Empathy may be in the eye of the beholder

October 27, 2020

Empathy is talked about a lot these days. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a divisive political climate in the United States, 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 from the University of California, Davis. A recently published paper suggests that although empathy is often portrayed as a virtue, people who express empathy are not necessarily viewed favorably.

"Empathy has become a sort of 'catch-all' for desirable personal qualities," said Y. Andre Wang, who is a doctoral candidate and 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," he added.

The paper, "Evaluations of Empathizers Depend on the Target of Empathy," was published online in September in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is co-authored by Andrew Todd, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis.

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.

Who receives empathy?

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. (This particular study was conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The researchers found that this portrayal mattered for their 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.

Empathy in the eye of the observer

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." Wang 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."
-end-
The research was facilitated by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Read the paper here: https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fpspi0000341

University of California - Davis

Related Empathy Articles from Brightsurf:

Empathy and perspective taking: How social skills are built
Being able to feel empathy and to take in the other person's perspective are two abilities through which we understand what is going on in the other's mind.

Empathy may be in the eye of the beholder
Do we always want people to show empathy? Not so, said researchers from the University of California, Davis.

Empathy exacerbates discussions about immigration
Discussions about immigration are heated, even antagonistic. But what happens when supporters and opponents undertake to show more empathy?

Empathy prevents COVID-19 spreading
The more empathetic we are, the more likely it is that we will keep our distance and use face masks to prevent coronavirus spreading.

Binge-drinkers' brains have to work harder to feel empathy for others
New research shows that binge-drinkers' brains have to put more effort into trying to feel empathy for other people in pain.

Make the best of bad reviews by leveraging consumer empathy
When confronted with unfair negative reviews, firms can strategically leverage consumer empathy and benefit from potential downstream consequences.

Learning empathy as a care giver takes more than experience
Research among nursing students shows that past experience living in poverty or volunteering in impoverished communities, does not sufficiently build empathy towards patients who experience poverty.

Study finds empathy can be detected in people whose brains are at rest
UCLA researchers have found that it is possible to assess a person's ability to feel empathy by studying their brain activity while they are resting rather than while they are engaged in specific tasks.

Empathy for perpetrators helps explain victim blaming in sexual harassment
Men's empathy for other men who sexually harass women may help explain why they are more likely to blame victims, new research suggests.

Researchers suggest empathy be a factor in medical school admissions
The national norms can help to distinguish between two applicants with similar academic qualifications, and identify students who might need additional educational remedies to bolster their level of empathy.

Read More: Empathy News and Empathy Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.