Do Narcissists Use Cognitive Empathy?

*We may earn a commission for purchases made using our links. Please see our disclosure to learn more.

It isn’t correct to say that toxic people like narcissists don’t have any empathy. Empathy is typically defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions and to even experience them yourself. That’s what we usually think of when we think of an empath, but, in fact, there are several types of empathy. Emotional empathy or compassionate empathy is what an empath possesses, and they do actually experience other people’s emotions as if they were their own. 

Unlike genuine empaths, narcissistic people use cognitive empathy to manipulate people. That’s why this type of empathy is often called fake empathy. It results in a low-level emotional experience that is characterized by a flattened or dull emotional response to someone in need. 

To fully understand how someone with narcissistic personality disorder uses cognitive empathy as a manipulative tool, it’s valuable to learn about the different types of empathy. Once you have a better grasp of the various levels of empathy, you can understand how to distinguish one from the other and prevent narcissists from using their empathic abilities against you. 

Why Do Narcissists Use Cognitive Empathy?

Why Do Narcissists Use Cognitive Empathy

Narcissists use cognitive empathy for some very specific reasons. It’s not out of genuine concern for something other than themselves, however. It’s always about something they need to achieve. Here are some common reasons why narcissists use cognitive empathy. 

To Manipulate Others

Narcissists use cognitive empathy as a tool to manipulate others. By understanding what others are feeling, they can use that information to their advantage. They can appear sympathetic and caring, which can help them gain trust and control over others. However, they are using their intellectual understanding of what someone else is feeling to further their own interests.

To Protect Their Self-Image

Narcissists also use cognitive empathy to protect their self-image. They have a fragile ego, and they are highly sensitive to criticism and rejection. By understanding how others perceive them, they can adjust their behavior to maintain a positive self-image. This allows them to avoid the feelings of shame and inadequacy that haunt them at a deeper level.

To Achieve Their Goals

Narcissists use cognitive empathy to achieve their goals. They are typically highly motivated individuals who focus on success and achievement. They do this to boost their image. They can use the information they have about what other people want and need to achieve their own goals. They use manipulation based on what they understand about someone to further their agenda, and they aren’t concerned with hurting others in the process. 

These three reasons why narcissists use cognitive empathy emphasizes their lack of genuine emotional intelligence. They don’t feel what other people are feeling; they merely understand it intellectually and use it for their own goals. 

What are the Types of Empathy?

What are the Types of Empathy

Two renowned psychologists – Daniel Goldman and Paul Ekman – identified three components of empathy as 1) cognitive, 2) emotional, and 3) compassionate. These are useful for identifying what many people believe are three different levels of empathy. 

  • Cognitive Empathy

This is the kind of empathy where you can understand what someone else is feeling on an intellectual without actually experiencing those feelings yourself. You can imagine yourself in the same situation and understand the feeling, but you don’t actually experience the feeling. For this reason, many people consider it a kind of false empathy.

According to experts in psychological medicine and human development at two prestigious universities in London, cognitive empathy relies on different brain structures than other types of empathy. With cognitive empathy, you understand their feelings but remain at a distance from them. 

This allows toxic people with this type of intellectual empathy to use what they know to their advantage, as this video discusses. Since they don’t experience the emotion themselves, they don’t connect on that level. They express false kindness, but only so that they can manipulate you.

  • Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy, allows the empathetic person to not just understand the emotions of someone else but also to experience those emotions. They can sense the emotions of other people as if it were their own experience. 

An individual with this kind of emotional intelligence is often seen as a very caring person because they go beyond simply understanding your feelings; they experience them with you. It’s an affective experience wherein they are moved by your emotions. It’s as if your experience creates a kind of emotional contagion that passes from you to the empathetic person.

Narcissistic people and other people with mental disorders don’t have this kind of empathy. They can’t, therefore, form a true empathy relationship with the people around them. 

  • Compassionate Empathy

This third level of empathy combines cognitive empathy with emotional empathy to create a balance that allows the person to understand and feel the emotions of others, but in a way that they are motivated to help. That’s true affective empathy. Researchers in psychology at several prestigious universities from around the world believe this creates an affective empathy that produces prosocial behaviors. 

Prosocial behaviors are those that emphasize cooperation and caring over aggression and domination. These types of behaviors have numerous beneficial effects for individuals and groups. On an emotional level, individuals feel supported by a compassionate empath, and it works to improve their mental health. 

What is the Association Between Narcissism and Empathy?

What is the Association Between Narcissism and Empathy

Pathological narcissism comes in two recognized forms: vulnerable narcissism and grandiose narcissism. Grandiose narcissists are the people you think about when you think of a narcissist. 

Their narcissistic traits include a need to be the center of attention, a need for endless adoration called narcissistic supply, and, most relevant for this discussion, a lack of empathy, or at least a lack of affective empathy. 

Vulnerable narcissism also involves the same motivations as grandiose narcissism, but the way vulnerable narcissists, or covert narcissists, go about getting their needs met is more subtle. This video has more information about how to spot a vulnerable narcissist. The facets of narcissism they exhibit are much more subtle than those of a grandiose narcissist. 

“Narcissists are consumed with maintaining a shallow false self to others. They’re emotionally crippled souls that are addicted to attention. Because of this, they use a multitude of games in order to receive adoration.”

Shannon Alder, Inspirational Author and Therapist

In either case, both disorders of narcissism have what are considered dark personality traits. Dark personality traits involve high levels of pathological narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. When these traits are combined with cognitive empathy and low levels of emotional empathy, it creates what is known as a dark empath. 

Dark empaths use their false empathy to appear as a caring person while they learn more about you. Then they can use that knowledge to manipulate and control you. This is the dark link between narcissism and empathy. 

These narcissistic individuals – the dark empaths – probably do the worst of the damage to the people they encounter. The emotional experience of their victims can be devastating when they learn the dark empath’s true intent. They feel betrayed in the worst way. 

How Can You Spot a Dark Empath?

Narcissistic individuals with false empathy often betray their false kindness in their facial expressions and body language. If you really stop and observe them, you can often see the aspect of narcissism in their personality. 

Here’s what you should look for: 

  • Fake smile – A genuine smile that happens with empathetic behavior involves the eyes. If their lips are smiling, but their eyes are not, that’s a red flag. 
  • Cognitive ability with no emotional connection – They may be saying all the right things and doing the right things, but if you don’t feel that emotional connection, there’s something wrong. 
  • They brag about their empathy – People with compassionate empathy don’t need to brag about it. Their affective empathy is obvious. It’s the dark empath’s lack of empathy that causes them to boast about their ability. 
  • Flat emotional experience – If they don’t convey a sense of genuine warmth and connection, that’s an indicator they are low on the empathy spectrum. 
  • Other aspects of narcissism – Watch for indicators of vulnerable narcissism, like self-deprecating remarks that seem as if they are fishing for compliments. Look out for signs of grandiose narcissism, like attention-seeking behaviors. Watch out for signs they lack an actual ability to feel genuine empathy. Often their involuntary responses will give their false empathy away. 

Final Thoughts

Cluster B disorders of pathological narcissism, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder all exhibit similar levels of empathy. They tend to show false empathy and use that ability to gain more information about their victim so they can manipulate and control them. Individuals with these types of mental illness are focused on their needs and not on your emotional experience. 

Someone with pathological narcissism will use cognitive empathy to appear as a caring person while simultaneously strategizing to use what they can learn about you to their advantage. They are, in essence, psychopathic individuals who only care about their own needs. They don’t have a lack of empathy, per se; they use their intellectual empathy to their advantage rather than using affective empathy to yours. 

These are not people you want to be in romantic relationships with, nor do you want to trust them as your friend. Though their cognitive ability makes them seem kind, they are really just out for their own narcissistic self-enhancement.


If you want more tips for dealing with narcissists, setting boundaries, and managing emotional triggers, make sure you subscribe to my youtube channel


Narcissistic abuse takes a terrible toll on your life. I’m Patricia, and my mother is a narcissist, so I know what you’re going through. These blog posts will help you understand narcissism better and give you tips for dealing with the narcissists in your life. Healing starts here!

More to Explore

Free Roadmap

Want To Stop A Narcissist From Pushing Your Buttons?

Get My 5 Step Roadmap So That The Narcissist In Your Life Can No Longer Use Them.