What Everyday Situation Can Drain Your Empathy for Others?

If we stop doing this one thing, we can become kinder to others—and ourselves.

Posted Jul 11, 2017

Grand Central Station clock by George Hodan, CC0, publicdomainpictures
Source: Grand Central Station clock by George Hodan, CC0, publicdomainpictures

“I would have helped but…”

What would you do if you…

  1. Saw a stranger suddenly get sick and sit down on the curb swaying dangerously over the street?
  2. Noticed a man laden down with packages trying to open a door?
  3. Were at a fraternity party and saw a young man taking advantage of a young woman who was clearly inebriated?

I have a feeling most of us would hold the door open for the man with packages.  But the other two situations are more complicated.

Psychologists have long studied the issue of when we more likely to ignore the suffering of others and just walk on by and when we are likely to stop and help. Of course there are sociopaths and narcissists whose upbringing and genetics have contributed to a pathological lack of compassion for others.  But the studies of helping behavior don’t focus on these outliers.  Rather, they focus on ordinary people like you and me whose intentions are generally good.

While there are many factors that contribute to a lack of compassion, studies have identified one factor that is usually under our control:

Being in a hurry.   

It turns out that we are less likely to help others when we feel rushed or when we are late for an event. In a classic 1973 study by psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson, a group of seminary students from Princeton Theological Seminary are told to report to another building on campus to deliver a lecture about the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A more appropriate topic could not have been given, as you will see.

Good Samaritans?

The seminarians were divided into two groups: Group 1 was told they had plenty of time to get to the building. Group 2 was told they were late. On their way to the lecture hall, a confederate of the researchers played a person in distress, slumped in a doorway and visible to all (similar to question 1 above). Sixty-three percent of the students in Group 1, the group with time to spare, were more likely to stop and help.  But in Group 2, the group who had been told they were late, only 10 percent stopped to help.  Darley and Batson concluded that “…ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”  Most of us are neither psychopathic nor selfish, but hurried lifestyles can erode our empathy and our willingness to help. 

This study was small (40 students), but it has been replicated many times with variations, according to Steve Casner, who describes the study in his entertaining and helpful new book, Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds. Casner details other surprising factors that contribute to lack of empathy, including noise, crowds, excessive heat, living in an expensive city, being hungry, and "the bystander effect"—the feeling that other spectators will take care of the problem so you don't have to.

Slowing Down

Are you in the “hurry habit?” I know I am. As I was reading the research, I guiltily realized how often I ignored others just because I was working my way down my to-do list.  If you, like me, would like to cultivate more compassion for others, slow down!  

Unfortunately, "hurrying is one of the most psychologically difficult behaviors to turn off or control," according to Casner. And if you are rushing to get somewhere, you might not even notice when others need help, let alone stop to figure out how to help.

Nonetheless "the hurry habit" can be modified with a little strategy and determination. Here are nine ideas for how to put on the brakes—literally and figuratively:

  • Notice, just notice, when you are in the "hurry-up mentality."  Then make a conscious decision to slow yourself down.  Breathe in…breathe out.
  • Reframe the idea of "having to wait."  Instead of moaning impatiently when you hit a red light, be grateful for the chance to slow down. Look around and enjoy the landscape. Take a few more deep breaths. 
  • Drive at the speed limit. As I was reading Careful, I monitored my driving.  I discovered that I speed constantly.  Fellow drivers, it may help to know that speeding doesn’t get you there any faster. Casner cites statistics that prove that speeding and rolling through stop signs may save you about 26 seconds per day at most, at the cost of potentially killing or hurting yourself or someone else. By contrast, when you slow yourself down, notice how your blood pressure goes down and your mind relaxes.
  • Practice self-compassion.  Being kind to yourself will help you moderate your tendencies to rush, to push yourself, and to achieve goals at the expense of safety and sanity.  If you are able to empathize with your own self-imposed suffering, you may be able to increase your empathy for others.
  • Plan realistically.  Are you trying to stuff too much stuff into one day? Do you leave too late for appointments?  If so, you are setting yourself up for stress. Leave for appointments 15 minutes earlier than you think you need to. Transfer a few "to-dos" to tomorrow.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this really so important?” If you can’t meet all your goals, set priorities. 
  • Get in touch with your own values. Reminding yourself of your deepest principles and goals will restore your energy for helping.
  • Get training to help you face a crisis situation. Bystander training, for example, is often taught in college to help students intervene in situations like #3 above.
  • Imagine how you would feel in the person in distress was you.  Cultivate empathy.

The Problems with Helping

A friend was walking along the street when he saw a cyclist crash into a signpost. The friend ran to help but was overcome by the sight of blood and fainted on top of the cyclist.  Both men had to be carted off to the hospital. (They recovered.) Moral: Know your limits.

In any helping situation, you will need to use your judgment.  Can you truly help or would you just be in the way? 

You have the right and responsibility to take care of yourself. Putting on your own oxygen mask first, as they say in air travel, is often a good rule of thumb for daily life. If you could be harmed by helping, call 911 or someone who knows how to get the job done or just find a way to protect yourself.

The Positives of Helping

Your brain will reward you with a refreshing spritz of feel-good chemicals when you help others. This feeling—dubbed “the helper’s high”—will encourage you to stay on the path of compassion. Have you ever felt it?  It’s a wonderful feeling.

Overcoming the “hurry mentality” will not only help you become more compassionate.  You may reap other benefits—a safer lifestyle, lower blood pressure, and more relaxation.  You may even find yourself enjoying life more because you can take time to savor each moment. 

© Meg Selig, 2017


Casner, S. Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds, Riverhead Books, NY, 2017.

McGonigal, K. “Find Your Courage and Compassion with One Question." 

Selig, M. “Use Psychology to Handle These 7 Sticky Situations.” 

Wood, J. “As summer heats up,  many turn moody and less helpful.”

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