I first came across the concept of social-engineering when reading the books of Christopher Hadnagy a tech specialist who has written extensively on IT security and ethical hacking. Hadnagy defined social-engineering as:
"Any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interest”
- (Christopher Hadnagy, Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2018).
It may be readily seen that if we wish to stop a loved one from smoking we may employ disturbing imagery of cancer or may rely on the narratives of those who regret smoking - or we may employ subtler means of tethering the act of smoking to unpleasant conditions. This we would be using social engineering to manipulate the behaviour for the better. Although my example is simplistic and in general social engineering is a more covert process.
Well in order to employ social engineering properly, or to make it more effective we need to utilise a degree of empathy. A degree of imagination to place ourselves within the 'shoes' of the other whilst maintaining our own personal identity. However, are there times when empathy is used not for the benefit of the other person? If there is such an occasion, then necessarily there must also be a potential dark side of empathy.
An anthropological article (Bubandt and Willerslev, 2014) looked at the many faces of empathy and its appearance within philosophy and scientific literature. They used two cases one of which as of a moose hunt in Siberia. Here they utilised the model of the hunter as mimicking the moose and displaying the characteristics all of which are designed to lure the moose into complacency.
The moose sees that the man is not completely like itself and yet with the displays suspends disbelief right up until the last moment when the hunter fires.
The authors rightly bring out, that it's only now that empathy is being treated with a certain level of objectivity. Also raised is the issue of psychopathy and instances where empathy appears but is not accompanied by a concern for the welfare of the target of the empathy.
Torture and various forms of psychopathy require, as de Waal observes,“an appreciation of what others feel ”while the higher-level concern for the other has been “switched off”
This is a fascinating article that presents a fairly nuanced view of empathy that might not be immediately apparent given our prior biases of what empathy is or isn't.
Bubandt, N., & Willerslev, R. (2015). The Dark Side of Empathy: Mimesis, Deception, and the Magic of Alterity. Comparative Studies in Society and History,57(1), 5-34. doi:10.1017/S0010417514000589