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People avoid feeling empathy towards others because it's too mentally taxing

Researchers said shifting people's motivations towards empathy 'could be good news for society as a whole'

Sarah Young
Tuesday 23 April 2019 13:05 BST
(Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

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The majority of people avoid feeling empathy because they think it requires too much mental effort, a new study has found.

Defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another person, various experts suggest that empathy can facilitate positive social or helpful behaviours in an individual.

However, new research has discovered that people often don’t want to feel empathy, even if the feelings it produces are positive.

To see how motivated to empathise people might be, researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Toronto recruited more than 1,200 participants and presented them with a series of 11 experiments involving two decks of cards.

In each iteration of the experiment, participants were told that they could choose from either deck at any time during the course of the trial.

In one version, both decks contained images of refugee children, while in another, some images featured smiling people and others featured sad people.

In each experiment, each deck came with a set of different instructions, one being labelled “feel” and the other, “describe”.

If participants chose the “describe” deck, they had to make an objective statement about the person pictured on the card, detailing things like the person's age, gender and appearance.

However, if they chose the “feel” deck, participants were asked to imagine what the individual pictured was feeling and “empathically focus on the internal experiences and feelings of this person”.

The data revealed that there was a strong preference to avoid choosing the "feel" deck, regardless of whether the images the participants were presented were happy or sad.

In fact, across all of the experiments, participants on average chose the "feel" deck just 35 per cent of the time, implying they have a desire to avoid feeling empathy.

In survey questions following the study, participants revealed that they found the decks which required empathy to be more cognitively challenging, saying it required more effort and that they felt less good at it than they did at describing the physical characteristics of other people.

Participants who described finding empathy more demanding or more likely to make them feel insecure were also more likely to avoid the empathy deck during the experiments.

To determine if people could be more motivated to empathise, the researchers repeated the tasks but this time told half of the participants they were “better” at empathy than the vast majority of others.

Meanwhile, the other half were told they had performed in the bottom 5 per cent with regards to empathy.

The results showed that participants who were told they were good at feeling empathy were more likely to select cards from the "feel" deck and report that empathy required less mental effort.

Daryl Cameron, lead researcher at Pennsylvania State University, said the findings prove it is possible to increase empathy in people by encouraging them and telling them that they can do it well.

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“There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity,” Cameron says.

“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.

”If we can shift people's motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole.”

The findings follow a recent YouGov poll which revealed that the majority of adults in the UK believe there is less empathy in society now compared with one year ago.

Just 12 per cent of participants said they had noticed an increase in the ability of people to put themselves in others’ shoes, while 51 per cent said there was less empathy towards others.

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