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Is Empathy the Key to Deception?

The ability to deeply understand others can be used as a weapon of deception.

Source: Pixabay

The key to social relationships is having a deep understanding of others. We must be able to put ourselves in another’s shoes, see the world from their perspective, and understand what they are likely thinking and feeling. In short, empathy is the key to social relationships.

Empathy is the capacity to understand and even feel the experience of another. If we see someone hit their thumb with a hammer, we wince and cringe as if we experienced the pain, too. If we see someone crying at the loss of a loved one, we feel the weight in our chest, too. A process of emotional contagion allows their emotions to influence our own. This form of empathy is referred to as affective or emotional empathy. We mirror the emotions of another.

People also possess the power of cognitive empathy, the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. I can guess what you are likely thinking in any given situation. Cognitive empathy is a perspective-taking process. If I see you get rejected for a promotion at work, I can put myself in your shoes. I can accurately guess what you are thinking and planning to do in response. This ability to mentalize or model the thoughts of others allows us to anticipate what is going to happen next in social situations.

We often think of empathy as being a component of compassion. If I can feel your pain and sadness, I am more likely to console you or offer support. In this way, empathy facilitates helping and other forms of prosocial behavior. Empathy can give rise to cooperation. If I can see things from your perspective and understand your needs, and you can do that for me, we are likely going to find common causes on which we can work together.

But not all social relationships are benevolent, kind, and compassionate. What about competition between people? In some relationships, a person may be out to defeat you, take advantage of you, manipulate you, or do you harm. Think of the social chess matches you have faced when trying to outwit an adversary. In order to succeed, you must understand your foe’s motivations. You must also understand what your opponent is likely thinking and planning. In essence, you must use your empathic powers to put yourself in your enemy’s shoes. This ability to get into the mind of an opponent helps us to see their next move coming and prevent them from surprising us.

One way that our adversaries can take advantage of us is through deception. By presenting a false front, deceptive people can secretly carry out their agendas without us suspecting something is wrong. Have you ever had a social relationship with someone who you thought was on your team, only to discover that the person had been treacherously scheming and taking advantage of you? How were they able to play you for a dupe, misleading you with their cunning and guile? I believe that empathy is key to the success of the con artists in our lives. Their ability to con us hinges on their ability to understand what makes us tick.

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In order to effectively hoodwink someone, a con artist must be able to deeply understand their victims. The best con artists are experts at discovering what motivates their marks, whether it be greed, loneliness, compassion, or despair. Once they get inside our heads and realize which buttons to push, they have essentially cracked the code that will allow them to shake us down.

It is not just the con artists who use empathy to deceive. We all lie and deceive from time to time. People lie to avoid punishment, to take advantage, to spare someone’s feelings, for retribution, and many other reasons. On average, most people lie once or twice a day (DePaulo et al., 1996). When people are more attentive to the experience of emotion in others, they are more effective at telling lies (Elaad & Reizer, 2015).

I submit that we rely on our empathic powers to successfully lie to others. In order to effectively lie to someone, we need to get inside their head. We must be aware of what they know and what they do not know. We must consider what statements will cause them to grow suspicious. We must anticipate the questions they might ask us. We must tell them things that we think will reassure them of our honesty. We must have a deep understanding of what the other person is thinking, feeling, and planning. In short, we must harness our empathic potential and use it to mislead others.

In a recent presentation, I gave with my colleague, Haylie Jones, we presented the results of a study in which we studied peoples’ empathy and their tendency to tell lies. What we found was that people who scored higher on our empathy measures also reported telling more frequent lies. Perhaps their enhanced ability to understand others leads more empathic individuals to use this ability for their own underhanded purposes.

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Starting from a young age, generally around two to three years old, people learn to lie. You may have experienced an unskilled child fumbling around with a clumsy lie. They do eventually master the task, becoming very proficient deceivers in a few short years.

Interestingly, developmental psychologists have found that there is a key moment in child development when kids start fibbing. The moment young children come to understand that other people have separate minds with separate goals, knowledge, and beliefs, children begin to tell lies. As soon as kids develop the ability to understand that others have unique perspectives, they use that knowledge to manipulate others. From a developmental perspective, it seems that cognitive empathy is essential to the ability to tell lies.

Empathy is typically viewed as a positive trait because it allows people to treat each other with understanding and kindness. Empathy allows us to notice when others are feeling down. Empathy also helps us accurately formulate strategies to make those people feel better. Fortunately, most people use their empathic capacity for altruism, care, and cooperation. However, that same skill can be turned into a weapon of deceit and manipulation.