Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others, has long been hailed as a virtue that encourages helping behaviors. But a new study finds that many people don’t want to feel empathy, primarily because they believe it requires too much mental effort.
The findings remain true even when feeling empathy would elicit good feelings or would require no actual effort, such as offering help or money.
“There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity,” said lead researcher C. Daryl Cameron, PhD, an assistant psychology professor from Penn State University.
“But we found that people primarily just don’t want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.”
The research team from Penn State and the University of Toronto designed an “Empathy Selection Task” to test whether cognitive costs, or mental effort, could deter empathy. The study involved 11 experiments with more than 1,200 participants.
Over a series of trials, the researchers used two decks of cards that each featured grim photos of child refugees. For one deck, participants were asked to simply describe the physical characteristics of the person on the card. For the other deck, they were told to try to feel empathy for the person in the photo and think about what that person was feeling. Participants were told to choose freely from either deck in each trial.
Importantly, no one was asked to donate time or money to support child refugees or anyone else featured in the photos, so there were no financial costs for feeling empathy in the study.
In some additional experiments, the research team used decks that featured images of either sad or smiling people. When given the choice of choosing between decks, participants consistently chose the decks that didn’t require feeling empathy, even for the photos of happy people.
“We saw a strong preference to avoid empathy even when someone else was expressing joy,” Cameron said.
Across all of the trials, the volunteers on average chose the empathy deck only 35 percent of the time, showing a strong preference for the deck that didn’t require empathy.
In survey questions after each experiment, most volunteers reported that empathy felt more cognitively challenging, saying it required more effort and that they felt less good at it than they did at describing the physical characteristics of other people.
In addition, participants who said that feeling empathy was mentally demanding or made them feel insecure, irritated or distressed were more likely to avoid the empathy deck during the experiments.
In two more experiments, the researchers investigated whether people could be encouraged to feel empathy if they think they are good at it. Half of the participants were told that they were better than 95 percent of others on the empathy deck and 50 percent better for the objective physical characteristics deck, while the other group was told the opposite. Participants who were told they were good at feeling empathy were more likely to select cards from the empathy deck and even say that empathy required less mental effort.
So although the cognitive costs of empathy could cause people to avoid it, it may be possible to increase empathy by encouraging people that they can do it well, Cameron said.
“If we can shift people’s motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole,” Cameron said. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”
The findings are published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.