Whatever your politics, few would take issue with President Barack Obama's eloquent endorsement of empathy. At the 2016 Democratic convention, he urged Americans "to see ourselves in each other," and then to act accordingly.
So why do we step around the homeless person without giving him a second thought? Or ignore appeals to assist refugees, or victims of natural disasters?
New research offers a surprising answer: Empathizing with others takes effort, and, generally speaking, we'd rather not expend the energy.
"There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly," said lead author C. Daryl Cameron, a psychologist at Penn State University, in announcing the findings. "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."
In the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the researchers provide evidence of this "robust preference to avoid empathy" in 11 studies featuring a total of 1,204 people. Their basic method was an "empathy selection task," in which participants were instructed to choose a card from one of two decks.
In the first two studies, all cards featured images of children who were refugees. Participants who chose a card from the "empathy deck" were "instructed to share in the target's feelings and write a sentence about the person's internal experiences." Those who chose from the "objective deck" were asked to remain emotionally detached, "and write a sentence about the age and gender."
After completing 40 such trials, participants answered a series of questions about their experience with each deck of cards, including how "insecure, discouraged, irritated, stressed, and annoyed" it left them, and how successful they felt they'd been in carrying out the instructions.
"Participants avoided empathy, exhibiting a clear preference for the objective deck," the researchers report. "When given the choice to feel empathy for others, participants spontaneously opted not to." Further analysis found that subjects "perceived the empathy deck as more effortful" and felt they were more successful at objectively describing the people pictured than they were at identifying their emotional states.
This central finding was replicated again and again, with slight variations. One study found this aversion to empathizing had practical consequences. After completing the 40 trials, participants were asked how much they were willing to donate to the international relief organization Save the Children. Those who had chosen more cards from the empathy deck indicated they would give more money than those who'd largely avoided that deck.
In another pair of studies (all were conducted online, via Amazon's Mechanical Turk), some participants were told they had performed extremely well on the empathy task (that is, in the top 5 percent of the group), while others were told they'd gotten superb marks on the objective task. They then performed 24 additional trials, in which the two decks featured photos of women displaying either angry or happy faces.
Not surprisingly, participants who were told they were good at empathizing were more likely to choose the empathy deck on that follow-up task. Indeed, this manipulation "eliminated empathy avoidance altogether" for these participants. These participants also reported that empathizing was less cognitively taxing than they had originally perceived.
This last finding provides some hope. We seem to operate under the assumption that feeling empathy is quite taxing, and avoid it accordingly. But freed of that belief, we're more willing to connect with the emotions of others—and, as Cameron notes, that "could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help," such as immigrants and refugees.
So the next time you see an image of kids in cages, don't shut down or turn away. You can handle it better than you might think—and doing so could bring out your best self.