By Ray Williams

September 2, 2021

Empathy is talked about a lot these days. The current pandemic, climate change, economic upheaval, racial strife and a chaotic and divisive political climate in the United States have prompted many people to plead for more empathy and compassion

But do we always want people to show empathy? Researchers from the University of California, Davis have asked that question in a recently published paper. The authors suggest that although empathy is often portrayed as a virtue, people who express empathy are not necessarily viewed favorably. “Empathy has become a sort of ‘catch-all’ for desirable personal qualities,” said Y. Andre Wang, who is lead author of the paper. “But people’s views on empathy are actually more complicated.

“We found that what people think of empathizers depends on who is receiving their empathy. People don’t necessarily like or respect those who show empathy toward morally questionable individuals,” he added.

The paper, “Evaluations of Empathizers Depend on the Target of Empathy,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is co-authored by Andrew Todd, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis.

In a series of seven studies, researchers recruited more than 3,000 participants throughout the United States. They showed these participants various scenarios where someone (the responder) is sharing a personal experience with another individual. In some of the seven experiments, the personal experience was negative, such as stress from work problems; in other experiments, the experience was positive, such as a recent job promotion. The participants in the experiment then responded to this personal experience either with empathy or neutrally.

Participants in the experiments then rated their impressions of the responder, such as how much they liked the responder, and how warm they found the responder to be.

But these studies had a twist: The responder sharing the personal experience was portrayed by the researchers as either being positive or negative. For example, inone study, some participants learned that a responder worked for a white nationalist organization, and other participants learned that a different responder  worked for a children’s hospital. In another experiment in the study, the responder sharing the personal experience was either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination. (This particular study was conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The researchers found that this positive or negative portrayal mattered for their impressions of the empathizer: Participants liked and respected the empathizer, but only when the responder receiving empathy was liked as well. When the responder was disliked (as a white nationalist or an “anti-vaxxer”), participants did not like and respect the empathizer as much.

In some cases, the  participants even preferred it when the responder condemned rather than empathized with the character.

“People are often encouraged to empathize with disliked others, but our findings suggest that they are not always viewed favorably for doing so,” the researchers concluded.

 

Empathy in the eye of the observer

 

Although empathy is widely studied, little is known about how people evaluate empathizers when they are not themselves the recipients of empathy. These findings have implications for how empathy operates in the current sociopolitical climate, where empathy is often touted as a solution to national divisions and strife.

 “Our findings suggest that people see empathy as a social signal. Whom you choose to empathize with shows whom you care about and what you stand for. Empathy is, of course, valuable. But it is not a panacea. If people who empathize across social divides are repudiated, then empathy might not always bridge those divides. Instead, it might even reinforce them.”

So the question to be answered is: “Are we capable of showing empathy with someone we dislike, don’t agree with and if they have very different perspectives?” Don’t people deserve empathy because they are human beings regardless of whether they are like us or share our world view.

 

Read my latest book: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders.

 

Ray's latest blog posts

Police Toxic Masculinity in America

“From the police academy to active duty, police officers are in contact with a hidden curriculum teaching hegemonic masculinity to novices. Physical displays of masculinity and bravery to face danger is a central characteristic that defines the ‘macho’ police...

The Record Shows That Ronald Reagan Was Not A Great President

There were many nods of approval in the Simi Valley, California offices of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute when a recent poll found that the public still considers Ronald Reagan to be its favourite modern president. Reagan is without a doubt...

Agreeableness is a Significant Influence on Success in Life–Study

Conventional wisdom and some research often identify factors such as perseverance, resilience, drive, ambition, confidence, optimism and self-control as a traits that contribute to life success. But after examining the effect of ‘Big 5’ personality traits...

Are We Seeing a Return of the Authoritarian, Toxic Leader?

Organizations, politics, the media, and even academic research reflect regression to favoring traditional masculinity, and in some cases toxic masculinity. In an article titled “The Era of Happy Tech Workers Is Over,” in the New York Times, Nadia Rawlinson, former...

Why Empathy is the Most Critical Leadership Skill

Although it has always been a vital leadership talent, empathy is now being given more weight and importance. It is far from a soft approach and can produce important corporate outcomes. Although you may already be aware that showing empathy is good for individuals,...

Can Men Be As Empathetic as Women? Research Says Yes

Male and female brains may operate in fundamentally different ways, or “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Men struggle to be empathic because they analyze, whereas women empathize. Women are more emotionally inclined than men, hence they are...

Join our Newsletter for a FREE copy of Breaking Bad Habits e-Book by Ray