9 ways to spot fake empathy, according to psychology

Empathy is not as common as the media hype would have you believe. 

In fact this study from the University of Michigan found that empathy went down 40% among American students between 1979 to 2009.

Society is more disconnected than ever, with smaller families and individualism ruling the roost. The rise of social media is also increasing polarization and disconnection instead of fueling much real-world harmony or progress.

There’s another reason for the lack of empathy that seems so prevalent in society: fake empathy. 

There’s so much virtue signaling and fake empathy around that it’s easy to feel like you’re losing your grip on reality. After all, people seem so nice, and yet so often you feel completely alone. 

Could it be fake empathy bringing you down? 

Here’s what to watch out for…

1) Incongruous facial expressions

You’re talking about the death of your dog, and they look skeptical or like they just heard a joke. 


Fake empathy is sometimes as simple to detect as watching someone’s face. 

While you talk about something you go through and describe your problem, this person’s words of concern are totally belied by their incongruous facial expressions. 

They don’t care. 

2) Kitschy and performative reactions

Another trait of fake empaths is completely over-the-top reactions. 

They act like they’ve just received the worst news of their life when you mention a small issue you had today…

They jump for joy and clap when you mention seeing a cute guy earlier who you liked…

They sigh deeply and look at the ceiling as if the world is crashing down when you mention a small argument you had with your girlfriend last week…

It’s all a bit much! 

3) Not actually listening

The fake empath does a bad job of listening to what you’re saying because they don’t really care. 

However, for reasons of social conditioning or your relationship, they know they should care. 

So they nod, smile, or look sad at what they think are the right time (but which aren’t always the right time as I noted in the previous point). 

They catch a few words of what you say and respond, but they didn’t get it. Why? 

They’re barely listening. 

4) Copy-paste responses 

When somebody is pretending to be empathetic they throw out all sorts of copy-paste responses. 

“That’s really too bad…”

“Yeah, for sure…”

“Wow, I dunno, yeah…”

“Totally crazy…”

You get the picture. They’re barely listening and they don’t care, so they just toss out something that they hope will lead to exiting the interaction. 

5) Catastrophizing and amplifying your problem

One of the other big signs of fake empathy is those who catastrophize and amplify whatever you’re going through. 

They make you feel like your problem is even bigger than you realized, and that it’s so horrible that they also don’t know what to do. 

Instead of being a safe harbor in the storm, they cry havoc and yell “tornado incoming!”

It starts to make you feel like you’re a burden on others and you’re bringing everyone down, because this person is dramatizing so much.

As Professor Susi Ferrarello Ph.D. writes

“Whenever I hear the sentence, ‘I don’t want to burden others with my emotions,’ I feel very sorry for them because of the sense of loneliness that such a position involves. Sharing emotions is what makes us human.”

6) Lack of any real input

The fake empath doesn’t actually give you any real input. 

As I noted, they hit you with a lot of copy-paste phrases and forgettable lines. 

They act like they are thinking deeply but end up saying nothing and having no real content to their reaction. 

They say they care a lot, and even when they make all the expressions you’d expect there’s just something missing. 

They just don’t want to be involved, and it’s clear as day. 

7) Speedy and shallow advice

If and when this person does give advice, it’s shallow and useless. 

They throw out a lot of cliches and forgettable counsel, often changing it up as they go and changing what they say moment by moment. 

They just seem to want to say anything to make the situation go away.

“You’ll be fine, don’t worry” and “at least it isn’t…” are some of their favorite cliches. 

8) Lack of followup or real support

Those who are with you one day and gone the next are some of the most disappointing people out there. 

They may be with you only to get something and disappear after, or they’re around when they’re doing well but then they’re gone. 

This is classic fake empathy:

  • Transactional empathy (“I’m here for you if you do XYZ for me!”), and;
  • Fairweather empathy (“I’m here for you, as long as my life’s going OK!”)

No thanks! 

9) Always turning the conversation back to them

There’s nothing less empathetic than narcissism. 

When a person acts like they care but then turns the conversation back to them, how are you supposed to interpret it? 

An even slimier trick is that they may ask “how are you lately?” or something along those lines, but only in order to then barge in by getting in how they are doing. 

They never cared how you were, it was just a puerile entree for them to talk about themselves. 

It’s selfish and it’s not empathetic. 

As codependency and relationship expert Darlene Lancer explains

“Narcissists often like to talk about themselves and your job is to be a good audience. 

They may never ask about you, and if you offer something about yourself, the conversation quickly returns to them.”

Empath AI

With 50 million Americans suffering from some form of mental illness, and mental health becoming an increasing concern, therapists are struggling to keep pace. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is projected to fill an increasingly important role as a therapy tool and assistance to those who are struggling. 

As psychologist Scott Glassman, Ph.D. writes:

“AI has progressed to the point of being able to recognize and respond to emotional distress. 

“These responses could include providing appropriate resources like mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques, and connecting individuals with mental health professionals.”

From AI tools like Woebot and Wysa, to therapists who get recommended patients who started off by talking to an AI system, the future of empathy may be less human than ever. 

Could the cure for fake empathy be machine empathy? 

Or are we only drifting further from our humanity and trying to outsource the most basic of tasks that used to define community and care for each other?

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