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When Empathy Backfires

New research shows that empathy isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

Photo by Remi Walle on Unsplash
Empathy is important but is it in the eye of the beholder?
Source: Photo by Remi Walle on Unsplash

Studies show that the expression of empathy has far-reaching effects in our personal and professional lives. Evidence suggests that many people believe that empathy is important, too, especially when it relates to mental health.

Empathy is heralded as one of the most important attributes we can possess for effective communication. And we encourage it in crumbling relationships, when someone is sick or terminally ill, or people are suffering from job loss. But are there situations when people should not show empathy?

Researchers at the University of California, Davis addressed this question in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The new research suggests that, although empathy is often portrayed as a positive attribute, it's not always what it's cracked up to be. Whether or not people who express empathy are viewed favorably depends on who they show empathy for. If a third party observes you showing empathy for someone of questionable character or generally viewed as unethical (such as a White supremacist), they might not like or respect you for it, according to the new findings.

A total of seven experiments with more than 3,000 participants showed that how third-party observers evaluated empathizers depended on who the recipients of the empathy were. Third-party observers were shown scenarios of a person sharing a personal experience (the sharer). The personal experience was negative (such as job pressures) in some of the experiments and positive (such as a promotion) in other experiments. People responded to the personal experience either with empathy or neutrality. Next, third-party observers rated their impressions of the empathizers, such as how much they liked and how warm they felt toward the one who empathized.

Sharers of personal experiences were portrayed either positively or negatively. For example, in one experiment, some observers learned that the sharer worked for a white nationalist organization, and other observers learned that the sharer worked for a children's hospital. In another experiment, the sharer was portrayed as either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination.

The portrayal of the empathizers made a difference to the third-party observers. They respected or liked the empathizers more when the persons they were empathetic toward were also liked or appreciated. When the sharer was disliked (such as a white nationalist or an "anti-vaxxer"), third-party observers didn't like or respect the empathizer to the same degree. Observers in some of the experiments preferred it when people condemned instead of empathized with the disliked sharer. Although we're often asked to empathize with people who are disliked, these findings show that we might not always be viewed positively if we do.

Empathy continues to be an important topic and is widely discussed and recommended in corporate America as one of the most common requests from higher-ups. It is also touted in business, counseling, psychology, and other fields. It's often espoused as the silver bullet for division, conflict, and communication breakdown. Many therapists promote it as the secret sauce for strong marriages and enduring relationships in general. And it is an essential skill.

But the current findings give us pause to consider how we use empathic skills. They provide a bird's-eye view of how you, the empathizer, could be perceived by others if you advocate for people of questionable morals or ethics. It's also emblematic of the types of people we care about and what we stand for. The implications suggest that companies, therapists, family, and friends advocating empathy pay attention to who the empathy recipients are. The purpose of empathy isn’t to endorse bad character or inappropriate behaviors, but these findings imply that a one-size-fits-all approach could do just that. Empathy might be more beneficial when empathizers ensure that it isn’t perceived as a reward for inadequate, unlawful, or immoral actions.

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Wang, Y. A., & Todd, A. R.. (2020). Evaluations of empathizers depend on the target of empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000341

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