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The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person's emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.
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(Photo: glsims99/Flickr)

(Photo: glsims99/Flickr)

Public figures from President Obama to Neil deGrasse Tyson have suggested a lack of empathy is one of our species’ fundamental problems. “Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes,” writes author and prominent business-world thinker Daniel Pink. “Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

A lovely thought. But new research suggests it isn’t always true.

A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behavior. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: You also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.

University at Buffalo psychologists Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin found empathy can provoke such behavior even absent “traditional predictors of aggression” such as feeling threatened, or a tendency to act impulsively.

Participants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for.

What’s more, it can be activated even “in the absence of wrongdoing or provocation from the target of aggression.” That party doesn’t have to be doing anything wrong; he or she simply has to pose a problem for the person you empathize with.

The researchers describe two studies, the first of which featured 69 undergraduates. After providing a saliva sample for DNA analysis, they were instructed to write about “a time in the past 23 months when they witnessed a close other (friend, family member, significant other, child) being hurt physically or emotionally by a third party other than themselves.”

They rated how distressed the “close other” felt during this conflict; how much empathy and compassion they felt toward him or her; and filled out a questionnaire measuring their baseline level of aggressiveness and impulsiveness.

The result: When the “close other” was in clear distress, high levels of empathy were linked to aggressive behavior. “It was empathy, and not trait aggression or perceptions of emotional threat toward the self, that predicted aggression in our study,” the researchers write.

This linkage was particularly strong for participants with a particular gene variant linked to the neurohormone vasopressin, which has previously been associated with aggressive behavior to defend one’s child or mate.

In the second study, 162 undergraduates read a story about a student who suffers a series of financial setbacks. Half of them read a version that concluded with the person “expressing high distress over their financial need,” while the other read one in which he or she more or less shrugs it off.

The participants were told the woebegone student would be competing against a fellow undergraduate in a math test, for which the winner would receive $20. Then, under the guise of a separate experiment, they determined the amount of harmless but painful hot sauce the competitor would have to consume before taking the test.

The researchers report the manipulation increased aggression—that is, participants assigned higher amounts of hot sauce—"but only when the empathy target was described as distressed.”

In other words, participants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. This occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The results should put a damper on what the researchers call “recent enthusiasm for interventions that involve administering caregiving-related neurohormones or empathy training."

“Just as the self-esteem movement was not a panacea leading to happy, successful, and well-adapted children,” the researchers write, “oxytocin and/or empathy interventions may not stop problems such as bullying and other forms of aggression and violence, because aggression itself may result from empathy.”

“Among non-human animals, aggression on behalf of offspring (i.e., maternal and paternal aggression) has long been studied as an integral part of the caregiving system,” Buffone and Poulin point out. “In humans, however, caregiving has been studied primarily in terms of pro-social tending to offspring and other valued individuals. Our findings affirm that, for humans as well, caregiving and aggression are linked.”