People prefer to avoid empathy because it’s mentally taxing, study finds
Empathy is an important skill that we as humans evolved in order to better thrive in complex and tight-knit communities. Research has shown that without empathy, people in societies are less altruistic, more selfish and less cooperative.
Despite the role of empathy in prosperous social groupings among both animals and humans, a new study has found that people try to avoid empathy if at all possible because of the mental effort and perceived financial cost.
New research from the American Psychological Association published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General shows that people would prefer not to empathize with another person even if they are feeling happy.
“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 C. Daryl Cameron, the lead researcher for the study. “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.”
Cameron and his colleagues designed a series of experiments meant to assess the choice to empathize or not. Over 1,200 participants took part in the experiments.
One of the experiments specifically designed by the researchers was called an “Empathy Selection Task” where participants were presented with two decks of cards that featured photos of child refugees.
The participants were given a choice to either describe the physical characteristics of the children in the photos in one deck or try and empathize with the thoughts and feelings a child was having in a photo in the other deck.
Even if the decks featured happy people, the participants favored the decks that didn’t require empathy. The empathy deck was chosen 35 percent of the time.
Participants were also given surveys after each experiment to explain their reasoning behind choosing a particular deck. Choosing empathy was more challenging and required more effort, according to the participants.
In another set of experiments, half of the participants were told they were good at empathy and 95 percent better than other participants at choosing the empathy deck.
When participants were told they excelled at empathy, they were more keen to try and empathize with the photos from the empathy deck.
“If we can shift people’s motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole,” said Cameron. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”