Those Who Avoid Empathy May Feel Insecure, Mentally Drained
Do you have a client who seems to avoid feeling empathy? They may chalk it up to not wanting to feel negative emotions or be pressured into donating money, but new research finds it could be something else.
“There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity,” said C. Daryl Cameron, PhD., an assistant professor at Penn State University (PSU) and lead researcher of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. “But we found that people primarily just don’t want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.”
Cameron and a team of researchers from PSU and the University of Toronto developed an “Empathy Selection Task” to see whether mental effort could deter empathy. They then conducted 11 experiments with more than 1,200 participants.
In one series of experiments, the researchers had two decks of cards that featured grim photos of child refugees. Participants with the one deck of cards were instructed to describe physical characteristics of the child pictured on the card. Participants with the other deck were told to try to feel empathy for the pictured child and to think about the feelings of that child. Participants could choose which of the two decks they wanted. In additional experiments, researchers offered decks that featured images of sad or smiling people.
Participants consistently chose the deck option that didn’t require feeling empathy—even when given the chance to look at happy people. In fact, on average, participants chose the empathy option only 35% of the time. It’s also important to note that there were no financial costs associated for feeling empathy in these experiments, as no one was asked to donate time or money to support those pictured on the cards.
So why would participants avoid feeling empathy?
According to post-experiment survey responses, the majority of participants reported that they thought empathy required more effort and felt more cognitively challenging than describing physical characteristics of other people. They also reported that they felt less good at feeling empathy, creating possible feelings of insecurity, irritation or distress.
Would people be more likely to feel empathy if they think they’re good at it? The researchers conducted two experiments where they told half of the participants that they were better than 95% of others on the empathy deck and 50% better on the description deck. The other half of participants were told the opposite. Those who were told they were good at feeling empathy were more likely to choose the empathy deck and reported that empathy required less mental effort.
This research shows that even though people avoid empathy, they might be more open to if others encourage that they can do it well.
“If we can shift people’s motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole,” Cameron says. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”
These findings could be interesting if you are working with a client who seems to avoid empathy, or who has even been told so. Maybe with some understanding of their motivations and a little encouragement, they might begin feeling more empathy.