Empathy may be in the eye of the beholder

November 15, 2020

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Empathy may be in the eye of the beholder

Empathy is talked about a lot these days. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a divisive political climate in the United States and elsewhere, calls for empathy have become louder and more urgent. We encourage empathy for those inflicted with COVID-19 and those struggling with unemployment. We reminisce about the empathy of public figures who have recently passed away. Both Democrats and Republicans have highlighted their own presidential candidate’s empathy and accused the other side of lacking it.

But do we always want people to show empathy? Not so, said researchers behind a new study. They suggest that although empathy is often portrayed as a virtue, people who express empathy are not necessarily viewed favorably.

What the researchers say: “Empathy has become a sort of ‘catch-all’ for desirable personal qualities,” said the lead author of the paper. “But people’s views on empathy are actually more complicated. We found that what people think of empathizers depends on who is receiving their empathy. People don’t necessarily like or respect those who show empathy toward morally questionable individuals.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a series of seven studies, researchers recruited more than 3,000 participants throughout the United States. They showed these participants various scenarios where someone is sharing a personal experience with another individual. In some studies, the personal experience was negative, such as stress from work problems; in other experiments, the experience was positive, such as a recent job promotion. The individual responded to this personal experience either with empathy or neutrally. Participants then rated their impressions of the responder, such as how much they liked the responder, and how warm they found the responder to be.

So far so good. But these studies had a twist: The character sharing the personal experience was portrayed either positively or negatively. For example, in one study, some participants learned that she worked for a white nationalist organization, and other participants learned that she worked for a children’s hospital. In another study, the character sharing the personal experience was either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination. (The study was conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic).

The researchers found that this portrayal mattered for impressions of the empathizer: Participants liked and respected the empathizer, but only when the character receiving empathy was liked as well. When the character was disliked (as a white nationalist or an “anti-vaxxer”), participants did not like and respect the empathizer as much. In some studies, participants even preferred it when the responder condemned rather than empathized with the character.

“People are often encouraged to empathize with disliked others, but our findings suggest that they are not always viewed favorably for doing so,” the researchers concluded.

Although empathy is widely studied, little is known about how people evaluate empathizers when they are not themselves the recipients of empathy. These findings have implications for how empathy operates in the current sociopolitical climate, where empathy is often touted as a solution to national divisions and strife.

“Is more empathy always better? Not according to our participants.” The researchers said. “Our findings suggest that people see empathy as a social signal. Whom you choose to empathize with shows whom you care about and what you stand for.

“Empathy is, of course, valuable. But it is not a panacea. If people who empathize across social divides are repudiated, then empathy might not always bridge those divides. Instead, it might even reinforce them.”

So, what? What this study reinforces is the fact that humans only really care about those that they have actually or perceptually a lot in common with. For example, research has shown that billionaires, as a group, only really care about others of the super-rich (“I’m really sorry for the unfortunate blighters in the UK who got slugged with a 2% tax increase.”) CEOs of large companies are more empathetic to other CEOs of large companies (“poor Charlie, his severance package was only 20 million.”) White nationalists to other white nationalists, born-again Christians to other born-again Christians, and so on.

However, if we develop a sense of commonality with out-groupers, and we have needs that can be mutually satisfied, then empathy can take root. We can take down the social divides. Of course, this is much easier in a smaller, more homogeneous society than in the mass societies we currently live in.

To encourage empathy outside people’s tight circles, we must emphasize commonality—whether in businesses or in society.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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