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.


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