Why Do Some People Express Insincere Kindness?

False kindness is often expressed just as much as it's enjoyed. Why?

Posted Jul 22, 2019

Why do some people behave in an unusually-kind manner for no reason other than to gain a personal advantage? Moreover, why are some individuals accepting of another person’s incessant flattery—knowing full-well that the charm is not entirely genuine?

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and the author of The Stress-Proof Brain, says that there are definitely some common reasons behind this. Julia Breur, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private clinical psychotherapy practice in Boca Raton, Florida, also weighs in on what she refers to as “false kindness.”

3 Common Reasons People Demonstrate Excessive Kindness

1. Narcissism:  “I think that for some people, it’s because they are self-serving,” she says. Dr. Greenberg explains that these people are often wondering what the best way is to accomplish their goals without caring so much about the other person. They’ll turn on the charm towards others, but ultimately, it’s only because they hope to achieve some kind of personal gain.  

2. Control: Dr. Breur suggests keeping an eye on someone who is kind to you, yet judgmental about others. “Inauthentic people often judge others as a way of gaining control,” she says. “Be careful, because some people may use kindness to try to control you.”

3. Insecurity:  At the same time, Dr. Greenberg says people shouldn’t jump to negative conclusions. Not everyone who is extremely kind has ulterior motives. For example, an insecure person, she says, may not feel confident asking for a favor outright. Therefore, they may “ask” by regularly demonstrating nice words and behaviors.

The List Goes On – How to Spot False Kindness

How can you tell when someone is being genuinely kind or when they’re being kind simply for their own benefit?

Dr. Breur says that false kindness is demonstrated in many ways.  Examples run the gamut, but she provides a handful:

  • A friend bends over backward complimenting everything you say or do as their birthday approaches with their only intention being to get the gift they have been hinting for from you
  • Patient compliments their physician hoping that will make them more likable and make any of their medical needs the physician's top priority
  • Student stays after class complimenting the class lecture so the professor knows who they are and may help their final grade
  • Client compliments hairdresser hoping to get some freebie in addition to getting their hair styled well
  • Guest on radio talk show kindly tells commentator that their questions are great ones prior to providing responses in order to be viewed as a special show guest and possibly be asked to return again as a featured show guest
  • An individual may follow and like someone's social media page/site for their own strategic gains versus displaying any follow and like sincerity

Dr. Greenberg says that other examples include excessive kindness to gain support, such as someone who flatters their boss with the hope of having their project recognized or getting a promotion. Another reason, she says, is commonly seen in the dating world. Flattery and over-the-top kindness is something people may engage in with the hopes of impressing a potential partner.

Flatter Me Some More: The Appeal of Excessive Kindness and Charm

Many times, the person receiving the flattering remarks basks in excessive compliments, seemingly unaware that the comments and actions are not genuine.

First off, don’t jump to conclusions, Dr. Breur says. Indulging in other people’s feel-good statements aren’t always about feeding into potential ulterior motives. “Some individuals crave unsolicited kindness or compliments. It feels good!” she explains. “It can be nice to have someone compliment you, especially if you are having a bad day.”

Secondly, she notes that not everyone is able to easily speak up against someone whose kind words don’t match the intent in their heart.  While she explains that she thinks people of all ages are “in tune to others who display intended or unintended pretentiousness,” it’s often a different story for children. “A child may sense someone is being kind for an ulterior motive, but not able to express their thoughts and feelings verbally until years later,” she explains. “Sadly, we hear over and over again stories of how children trust the ‘kindness’ of someone such as a relative, priest, minister, teacher or sports coach and years later is able to say that person took advantage of them, even sexually.”

Many times, it’s a mixed bag. Some people realize false kindness right away, while others crave it so much that it doesn’t matter to them whether or not it’s genuine.  “Some are so insecure that they need praise so badly,” explains Dr. Greenberg. “Therefore, it may take them longer to realize that it’s insincere flattery.” She explains that for a lot of people, kindness with underlying tones of personal gain may go unnoticed because the kindness fills a void in their insecure nature. “It can be like a powerful drug,” Dr. Greenberg says.

She also explains that how a person is raised may have a lot to do with how kindness is perceived. For example, if you were often told that you were worthless growing up, she says that you may be more prone to insincere flattery.

Consequences of False Kindness

A relationship that’s filled with insincere flattery, while it may fit the needs of both the giver and the recipient at times, isn’t ideal. Dr. Greenberg says that trust issues, feelings of being used and getting mad or frustrated (“How could I have fallen for this?” or “Why can’t anyone love me for myself?”) may ensue. Dr. Breur adds that someone who has fallen victim to ongoing insincere kindness may also develop low self-esteem (trusting someone's fake kindness can make one think less about their decision making, make one feel insecure or unintelligent), anxiety (uncovered fake kindness can make one anxious about accepting anyone else's kind gestures), and more conditions such as depression.

There is a positive light, however. Dr. Greenberg explains that the next time around, someone will hopefully be better able to spot the signs in insincere kindness while also learning to set healthy boundaries with others.

This is all the more reason to instill kindness and empathy at an early age, according to Dr. Breur. Though it can be challenging, she says it’s important to teach children that kindness and empathy are important. “Remember, encouraging kindness in a child will help them feel better about the world and about them,” she notes. “It will help a child grow to be a happy, curious, secure and loving person.”

And hopefully, that child grows up to display kindness in truly meaningful and supportive ways.