Smart Empathy: Why More Is Not Always Better

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.

In 2006, when then-senator Barack Obama proclaimed that “we have an empathy deficit,” he believed that empathy was essential for promoting caring behaviors and societal well-being. And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea. Researchers have found that people who are more empathetic are more likely to help strangers through volunteering or donating to charity and are also more likely to help the people they love in times of difficulty. However, some types of empathy can leave us distressed and overwhelmed by the suffering of others, so much so that we are left less able to help. How can we encourage the benefits — but not the potential harms — of empathy? 

As with many human traits, empathy is more complex than it first appears. One definition of empathy involves care and compassion for others. Compassion is focused on other people's needs irrelevant of our own thoughts or feelings. Yet other definitions of empathy involve reflecting the other person in ourselves. This mirroring can be achieved by feeling echoes of another person's emotions or imagining another person’s situation from their perspective. The first type — feeling others’ emotions — is called emotion contagion, and is not a problem when others are feeling positive, but it easily becomes overwhelming when others are in severe distress. The second type — involving perspective-taking — is called cognitive empathy, and can also be draining because it requires a lot of mental effort. So much effort, in fact, that research finds that people often actively avoid perspective-taking if given the choice. But effort in this case may pay off, since working harder can motivate increased care and compassion.

Reflecting on a Refugee

Not all empathy is created equal, and storytellers should think carefully about which they intend to evoke.

Consider, for example, seeing a story about a refugee child on the news. She is far from home and scared for her future. Some viewers may watch this story and use their head to reflect on how difficult being a refugee would be for a young child. As they sit and imagine how the girl feels and what she needs, these viewers are activating their perspective-taking skills. Research has found that this type of perspective-taking is likely to inspire warm feelings of compassion and motivate people to help. Many people choose to act when they learn of such suffering, for example, by calling their political representative or donating their time or money to charity. However, while seeing this story, other viewers may be overwhelmed because they viscerally feel the child’s fear and hopelessness. To avoid the pain of emotional contagion, people may change the channel or leave the room. Once they do so, that strong empathetic feeling they had will fade almost as rapidly as it was elicited, leaving little motivation to help.

The transitory nature of this type of emotional empathy warrants a healthy dose of skepticism toward any claim of a quick-fix empathy solution, such as virtual reality (VR). However, there has been a proliferation of such attempts in the tech world since the viral 2015 TED Talk in which entrepreneur Chris Milk claimed that VR was “the ultimate empathy machine.” Chris may have been speaking in hyperbole, but since then, charities, governments, and nonprofit organizations have invested heavily in telling stories of human suffering through immersive VR technology.  For example, consider "placing" people in refugee camps, homeless shelters, or suffering from racial discrimination through VR. The power of VR is assumed to lie in its ability to remove the burden of empathizing. VR automatically generates a rush of emotions without the user having to use their own imagination. However, because VR leaves so little to the imagination, it is unlikely to lead to improvements in long-lasting perspective-taking skills. We recently confirmed this limitation by combining the results from 43 different research studies. We found that virtual reality only creates emotional empathy responses in viewers, but it does not improve perspective-taking.  

That’s not to say that transitory emotions have no use for social good. Fundraising campaigns may find that VR or other highly emotional storytelling is more than sufficient for their purposes, assuming they can capitalize on the rush of emotion with a well-placed donation bucket or web link. However, those interested in creating longer-lasting improvements in empathy may want to consider telling stories in such a way that they challenge people to use their perspective-taking skills. 

Here are some actionable insights storytellers and content creators can use to encourage perspective-taking in their audiences: 

  • Tell stories about people, places, and events (both real and fictional) that are different from readers’ own experiences.

  • Create complex and well-rounded characters that do not always adhere to social stereotypes or literary tropes and who challenge the audience to adjust their perspective. 

  • Give listeners an opportunity to read between the lines and pick up on subtle indicators of how people are thinking and feeling.  

  • Allow viewers the space to build their own understanding of the situation by leaving some ambiguity.

  • Create enticing stories that encourage people to take the perspectives of others even though it is effortful.

Today we are bombarded with intense, graphic content that rapidly arouses our emotions automatically and does not require perspective-taking. Long gone are the days of imagining the suffering of people in a far-off land. That suffering is brought into our homes on our TV screens and taken with us on our commute via our smartphones. Given this new world, we are much more likely to experience empathy with our hearts and not our heads, which can result in emotional burnout. 

In order to create a more compassionate society overall, we don’t need to empathize more, we need to empathize smarter.

This article was written by Alison Jane Martingano, M.A., M.Phil.,Teaching Fellow, The New School for Social Research, and Sara Konrath, M.S., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy; Visiting Professor, The New School for Social Research; Collaborator of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.

Tags: Education, Developing Skills & Character, Books

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