A young boy with freckles named George was in line at a local fair to have his face painted. George had been waiting all day for this moment to come. When it was finally his turn to have his face painted, a girl turned to him and laughed: “You have so many freckles on your face, there’s no room for any paint!” George looked down, his face scrunched up, and his eyes were covered by his hair. He put his hands in his pockets, hunched over, and kicked some dirt.
Can you tell what this boy is feeling? Is he happy? Sad? Jealous? By just reading this short paragraph, you probably could already tell that the boy is disappointed. What’s more, you probably feel disappointed for the boy too!
See? Empathy is easy!
As humans, we have an incredible ability to empathize. We are able to share and understand others’ experiences, without necessarily having lived them ourselves. In fact (or maybe because), we’re so good at empathizing, we start doing it very early-on in life. Already by 13 or 14 months of age, infants will try to calm others who are experiencing distress. By 18 months, they will even bring them toys, seek help, and express sympathy in words. Because of how early and easily we start to show an understanding of others’ emotions, many experts believe that feeling empathy is built-in to our human nature. For example, American psychologist, Martin L. Hoffman has said that we evolved to be empathetic, because doing so helps us from bonds that promote our long-term survival. If he is right, then when we hear about George and his face-painting fiasco, it shouldn’t be very hard for us to know what he’s feeling and want to help.
...Or is it?
At this point, maybe the little pessimist in you is going: “But it’s not like we always help each others. Surely sometimes we just don’t care”. And they’d be right! In fact, much research has shown that despite how early we start displaying empathetic behaviour, there are lots of situations where we seemingly should, but don’t.
Perhaps the most (in)famous example of this is the “Bystander Effect”, whereby people are less inclined to help someone in distress if others are around. The most extreme version of this effect played out when New York resident Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in front of 38 witnesses, who did nothing until the police arrived (at which point she had already died) Cases like this, where we are able to see people suffering, yet for some reason don’t care to help, throw the notion that humans have this in-built empathy mechanism into question. How could we truly understand the terrible suffering someone in front of us is feeling and still choose not to act?
Not so easy after all
So how can we reconcile these two points of view? On the one hand, we seem to be built from the ground-up to empathize and care about others; it looks like it’s in our nature. On the other hand, we can all think of instances where we (or people we’ve known) should have cared more than they did about another person.
To answer this question, new research out of the University of Toronto says that maybe it’s not that we can’t empathize in these situations, but simply that it’s too much work. In 11 studies with over 1100 participants total, Cameron and colleagues demonstrate that when given the choice, people will choose not to empathize. In this study, people saw a series of emotional faces (happy, sad, and angry) and had to choose whether they would describe the objective details of the face (the age or the gender of the face) or describe how they thought the person felt. They found that people overwhelmingly preferred to describe the features of the face, rather than the emotional state. What’s more, the authors were also able to show that this wasn’t just a result of people avoiding describing emotion overall. When presented with the choice to describe their own emotions or the face’s emotions, people more often chose to describe their own emotions. But that’s not all! By making small changes to the original task, they also showed that and when people were given the choice between empathizing for 3 seconds or 10 seconds, people more often chose to empathize for 3 seconds. So, when we do have to empathize, we prefer to do it for as little as time as possible. Finally, the authors also showed that by paying people money, their likelihood to empathize increased, again demonstrating that people seem to need some compensation for the work of empathizing.
So what does all this mean? Well, as the title of the paper suggests, this research points to the fact that being empathetic is hard work! And since people generally prefer to work less hard and save energy, when presented with the choice, we will tend to avoid empathizing with others.
OK, but is it really that hard?
Of course, no research is perfect. A clear problem with this study is also an obvious one: are the authors really looking empathy? The way the task is set up, it is hard to tell. Though the authors do everything they can to make sure the participants are feeling what the person in the picture is feeling, all they really have to do is describe that person’s emotions. Some readers might point out that this behaviour is closer to what is called Theory of Mind: the ability to attribute and mental states to others. In other words, because the study is entirely behavioural, there is no way to know whether the participants are actually empathizing with the face on the screen or just accurately describing how they feel. If it’s the latter, then the question is is if it’s empathy that’s effortful or Theory of Mind?
Why should we care, anyway?
Despite this limitation, what can we take away from this story? First, empathy is at the core of our humanity. Our ability to relate to each other depends on our ability to feel the things they are feeling, without the need for them to communicate to us directly. Without this skill, we’d have trouble helping others, cooperating with them, or meaningfully interacting at alll. It’s no surprise then that some of our first behaviour is empathetic in nature. But, at some point, this empathy becomes harder and we have to start weighing the costs and benefits associated with doing this mental labour. When we fail to balance the costs of empathizing with its benefits, we may slip into apathy and the consequences could be serious.
Though it might seem a bit cold to think that sometimes we shouldn’t empathize — that it’s too much work for our own good — thinking about empathy in this way might help us better understand our own nature, and, in turn, better understand each other. For example, if we know that empathy is hard work, can we make people do that hard work? Can future research show that by teaching people about the benefits of empathy, they actually empathize more despite the costs? Maybe we can even go so far as to understand and quantify when people choose to spend that mental energy to empathize in the first place? In this way, by learning more about these questions and better understanding how and why we empathize, maybe, as Alice Miller said, our “empathy [can] grow as we learn.”
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