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So, is empathy "good" or "bad"?

This post will be about empathy, but I need to talk through some research things before I get to the main point of empathy.



Research is confusing. It is especially confusing if you aren’t aware of all the choices that occur before and after studies are conducted prior to the study ever being published.


It doesn’t have to be this way, however. And so, as long as you come here (to my blog), it won’t be.

One way in which research can be confusing is when you see conflicting results. Maybe 2 studies show the exact opposite thing. Maybe even 1 study has findings that just don’t add up. What do we do?


First option: freak out.


Second option: figure it out.


As much as I like the first option, I unfortunately usually go with the second.


There are numerous things to try and figure it out. Was the study design weird? Is there a logical jump? Who were the participants? Who were the authors? What are the constructs involved and how were they measured?


This last point, to me, is one of the most important. Without knowing this, you might as well be reading in a foreign language that you have never heard of before. So, what is a construct? A construct is just an idea; in this case, it is a psychological concept of importance. Let’s say it is empathy. Empathy can mean so many things (and it does. It is a multifaceted construct that researchers agree that it isn’t just 1 thing and the public can agree on that as well).



Once we know the construct, we need to know how it was measured (i.e., how it was operationalized — the scientific term for this idea). Empathy can be how much you feel someone else’s emotions. Empathy can be taking someone else’s perspective. Empathy, much to my dismay, can also be compassion. Empathy can be in the moment, an action or behavior that is completed. Empathy can be a trait that someone possesses on average. At each of these points is a decision we have to make because it will change how the study will look and what we want to get out of the study.


In this case, the research I will be talking about did all of the above. Great. Because of this, they got conflicting results (but in the best way possible). Here is one of the results I will focus on:

In-the-moment/everyday empathy (i.e., the actual action of empathizing) positively relates to well-being. Trait/average empathy (i.e., empathy as an overall characteristic) negatively relates to well-being.


So, what is the conclusion? Empathy is both a positive and a negative. Is this an acceptable conclusion? Absolutely. Will people get confused at first if they look at this? Probably. Will people who don’t understand science report on this conflicting finding and make it more confusing? Likely.

BUT! We have the tools to think through this and hopefully more studies will be done to further support or refute some of the claims here. Here is my thinking on this finding.


In-the-moment empathy is positive. Why? Because it feels good to connect with people. Whether this means we are feeling their emotions, understanding where they are coming from, or feeling compassion toward them, it often builds connection. We are social beings that thrive on this. It may even help someone in need or amplify their already positive emotions. Either way, when we are actively engaging in empathy, it can make us feel good.


However…


Trait empathy is negative. Why? Because if we are always empathizing, it is taxing. One facet of empathy is the idea of personal distress. It likely goes hand-in-hand with empathy. The more you empathize, the more personal distress one might feel. There are of course ways to empathize without the personal distress, but overuse any muscle or skill and you are bound to wear out. So people that are, on average, more likely to be empathetic, are also more likely to have personal distress, at least potentially. In any single exchange of empathy, the personal distress may be covered by the overall good feelings of empathizing. In the long term, personal distress will build. Taken to an extreme, one may even become resentful and not want to talk or connect with people on such a level anymore.


So what’s the point? Although this all probably seems very logical and sensical, I rarely see this logic and sense placed when conflicting results actually arise. Just imagine, if you heard or saw an article headline that said “Empathy is good!” and then the next week you heard or saw “Empathy is bad!” What would you do in this case? Unfortunately, I think many would say, these scientists and/or psychologists don’t know what they are doing. One week it is this, the next it is that. Why should we trust them?


Stop.


Stop and think for just a moment. Investigate. Be curious. Read further. Something. Now, science and scientists aren’t impervious to errors and sometimes their findings are just off or don’t reflect the real world. If you have stopped, thought, and actually came to that conclusion, so be it. In time, the truth will be uncovered.


However, the truth will likely be complex and not as black and white as we want. We still can use both of these findings in our own lives even as contradictory as they seem at first glance.


More on empathy all this month.


Until then.


-Alex


Citation: Depow, G. J., Francis, Z., & Inzlicht, M. (2021). The experience of empathy in everyday life. Psychological Science, 32(8), 1198–1213.https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797621995202


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