Compassion for self and others has become a major focus of scientific study in terms of its benefits on health and social relationships (e.g. [17, 42]), physiology  and potential as a focus for psychotherapy [19–21, 28, 29]. However, people can behave in prosocial ways for different reasons, not all of which are genuinely care focused [8, 14]. For example, some individuals engage in caring behaviour because they want to be seen positively, valued and accepted . Others may engage in caring behaviour because they do not want to be shamed, or feel guilty for not caring . Understanding peoples motives that can sit behind compassion and their competencies such as empathy are clearly important in health care and other helping professions.
Catarino et al.  developed a self-report measure to explore what they termed submissive compassion. These motives that can underpin caring behaviour, link with Goffman’s  seminal work on ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ on how individuals can try to ingratiate themselves with others, particularly when they feel inferior, subordinate or in submissive positions [32, 40]. Catarino et al. ) found that in a sample of university students submissive compassion was significantly related to self-image goals (r = .51), caring guilt and caring shame, submissive behaviour, depression, anxiety and stress, in a way that genuine compassion was not.
For people with social anxiety, ingratiating oneself by ‘trying to be kind and helpful’ can be a safety strategy for acceptance . Furthermore, although a number of studies have shown that compassion is linked to the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness, Bègue et al.  showed that these traits in a Milgram type study, where are an authority asks to deliver electric shocks to another, are also associated with conformity, obedience and not wanting to cause trouble by refusing to obey. Presumably the fear of offending the authority over-rides compassion motives to not shock the confederate. This raises the core issue about ‘courage’ as being central to compassion rather than just wanting to help people or be ‘nice and agreeable’ (). Work by Crocker and Canevello [10, 11] shows that compassion goals can be attenuated by self focussed ego goals such as avoiding being shamed and wanting to be recognised.
Empathy and perspective taking
All motivations, be they harm avoidance, food seeking, infant caring or sexuality require competencies to fulfil the goals of the motive. Without an ability to do something about a motive it would be ineffectively engaged. Empathy, as a competency, commonly linked with compassion, enables a depth of social understanding of the minds of self and others. It is a competency that can be used for many social motives [7, 22, 23]. Empathy has different elements particularly distinguishing it from sympathy (a feeling of distress linked to seeing suffering), emotional empathy (linked to emotional contagion, sharing, attunement or resonance), and perspective taking and mentalising (a cognitive, imaginative and effortful process) . Although compassion and empathy are sometimes conflated with the concept of ‘empathic concern’, the different competencies of empathy have different evolutionary histories and function in different ways . Panksepp and Panksepp  argue that the evolution of emotional contagion and resonance arose from how fear spreads between conspecifics. So that if one is in danger from a predator and distress calls, other can take flight. There are many examples where empathy need not inspire compassionate action or sentiments . For example, imagine watching someone take revenge on a “a nasty bad guy in a movie”. If we (empathically) emotionally resonate with that desire for vengeance and pleasure in seeing ‘the bad person’ suffer, that would clearly not be compassionate to the victim.
Self-focused empathic perspective taking
Bloom  and Zaki  show that empathy can be associated with different motives and that certain types of motive (e.g. defending against others seen as threatening, and self-interest) can turn off empathy (e.g. to outsiders). So it is motives that influence the use and focus of empathic competencies. We are more likely (to want) to empathise and mentalise with people we love than people we hate [34, 46]. It is also possible to be compassionately orientated but have poor empathic competencies and impose care inappropriately . In contrast, others may be competent perspective takers, but have little compassion motivation or interest, as might be the case for people with psychopathic difficulties . Galinsky et al. ) distinguished between feeling for another person (empathising with) and thinking about the situation of another (perspective taking). In competitive situations or negotiations, perspective taking (which need not involve emotional connectedness) may be more helpful than emotional empathy, whereas in interpersonal caring situations, emotional connectedness is important. Perspective taking can help in a whole variety of social roles such as competing for a job or seeking sexual partners. What is of interest is whether people recognise they can use their empathic and perspective taking skills to manipulate others should they so wish [25, 33] also indicate that empathy and menatalising can be related to the social role that one is in. For example, some individuals find being empathic easier in caring in contrast to competitive relationships and vice versa. In other words, it is what is being empathised with that is crucial.
To date there is no measure that explores the degree to which people are aware that they can use their empathic competencies for self-interest and even to manipulate others. Nevertheless, it is possible that people can choose how they want to use their empathic skills and competencies. For example, people with psychopathic tendencies can show forms of empathic perspective taking when directed to do so . In addition, Shirtcliff et al.  explored neurobiological pathways in individuals who display little empathy and suggested that these impairments are not necessarily due to a reduced ability to understand others but reduced sensitivity to distress; that is they are low on caring motivation [22, 23].
This study therefore sought to develop a measure of what we might call competitive self-focused or even manipulative empathy, whereby people are aware that they can use their empathic competencies non-compassionately to gain personal and competitive advantage; for example being able to understand other people in order to entice them to behave in one’s own self-interest. We suspect that individuals who have empathic competencies will have enough empathic insight into their own motives to recognise that they can use empathy compassionately or for self-interest.
Although it is well recognised that empathic skills are important for health workers researchers do not always control for the motivation behind empathy. Hence, the ability to study people’s empathic competencies, that can be used for self-interest or defensively, is important in healthcare. Indeed, although not measured here, patients may well pick up that clinicians can be empathic, but still lack caring motivation.
Study: aims and objectives
The essence of this study is therefore to explore how certain forms of helping and compassionate behaviour are defensive (i.e. submissive compassion). Second to highlight that empathy is a competency not a motive and therefore can be used for different motives. In addition, that individuals can be aware how they use empathy for self-interest and can be assessed in self-report. This study had a number of aims.
To further develop research on ‘submissive compassion’ by exploring its relationship with empathy variables, shame and self-criticism. It is unclear if submissive compassion is related to empathy or if problems with empathy increase submissive compassion. We hypothesise that submissive compassion would have little relationship with empathy or a negative one.
Although empathy is often associated with prosocial motivation, increasing evidence is pointing to the fact it can be associated with more narcissistic and malevolent intention. To date, however, there is no measure to explore people’s natural awareness of their ability to use empathy this way. Hence we developed a simple measure of ‘competitive’ self-focused perspective taking to tap people’s awareness of their ability to use empathic and perspective taking for self-advantage. We hypothesised that individuals who rate themselves as empathic will also have insight into the fact that they can use empathy for self-focused reasons.
Given that many of these variables have been related to gender variation, we also explored gender differences across all variables. We hypothesise that females are likely to be higher on measures of empathy and compassion variables, but may be equally able to recognise that empathy can be used competitively.