, M. E. (2013). Psicopatía Subclínica, Empatía Emocional y Maltrato Psicológico en la Pareja: Empatía Cero Negativa y Violencia Instrumental-Manipulativa. Clínica Contemporánea4(3), 3.

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