The Relationship Between Empathy and Anger Is Complicated
Many factors determine whether empathy can inhibit anger arousal.
Posted December 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Empathy takes two forms, emotional empathy, and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy can exist in the absence of emotional empathy.
- In a study, individuals with low cognitive empathy could not reduce the impact of the tendency toward anger and aggression.
- Strategies to learn empathy include listening to others' words, tone, and body language and recognizing your biases.
We were discussing empathy in my all-male anger management group when Sebastian shared an experience that helped him to become more empathic.
I’d always get furious when I saw someone speeding down the highway…especially if they cut in front of me. A couple of years ago I had to take my 15-year-old son to the emergency room after he had accidentally cut himself. Ever since, when I see someone recklessly speeding, I tell myself ‘They must have a reason’.
Empathy helps us form bonds in our relationships and expand compassion for others and ourselves. It takes two forms: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.
Emotional empathy entails the ability to sense other people’s emotions. It’s evidenced when your best friend shares the pain of a recent loss, and you instinctively sense his suffering. Such empathy may move you not only to sense his pain but to want to help him as well.
Cognitive empathy encompasses the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It refers to knowing what another feels and what they might be thinking. It is concerned with thought, understanding, and intellect and may occur in the absence of emotional empathy.
Empathy is partly unconscious and automatic, and we vary in the degree to which we have learned to embrace empathy. Some, like Sebastian, require transformational experiences before we can enhance our empathy.
In general, empathy is associated with inhibiting anger. However, its relationship with anger can be quite complicated.
Empathic Enhancement as Part of Anger Management
Enhancing empathy is an inherent component in the cultivation of healthy anger. Doing so provides greater emotional and cognitive flexibility when responding to our anger. For example, anger often stems from distorted thinking such as personalizing, catastrophizing, and all-or-nothing thinking–that influences our knee-jerk appraisal of a person.
Such thinking constricts our ability to be more sensitive to what might actually be going on for others. Such vulnerability may lead us to attribute negative intent because we lack the cognitive empathy to see a wider range of possible explanations.
Learning to be curious and open allows us to generate alternative hypotheses about others’ thinking and emotions. However, while empathy may be essential to understand and be sensitive to others, some factors can undermine its benefits.
When Empathy Can Increase Polarization
All too often, many of us may experience empathy primarily with those who are like us. For example, we may be empathic only with family members, church, race, or political party–while withholding our empathy from others. This was supported by a study that found higher levels of dispositional empathic concern are associated with higher affective polarization (Simas et al., 2020). Their research concluded that the empathy was biased toward in-group members in contrast to other groups. Secondly, it found that individuals high in empathic concern showed greater partisan bias when evaluating contentious political events.
Cognitive and Emotional Empathy and Their Impact on Aggression
Cognitive empathy and emotional empathy have been explored separately and together in determining their impact on anger and aggression. One such study, based on responses of 663 undergraduate students, found that affective empathy was associated with less aggression, while cognitive empathy did not correlate with aggression (Jiang et al., 2021).
Additionally, it found that cognitive empathy plays a vital role in lessening the hostile cognition associated with trait anger, specifically the first information processing steps. Individuals with low cognitive empathy could not reduce the impact of the tendency toward anger and aggression. And a predisposition toward hostile cognition negatively correlated with affective empathy.
Anger Arousal Can Inhibit Empathy
Specifically, both preexisting anger when facing a decision and anger triggered by the decision constrict openness to perspective-taking. Anger arousal inhibits good frontal lobe functions, which reduces cognitive flexibility. So it is not surprising that a group of studies found that anger reduces perspective-taking (Yip and Schweitzer, 2019).
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Moral Beliefs, Reduced Empathy, and Anger
Similarly, our moral beliefs can promote anger that competes with our capacity for empathy. For example, we might experience anger toward the homeless if we primarily attribute such a condition to a character flaw. Likewise, we may have less empathy with someone who develops lung cancer due to smoking than with someone who seems to develop cancer through no fault of his own.
Empathy Gone Awry
I use the term “empathy gone awry” to characterize the difficulty in experiencing empathy without an ability to disengage from it. This can occur if we internalize the feelings and suffering of others without the ability to distinguish them from our own. Consequently, being overly sensitive to the suffering of others might lead to emotional stress, anxiety, conflict and depression–and even anger.
A study of elementary school teachers reported the consequences of empathy gone awry (Wink et al., 2021). Participants completed measures of empathy, teacher-student relationships, student behaviors, and discipline approaches with the more challenging students.
Teachers who were high in cognitive empathy reported better mindsets regarding student behavior, greater competence in handling problem behaviors, increased use of effective problem-solving strategies, greater relationship closeness, and lower levels of job burnout. By contrast, teachers high in empathic distress reported more negative misbehavior mindsets, greater relationship conflict, less competence, fewer problem-solving strategies, and higher job burnout.
Like emotional empathy gone awry, cognitive empathy can also have a downside–as when our attunement to a cognitive focus leads to ignoring the other person’s emotional landscape. Such empathy attends to the facts, reasons, and data relevant to the behavior or thoughts of others while minimizing, ignoring, or denying their emotions.
Empathy Can Be Taught as a Skill to Help Lessen Anger
It’s important to realize that our capacity for empathy can be taught as a powerful contribution to curbing anger. Following are several strategies that help promote it.
- Be curious about others and ourselves. Visit and talk to new people. Read fiction as well as non-fiction about peoples’ struggles, individually or as a group.
- Remember that others’ thoughts and feelings make sense to them due to their unique history.
- Listen more–to their words, tone, and body language.
- Make guesses as to why someone is behaving a certain way. Ask yourself, “What thoughts, feelings, or experiences might contribute to their behavior?”
- Recognize how your biases, including fears and anxieties, influence your attitudes and perceptions to either expand or constrict empathy.
- I find it helpful to think that we are all children doing our best to face life’s challenges as adults–each of us has developed a template for how to do this.
Our capacity to empathize with others is further enhanced by our resilience to truly acknowledge our own pain. When we avoid acknowledging our own pain, we become blind to it in others. Such acknowledgment further supports the compassion with others that can powerfully curb anger arousal. This was the lesson Sebastian learned that helped him to pause rather than react–a pause that allowed for empathy as a powerful deterrent of anger arousal.
Simas, E., Clifford, S. and Kirkland, J. (2020). How empathic concern fuels political polarization. American Political Science Review, 114, 1, 258-269. doi:10.1017/S0003055419000534
Jiang, Q., Yang, Y., Liu, C. and Yuan, J. (2021). The differing roles of cognitive empathy and affective empathy in the relationship between trait anger and aggressive behavior: a Chinese college students survey. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 36, 19-20. 10937-10957.
Yip, J. and Schweitzer, M. (2019) Losing your temper and your perspective: Anger reduces perspective-taking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 150, 29-45. Teacher empathy and students with problem behaviors: Examining teachers’ perceptions, responses, relationships, and burnout.
Wink, M., LaRusso, M., Smith, R. (2021). Teacher empathy and students with problem behaviors: Examining teachers' perceptions, responses, relationships, and burnout. Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 58, 8, 1575-1596. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.22516