Sociopath empathy

Has the growing interest in corporate empathy produced a wave of sociopaths?


Lubna Dajani and Peter Dorrington explore some of the darker aspects of corporate empathy - and how the unscrupulous hope to use it to further their own commercial interests at the expense of their customers and society at large.

14th Sep 2020

A recent article ‘How does empathy influence customer service?’ highlighted that there has been a significant increase in the number of businesses talking about becoming ‘empathetic’ over recent years, sharing some of the positive reasons why this trend has emerged. However, in the same article it was also briefly mentioned that some of those businesses are attempting to use empathy in "a cynical attempt to find ways to manipulate customer behaviour and sell more ‘stuff’." 

In this article, we will explore some of the darker aspects of corporate empathy - and how the unscrupulous hope to use it to further their own commercial interests at the expense of their customers and society at large.

Corporate empathy or sociopathy?

At this point, we won’t dwell on what empathy is - you can read about that in the previous article. But we would like to describe some of the traits of a sociopath and their similarity to some businesses. 

Sociopaths and psychopaths are both suffering from antisocial personality disorder - characterised by them showing no regard for right or wrong and showing no empathy for the feelings of others. For this article, we are going to use a loose definition of ‘sociopath’ (but with characteristics of both types), focussing on aspects of this description of a ‘high-functioning’ sociopath from

“…they think and act without regard for others, and their behaviour may include lying, cheating, and manipulating for personal gain. …On the surface, sociopaths may appear like anyone else.”

Here are some of the characteristics of high-functioning sociopaths from the same source:

  • High IQ: High-functioning sociopaths often have a higher IQ than other sociopaths or people without personality disorders. This helps them plan, manipulate, and exploit others.
  • Lack of empathy: They find it difficult to empathise with others or understand the emotional consequences of their actions.
  • Charming: Although most sociopaths lack empathy, they are capable of mimicking and manipulating emotions to appear charming and normal.
  • Sensitive to criticism: Despite their lack of empathy, sociopaths desire the approval of others. They feel entitled to admiration and are quick to anger when criticised.
  • Compulsive lying is a common trait among all types of sociopaths. They will often disregard the truth to make themselves look better or get what they want.

Does that sound like a business you know? A sharp operator that thinks that the ends (their own success) justifies any means. No? You may be surprised to learn that in the 2006 book ‘Snakes in Suits’, authors Paul Babiak and Robert Hare estimated the number of psychopaths in the American C-suite to be around 4%. Whilst there is some debate about the exact figure, most estimates since the book’s publication put it between 8% and 12%. Bearing in mind that the culture and values of an organisation are led from the top, it is easy to see how this can flow down through the workforce and shapes the behaviour of the whole organisation.

During the crisis, multiple examples arose of organisations whose marketing and brand reputation were at odds with their actual behaviour. Not only were they ‘tone deaf’ to the needs of their customers, their actions gave lie to the sense of partnership they were trying to instil. The ubiquitous ‘letter from the CEO’ that lacked authenticity or obvious profiteering were just two examples. It should be borne in mind that sociopaths do not suffer from ‘emotional dissonance’ – they are not troubled about the difference between what they believe and what they do, because what they believe is that anything they do to further their ends is justifiable.

But why should businesses go to the trouble of mimicking empathy? We believe that it is partly a reaction to the changing motivations and behaviours of customers; Customers are thinking more carefully about the purchases they make and the levels of service they expect to receive. Multiple studies have shown that consumers will pay more for a ‘pleasant’ experience and they are more aware of the ethical behaviours of the companies they buy from. (remember ‘greenwashing’? Businesses espousing their apparently green credentials when customers started to demand environmental responsibility).

Whilst a sociopath may not care about what you want, they cannot ignore it, or the fact that their competitors are offering it. In the same way that a sociopath knows they have to mimic the empathic feelings of others to ‘fit in’, these businesses recognise they must do so as well.

However, at the end of the day, the sociopathic business wants to use cognitive empathy (without emotional or compassionate empathy) to manipulate your feelings – to sway you to do something that is in their interest, rather than yours. By understanding what you value and why, they can adjust their language and behaviour to influence directly the motivations behind your behaviour – so-called ‘dark psychology’.

Corporate sociopathy in practice

Here’s an example of corporate sociopathy in practice. In the same sales training that said ‘never apologise, never admit you are to blame’, the ‘FUD Factor’ was introduced – instilling feelings of Fear, Uncertainty or Doubt in the minds of customers who may be leaning towards a competitor. Whilst it may be backed by logical argument, it is primarily designed to manipulate the feelings of the customer to obtain the decision the culprit wants – not necessarily by lying per se, but by focussing on some things and omitting others.

Whilst mimicry of empathy and the manipulation of a customer’s feeling may work, it is a risky strategy; when discovered, the inevitable backlash from customers is severe and far-reaching. No-one likes to feel that they have been ‘tricked’ and in the age of social media, an organisation’s reputation can be devastated if they are perceived as manipulating their customers. 

So why do it? Some of the blame probably lies with the way that capitalism works: investors expect a healthy return in exchange for their injection of capital. They appoint executives to run the business for them and the executives have a fiduciary duty to put their interests first, and are measured and rewarded to do so. Executives are highly motivated to maximise returns, rather than create value for both investors and customers – serving customers is the necessary evil endured to generate profit. Capitalism also breeds competition – and competitive businesses are constantly looking for an edge over their competitors. Being perceived as more empathic is one such edge.

At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself, ‘does it matter if it all feels the same to me? Do I really care whether my supplier genuinely ‘gets me’, or is just the appearance of empathy enough?’ Only you can decide, but here is the thing, when the going gets tough, a truly empathetic business will do all it can to support you, whereas the sociopathic one will drop you like a hot brick.


About Lubna Dajani

Lubna is a pioneering information and communication technologies executive with over 25 years' experience with multinational brands. She is recognised for applying emerging information and communication technologies, systems thinking, and experiential design to drive digital innovation and organisational transformation. She is currently serving as Advisory Board member and coach to Horizon 2020 NGI Trust, mentor and board member to several accelerators and innovators. She is a W3C Invited Expert on Privacy and an accredited contributor to several IEEE standards, including the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. Lubna is also passionate about business sustainability, regeneration and diversity.

About Peter Dorrington

Peter is an expert in using a combination of data and behavioural sciences to lead transformation in the field of Experience Management (XM); encompassing Customer Experience (CX), Employee Experience EX) and Partner Experience (PX) within an omnichannel environment (and especially during digital transformation / integration). Over the last 3 years, Peter has been focussed on using a combination of data and behavioural sciences to both better predict customer / employee behaviour, and to quantify the impact on the bottom line. Now an Independent Consultant, Peter's focus is on delivering affordable, high-quality consulting advice to organisations that want to transform their Experience Management strategy & practices.


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