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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Empathy Connects & Unites; Personal Distress & Contagion Divide

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck

Empathy is the foundation of close connection and for our relationships with others.

Empathy allows us to share our experiences, emotions and common needs. It serves a vital function in both our interpersonal relations but also for society as a whole.

It’s empathy that stops bad behavior: when we see and feel that we are causing pain. It sets the foundation for morality and compassion.

The ability to understand and feel what another is feeling is what connects us each to a shared humanity that goes beyond outward differences. It helps us see ourselves in the soul in front of us, regardless of race or political affiliation or orientation or species.

Empathy key to personal, professional relationship success

Whether at home, in the workplace or in our social circles, empathy is fundamental for personal and professional relationship success. Studies confirm that empathetic individuals are better parents, friends, co-workers and managers.

People with higher empathy levels have been shown to be more socially competent and function better within society. They have broader and larger social circles and support, and they report greater long-term relationship satisfaction.

Eisenberg (2002) found that regardless of age, empathy was affiliated with more positive and meaningful relationships as well as greater life satisfaction.

Beyond sympathy and compassion

Empathy is separate from sympathy which includes feeling for someone, generally in regards to another’s suffering. Sympathy alone however, doesn’t generally lead to helping action.

Compassion takes it a step further. Compassion is different in that adds the want to alleviate suffering to feelings of concern for someone else (Eisenberg, 2002).

But while sympathy and compassion are short-term feelings, empathy goes further and involves taking on vicariously, the feelings of another as our own. Almost as if the experience is happening to us, we feel another’s joy or their suffering.

To empathize involves being able to identify and connect with the emotions of others. It requires a respect and value of others and their feelings.

The caring is fundamental. But studies show that we can do that effectively without having been through that experience ourselves. We don’t have to have been there, to care.

Must we walk in someone else’s shoes?

Research has shown that having identifying with, and having empathy for others is not dependent on having experienced the same situation ourselves.

Batson et al. (1996) found that while having actually “walked in someone’s shoes” can impact empathy level, both men and women can exhibit a high degree of empathy, regardless of similar prior experience.

Women showed increased empathy for others when they had previously had that same experience. Men did not.

Emotional vs. cognitive empathy

Science distinguishes between two kinds of empathy: emotional and cognitive.

According to Hodges and Myers (2007), emotional empathy has three parts:

First, we must feel and share the same emotion as someone else. Secondly, emotional empathy involves experiencing our own sense of personal distress in reaction to someone else’s situation.

The final part is when we feel compassion for another in response and want to help.

However, it’s possible to show sympathy and want to help another while having no clue of how he or she thinks or feels. Empathy through emotion alone isn’t enough.

Our brains need in on the action in order for us to truly understand another’s point-of-view. Cognitive empathy takes it a step further.

Empathetic accuracy & emotional intelligence

Cognitive empathy, also known also as empathetic accuracy, is the foundation of emotional intelligence.

Rather than something innate, it’s more of a developed skill or ability that helps to accurately identify and understand the thoughts and feelings of another.

Our level of empathy is impacted by how well we are able to use our feelings and thinking in combination. Individuals with greater empathetic accuracy are more emotionally self-aware, and are better able to connect and empathize with the emotions of others.

Depending on the circumstances, empathy in practice likely includes both instinctive emotional feedback as well as a cognitive, learned component.

When, how, and to whom we empathize is strongly influenced by social and cultural influences. It is cognitive empathy that must kick in if emotional empathy is absent due to group differences in race, culture, gender or socioeconomic status.

Empathy is impacted by societal, cultural & situational factors

The capability for empathy ranges among individuals.

The roots of differences in compassion lie in childhood socialization and development, in genetics and are strongly modified by cultural norms and practices.

A striking example, on full display during the pandemic, is the vast difference between America’s hyper-individualistic, ‘don’t tread on me’ response to a public health crisis vs. how more collectivist societies were able to harness a more unified reaction.

But even beyond these powerful influences that impact individual differences in empathy, research shows that specific situations or contexts, as well as factors about the person or group who is the target of potential compassion, also significantly influence empathy levels.

Empathy for individuals can grow to compassion for a group

While the emotion of empathy is generally personal and directed at someone else, Batson et al., (2002) found that our compassion for a single individual can spur compassion and efforts to help a broader stigmatized group.

Specifically, research found that empathy for an individual with AIDs or someone who is homeless can spark empathy for others suffering the same conditions.

Empathy and judged personal responsibility

Social psychologist and attribution theory expert, Bernard Weiner has researched how people judge why others end up in negative situations and how that judgment impacts compassion.

Weiner et al. (1988), found that whether one believed another’s bad circumstances came as a fault or their own, vs. was uncontrollable determined whether it elicited either compassion and empathy for another, or rather, judgment and anger.

They found that conditions like blindness, cancer, PTSD or Alzheimer’s disease are considered out of one’s control and tend to elicit feelings of compassion and empathy.

Conversely, if someone rather judges another’s situation to be the result of their own efforts or lack of efforts, and hence within their control, the result was distinctly different.

Researchers say circumstances like having acquired AIDS, suffering from drug addiction or homelessness, or being obese were judged to be their own responsibility, and led not to compassion but instead to an assessment of blame and anger.

Empathy vs. self-focused personal distress

Empathy, sympathy and compassion: this side of the family of emotions is other-focused. These are motivated by feeling for (or with) others.

Many research studies make it clear: empathy and compassion motivate helping behaviors. An individual’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of another, emotionally and mentally, leads to concern and compassionate action.

Batson et al., (1987) identified instead, the separate, self-focused emotion of personal distress. While personal distress is an emotional component can lead to compassion, it could also just make someone uncomfortable.

Personal distress & personality

Davis (1983) and Davis et al. (1999), reviewed research showing that the inclination to either exhibit personal distress vs. empathy was associated with differences in personality.

Individuals exhibiting personal distress rather than empathy tended to be less trustworthy, and more insensitive and possessive. People with greater personal distress were also found to be less-effective communicators, show less warmth, be less positive and less even-tempered.

The absence of empathy can be an indication of narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders. The mix of impaired empathy and self-absorption can be a dangerous combination.

Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion…But when we focus on others, our world expands…and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.” ― Daniel Goleman

Difference is in the resulting action, behavior

Based on this, the action and behavioral follow-up that stems from empathy is markedly different from what comes from personal distress.

Here the motivation for action is rooted in wanting to make themselves feel better – having little to do with concern for someone else.

Five separate studies confirm that while empathy moves and motivates individuals to pro-social, helping behaviors, personal distress rather results in self-motivated action.

When personal distress does result in behavior helpful to others, it’s generally because it also happens to be the easiest way to also decrease one’s own uncomfortable stress.

Empathy takes too much effort

Findings show that often, individuals avoid empathy because of the mental effort involved.

Research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and led by C. Daryl Cameron, PhD. of Penn State University. In it, nearly a dozen experiments were conducted with more than 1,200 participants.

They learned that even when someone else was expressing positive emotions, people reported that empathy was more cognitively demanding, was less enjoyable and required more effort than the experiment choice that didn’t require compassion for others.

Us vs. them

With an empathy deficit, personal connections can tend towards the superficial, or characterized mainly by a shared culture, race, interests or pursuits.

Social circles have become increasingly homogeneous. Social media and media narrowcasting create echo chambers where people comfortably hear what and from whom they already agree with.

All this grows the us vs. them mentality. You’re either on our team or you’re the enemy. In the process, we lose multi-faceted individuals as they are haphazardly swept up in broad, sweeping labels and divisions of us vs. them.

This provides just the separation necessary to easily vilify or exalt entire groups of people – irrationally and undeservedly. When shifted from a person to a ‘them’, their pain matters less. Their concerns or voices are less relevant. Their lives, less worthy.

Emotional contagion

When the distinction between what one feels individually, and the emotions of another person or group becomes blurred, the result can be emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion is where emotions can transfer and trigger similar emotions in others. Implicit or explicit, both bypass cognitive or rational filters.

Implicit emotional contagion tends towards more of the subconscious and includes mimicking another’s emotions. On the other end of the spectrum, explicit contagion is anything but subtle.

Often emotional manipulation is the game plan. Here, a person or a group of people may look to intentionally manipulate the emotions of others in order to accomplish a goal.

Schoenewolf (1990) found that emotional contagion was associated more often to unpleasant or negative emotions than pleasurable ones. Contagion was also more likely when the emotions are conveyed with greater intensity and energy.

From business leaders to cult leaders, from zealots to the former leader of the free world, we’ve seen it played out over and over again. Like a virus, emotions can too be highly contagious and sometimes just as dangerous.

Empathy and emotional autonomy

Empathy is about more than just what helps unite us.

As a key component in emotional intelligence, empathy requires both a connection to others but also the ability to develop and manage our emotions separately.

Emotional intelligence and autonomy are valuable defenses against emotional contagion.

According to renowned social psychologist Erich Fromm, autonomy is also crucial for empathy, something not found in irrational contagion.

Empathy is the only human superpower - it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.” - Elizabeth Thomas


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