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Understanding and Mastering the Empathy Gap

6 Ways to Close the Empathy Gap

Lizzie McGuire/
Source: Lizzie McGuire/

You know the drill. I write about that great 3-course meal I ate and post a video of my kid mastering karate or a climbing wall; you update your status with highlights from your child’s recital and then share pictures of your beautifully remodeled kitchen. We all feel connected and happy, right? Wrong.

Irene Scopelliti lead author of the study, You Call It “Self-Exuberance”; I Call It “Bragging”: Miscalibrated Predictions of Emotional Responses to Self-Promotion, explains that we are really bad at knowing how people will react to our bragging. Not only do we misjudge how strongly people will react to our boasting, but we also have trouble figuring out whether what we share will make them feel good or bad.

The Empathy Gap

The problem is one of engaging in emotional perspective taking, says Dr. Scopelliti. First, we have trouble imagining how we would feel in other people’s shoes, a phenomenon known as “the empathy gap.” For example, when you watch a contestant freeze up on a televised game show and assume that you would do a much better job keeping your cool if you were competing. Second, we are not good at imagining how other people would respond to things because we assume they would respond in the same way we would.

Where I assume that watching a video of my kid kicking the winning soccer goal will make my friends feel proud of my child and happy for me (because that’s how I feel), it could easily make them resentful, angry or sad. Imagine a recently laid off friend seeing pictures of your expensive renovation. It’s not hard to imagine how these successes could provoke negative feelings.

According to the study, “People may talk openly about their successes and achievements to others because they are guided by a genuine belief that others will be happy for them, or proud of them, or because they want to appear enviable, but they insufficiently adjust for any awareness that recipients of their self-promotion may be annoyed by their claims.”

Recent brain research published in The Journal of Neuroscience explains that people’s levels of empathy also affect how they react to our news. Since we don’t know how empathetic someone else is, the wise decision is to be discriminating in what we share.

Selective Sharing

Self-praise can readily backfire if you don’t sort the people in your social network. Researchers at the University of Birmingham investigated how photo sharing on Facebook affects our relationships. They broke Facebook friends into relationship categories: relative, partner, close friend, colleague and a general Facebook friend to examine how each group responded to receiving specific kinds of photos.

Andreas Just/
Source: Andreas Just/

Many of us share content we think is universally acceptable to our entire network, but doing so can create tension in our social circles. The Birmingham study found, for instance, that close friends like to see our selfies, but not pictures of us hanging out with other friends. Our partners like when we post pictures of family, but not when we post pictures of friends. But general Facebook friends like seeing pictures of our friends (maybe because they are just getting to know us and it helps them understand our social network). And our relatives like both our selfies and pictures of our family.

The researchers recommend using privacy settings to control who sees what content, rather than trying to keep all Facebook posts generic. They conclude that sharing photos impacts “the levels of support and intimacy” as well as the quality of our relationships.

What and with whom we share has very real consequences. Boundary negotiation is critical to managing personal relationships on social networks, just as it is in our face-to-face relationships.

Avoiding Social Misfires (Online and Off)

  • choose with whom to share carefully
  • limit bragging to family and close friends who are likely to authentically care about you or your children excelling
  • share challenges and disappointments along with successes
  • model not bragging for children (bragging teaches them to brag and/or puts pressure on them to succeed)
  • think twice before posting photos online (ask yourself, “how would this picture make my close friends, my family or my partner feel?”)
  • ask yourself why you are posting (Is it to make others jealous? Make you look good? If so, reconsider)

Related: Why Some People Can’t Stop Bragging


Houghton, David and Joinson, Adam and Caldwell, Nigel and Marder, Ben (2013) Tagger's delight? Disclosure and liking in Facebook: the effects of sharing photographs amongst multiple known social circles. Discussion Paper. University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Lockwood, Patricia L., Matthew A.J. Apps, Jonathan P. Roiser, & Essi Viding. “Encoding of Vicarious Reward Prediction in Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Relationship with Trait Empathy.” Journal of Neuroscience. Published online October 7 2015. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1703-15.2015

Scopelliti, Irene and Loewenstein, George and Vosgerau, Joachim. You Call It “Self-Exuberance”; I Call It “Bragging”: Miscalibrated Predictions of Emotional Responses to Self-Promotion. Psychological Science 0956797615573516, first published on May 7, 2015. doi:10.1177/0956797615573516

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman

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