Empathy For Similar Negative Experiences DISRUPT Our Understanding Of Others

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It’s 2020 and the world needs more empathy… so most people think. “Understand it from my point of view and we’ll have a better world,” that’s a common feeling. However, a case can be made for compassion & concern instead of empathic perspective-taking. Instead of hoping that empathy automatically leads to compassion, concern, and emotional understanding, we directly promote compassionate concern through shared understanding. This approach can circumvent the negative consequences of trying to be empathetic – specifically, poorly understanding other people’s emotions.

That sounds contradictory and incompatible with the very purpose of empathy, doesn’t it? Let’s explore what psychological studies have uncovered.

Previously, research on deliberate empathy highlighted some negative consequences like worsened attitudes toward out-group members, emotional burn-out, and reinforcing kinship (especially when it’s already strong). You can read about those studies here.

A new study conducted by Jacob Israelashvili, Disa A.Sauter, and Agneta H.Fischer, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, highlights another crucial problem with empathy.

Many studies have used self-reported measures in assessing empathy. That gives us a good insight into what people believe but occasionally fails to accurately predict behavior, cognition, and changes in any mental process involving empathy. That is why Jacob et al. chose to experimentally measure the relationship between empathic processes and recognizing emotions in others. This approach helped them weed-out the specifics of which empathic process affects the ability to correctly understand other’s emotional states – i.e., empathic accuracy.

Across 4 studies, each with an approximate sample size of 200 US males & females (approx. equal M:F ratio, avg. age 35-37 years, total sample of 803 people), researchers drew 4 important implications (listed in the summary section at the end).


As Similarity In Experience Increases, Recognition Accuracy of Emotions Decreases

Research shows that having similar, relatable experiences reduce the accuracy of recognizing other's emotions even with an empathetic stance

Participants were shown 4 short videos of expressive females talking about personal negative life-experiences such as fear of breakup, signs of a partner cheating, reverse culture shock, and fighting with a parent. They were then randomly grouped into 2 categories based on empathic processes – One, self-focus, and two, other-focus. Self-focus is imagining yourself going through the same experience. Other-focus is imagining how it would be for the other person to go through that experience. These 2 categories together form the concept of perspective-taking – a common way to elicit empathy.

After measuring the similarity between the participant’s own experience and the accuracy of recognizing emotions in the videos, they found evidence for a counterintuitive notion – similarity in life-experiences impaired the ability to correctly recognize negative emotions.

In a later replication which supported this data, they also asked participants if having similar experiences would improve the ability to recognize emotions. 76% (study 3) & 81% (study 4) of them believed that “having been there” would improve recognition accuracy. These studies cast doubt on the veracity of this belief which people commonly hold to be true.

When the results were analyzed to compare self-focus and other-focus, another interesting pattern emerged. Other-focus perspective-taking reduced the accuracy of recognizing emotions and self-focus perspective-taking was unrelated to emotional recognition. When this information is coupled with similarity, the pattern can be explained based on emotional distress and cognitive engagement. When similar experiences remind us of our own experienced emotional state, it becomes difficult to pay attention to other’s emotions; thereby lowering accuracy. Similarity and spontaneous relatability might implicitly trigger our own memories and emotional processes. Our attention moves inward (as opposed to outward) and our brain processes our own emotions instead of other’s emotions. The self-focus group probably focused on their emotions too intensely and were unable to accurately estimate emotions in the video. As similarity increased, recognition decreased.

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[tweetshare tweet=”‘I know what you are talking about, I’ve gone through this,’ typically indicates empathy. But this similarity evokes our own emotions which blind us from recognizing others'”


Replication: Emotional Distress, Awareness, and Concern

In study 2, a few small changes were made to replicate and extend the results from study 1. Some participants were further asked to report their own emotions assuming the events in the videos happened to them. This allowed the experimenters to make emotions salient and test whether intimate awareness of their own emotions affected the recognition of other’s emotions. The results showed that making personal emotions salient reduced the accuracy of recognizing other’s emotions. Processing your own emotions (affective state), lower our understanding of emotional cues in others via distraction and emotional self-awareness. Whether they originate from a similar experience or are deliberately evoked through imagination, the effect is consistent.

Study 3 replicated the findings of study 1 with a new set of videos showcasing negative emotional experiences: experience of a parent being ill, a divorced father in a new relationship, emotional distance from family, and problems with an internship. This experiment also extended the results in study 1 by adding a control group.

The experiment generally replicated the results of study 1 & 2. But, no unique difference in any perspective-taking approach (self-focus, other-focus, and no-instruction control) was found. This may be due to individual differences and interference between spontaneously empathizing and deliberately (cognitively) taking other’s perspectives – probably caused by instructions given by researchers or an experiment’s demand characteristics (biases introduced because of expectations).

Study 4 replicated results from study 3 and tried to uncover the mechanism underlying these results. To do this, they asked participants to rate their own emotions after watching the video under 2 new categories – empathic concern and personal distress. Relatable life-experiences promoted both – personal distress (PD) & empathic concern (EC). But, their analyses suggest that empathic concern and personal distress have opposite effects on correct emotion recognition. PD & EC also mediated the relationship between similarity of experience and emotion recognition (broadly, empathic accuracy).

Results indicated that personal distress (caused by the similarity of experience or attention to emotions – self & others) can reduce the accuracy of recognizing other’s emotions. But, they also indicated that empathic concern, a more approach oriented process, could increase emotion recognition accuracy. This is partly explained by previous research studies that integrate motivation and empathy. Showing concern appears to be a motivated empathic behavior.

These findings fit well with the Affect to Cognition Model (ACM) of empathy. The model predicts:

  • empathic concern promotes cognitive engagement with other people.
  • personal distress promotes cognitive dis-engagement with other people.

First-hand experience with negative experiences can generate personal distress regardless of how empathy is extended. That leads to poor recognition of other’s emotional states. For example, people can recall and get preoccupied with their own stressful memories of negative emotions/events (like those in the videos) and this can overwhelm them. Being overwhelmed also demands mental resources. It is easy to shift attention away from others and focus it on ourselves when our affective state (all things emotion) intensifies, and this creates a bias in emotional perception. Sometimes wrongly interpreting others and mixing-up affective states.

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These studies have another implication which may have become obvious by now – A concerned person who has experienced similar situations might be better at recognizing other’s emotions if the associated personal distress is low. This requires emotional regulation to manage distress. Here are a few techniques. Once that is done, relatable experiences can promote concern and not hamper the ability to recognize emotions.

The results from these studies come from 2 pre-registered experiments and a total of 3 replication attempts. However, like in most psychological studies, it is too early to fully generalize these conclusions. The sample was U.S. people, the videos were only female-presented, the emotions in videos were largely negative, and the content of the videos may have had unique effects. More diverse research and replication can zero-in on how empathy works and affects us.

The counterintuitive finding also explains why showing concern in spite of different coping styles fosters healthy emotional exchanges. Sensitivity to showing concern can be developed by empathy-training exercises. Some are now questionable according to this research. You can check them out here.

Taking on someone else’s perspective might encourage people to develop an emotional connection/exchange, but it might not necessarily help them understand how they feel – One of the reasons why communication is important in healthy social dynamics.


Summary

  1. Having been in relatable situations is likely to reduce the ability to recognize negative emotions experienced by those they are trying to relate to.
  2. Personal distress evoked by the emotions involved in negative life-experiences might blind one to other’s emotional state.
  3. The similarity in negative experiences can increase both – personal distress & empathic concern. Yet, only personal distress might compromise understanding others.
  4. Taking-on the other’s point of view may not be useful (and even be detrimental) in improving the ability to recognize other’s emotions.

Similar experiences create an awareness of our own emotions, emotional distress, and empathic concern. Awareness of our own emotions leads to fixating on personal experiences rather than other’s experiences. This blinds us from recognizing the emotional state of people we try to empathize with. Moreover, emotional distress caused by relatability and memories further blinds us. However, in the absence of distress, relatability can create enough empathic concern to focus our attention and process emotions in others.

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