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One case (of many) against empathy

Updated: Feb 19

It’s a lot of work to empathize. Don’t believe me? That’s fair. How many people would you need to say that before you believe me? Is 1,204 a good number? If so, you are in luck. This research study (actually 11 studies) has that exact amount of people.



As good as empathy is (e.g., usually people who empathize tend to help others and also feel better themselves), if we constantly have to do it, we would use up all of our own resources.


So, let me ask you a couple of questions. There are no right answers, but perhaps you will find that you agree or disagree with this research.


1. Do you ever feel like empathy is too much effort?

2. Do you ever find yourself frustrated after empathizing too often?

3. Do you find that you want to avoid empathy in some situations?

4. After empathizing over and over again, and another person comes to you in a very emotional state, what do you do? Do you empathize again or do you try to stay detached?

5. Would you rather empathize for a short period of time (e.g., 3 seconds) or a longer period (e.g., 10 seconds)? Does this change the more that you empathize throughout the day?

6. If you avoid empathy, do you think that there are things that could make you want to empathize more?


Most people in the study would answer (in bold) the above questions like this


1. Do you ever feel like empathy is too much effort? Yes

2. Do you ever find yourself frustrated after empathizing too often? Yes

3. Do you find that you want to avoid empathy in some situations? Yes

4. After empathizing over and over again, and another person comes to you in a very emotional state, what do you do? Do you empathize again or do you try to stay detached? I’d stay detached.

5. Would you rather empathize for a short period of time (e.g., 3 seconds) or a longer period (e.g., 10 seconds)? Shorter period of time, but sometimes longer is fine. Does this change the more that you empathize throughout the day? I’d rather do shorter if I had to empathize already.

6. If you avoid empathy, do you think that there are things that could make you want to empathize more? There probably are things. If this is the case, then I probably don’t always want to empathize because it is too much effort. If I knew I was good at empathy, I would at least not avoid it as actively.


Basically, if given the choice, participants would rather stay detached and not empathize more often than not.

Now, there are TONS of questions that come up, at least for me, and hopefully for you too. I will cover those questions in my next blog post. However, I want to emphasize something here.


Just because we may avoid empathy sometimes does not mean we are less empathic as a society, that we never want to empathize, or that empathy is never worth it.


Maybe you even answered differently to the questions above than the “average” person from this research. Does that mean you are a freak? No. Could you also imagine times where you don’t want to empathize? Probably. Do the answers to either of those questions mean the research is wrong? No. Both your own experiences and the research can be true; sometimes we want to empathize, sometimes we find it is too much work. We can intuitively know that we need to preserve our own energy sometimes. And if not that, it is fair to sometimes doubt our own ability to empathize.


We can change this however. If we can instill a sense of self-efficacy into people, as this research shows, then they are less likely to avoid empathy.


So, all of this is to say that you aren’t a monster for not wanting to empathize sometimes. In fact, you are likely to be in good company.


Now that we know this finding, I will try to say why this finding isn’t that great actually in my next post.


Until then!


-Alex


Citation: Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595

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