Empathy Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

A new study shows that when it comes to empathy, how we arrive at the empathy is as important as being empathetic.

“That’s because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other,” said Dr. Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology. Poulin was a co-author of the study which was led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Anneke E.K. Buffone, who was a Ph.D. student at University at Buffalo when the research was conducted.

The routes to empathy diverge at the point of the helper’s perspective. The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another, according to the researchers.

One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other approach is for helpers to put themselves into someone else’s situation, the ubiquitous “walk a mile in their shoes” scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

“You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT),” Poulin said. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT).”

“I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens could be unpleasant,” he continued. “On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive.”

Previous research has tried to get at the question of stress relative to IOPT and ISPT by asking people to report how they felt after a helping behavior, according to the researchers.

They note their study breaks new ground by examining the effects of perspective taking while someone is engaged in helping behavior.

“I have some degree of uncertainty about how well people are parsing out the distinction when reporting how much they were feeling for themselves versus the other person,” Poulin said.

That uncertainty motivated the study’s design, which measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not.

“When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict, making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body,” Poulin said.

He noted they could detect this in the lab based on stress physiology measures.

“What we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT,” he said.

This conclusion could be especially useful in the context of medical professions, like doctors and nurses, especially in areas with high rates of burnout, he said.

“Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers,” he said. “That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients’ shoes.

“Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden.”

This also applies to teachers and students and social workers and clients, he noted.

“In fact, now that we’re transitioning to such a service economy, it’s nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers,” he said.

Parents might even consider the study’s finding when thinking about how they are speaking to their children in certain circumstances.

“Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling,’” he explained.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Source: University at Buffalo