Someone who appears to be homeless asks for change as you walk by. You ignore the request. Or an acquaintance at work, whom you don’t know well, texts out of the blue to say that she’s just been fired over Zoom. Your job is secure, so you scratch out some platitudes about how when one door closes, another door opens, and then you get back to work. Or say you were absolutely horrified by the brutal killing of George Floyd, as any decent person would be. But as someone who has never been afraid of the police, you cannot truly fathom the perspective of someone who has, no matter how hard you try.
Empathy—the ability to relate to and understand the perspective of others—is sometimes completely absent and at other times difficult to sustain. “There’s a school of thought that suggests that empathy is automatic and effortless,” says Michael Inzlicht, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Yet according to a new study led by Inzlicht, this conception might not be accurate. People, it turns out, may opt against empathy if the mental effort needed is too high. In other words, empathy could be an on-off switch that’s easier left in the off position.
Inzlicht and colleagues used the online service Mechanical Turk to gather a diverse set of participants for 11 experiments that measured the mental work required for empathy. Every experiment involved enough people to reach statistically valid conclusions.
In one experiment, for example, participants could write an objective account of pictures of child refugees, or they could write about life from the refugee’s perspective. People strongly preferred the objective option, which they rated as less effortful. Even when people had an opportunity to empathize with the positive experiences of others—as shown by pictures of smiling people, in other experiments—they generally avoided the effort.
There was one large exception to this general pattern. When researchers primed participants to be attuned to empathy, with prompts like, “I usually feel like I am very aware of and good at understanding exactly what other people are feeling,” people became more empathetic. In this variation of the experiment, people were asked to describe the feelings of four adult women (two smiling, two frowning), after receiving the empathy prompt. People were especially empathetic when they received real-time feedback that their perceptions of other people’s feelings were accurate.
Inzlicht cautions against over-interpreting the results of these experiments, which occurred at single moments in time in arbitrary conditions. Experimental settings cannot replicate the real-world social dynamics in which people choose to be empathetic or not, leading Marianne Reddan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, to wonder if one reason for the low empathy levels is that the context is contrived. “Empathy is not an individual thing. It’s very situated to the collective, to the community,” Reddan says. Asking people to respond to the faces of strangers whom they have never seen before is not the most robust way to assess someone’s penchant for empathy, she suggests.
Reddan plans to begin a study in which participants watch a film about the racial implications of incarceration policy in the United States, with the aim of instilling greater empathy for people who have been incarcerated or been brutalized in jail. Participants will also hear the stories of falsely accused people—these would be strangers too, as in the other experiments, but in this case, subjects would be exposed to three-dimensional people, not just pictures on a screen. Reddan will track study participants for up to a year, to learn whether acquired empathy will sustain itself over time—or perhaps even lead to changes in their political views.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.