More on the difficulties of empathy

I’ve read stuff about this research several times in the last month. People who have walked in your shoes are actually less likely to be compassionate about your situation.

I used to see this regularly in my university jobs — the false conclusion that because I mastered a situation, others should be able to, as well. (To me, this is just a failure in drawing comparisons. It’s simply not the same situation when a white woman is pulled over by a cop as when a black man is. The fact that I know how to deal with that issue successfully doesn’t mean a black man can do so. If I apply my experiences, I get it wrong right off the bat.) That said, I don’t know if it’s an across the board result. I think it must depend in part on whether you’ve succeeded in dealing with the challenge. I am way more empathetic to people who have lost a parent than I was before I lost mine — possibly because I still haven’t figured it out. That experience changed entirely my way of dealing with students who’d just had a significant loss.

~ by Servetus on July 10, 2016.

8 Responses to “More on the difficulties of empathy”

  1. I haven’t read your research but I feel that I am more empathetic because of my life experiences. The other person doesn’t have to be going through the same thing I did. They can just be having a hard time and because I know what that’s like I am willing to give of myself to help them. It can be as simple as listening to them and letting them vent or letting them know I care.

    It was suggested to me more than once that I should consider becoming a counselor. I never pursued it because I didn’t think I could keep the necessary distance from client’s problems. I know myself well enough to know that I would not be able to separate work from my private life if I chose counseling as a career. This is slightly off topic but I feel it is my ability to emphasize that makes it impossible to keep the proper distance.

    I’m going to read your research now.


    • I think your position is the common knowledge, and I shared it under certain conditions. This is part of why this research is interesting. However, what it suggests to me is not so much that shared experience doesn’t increase empathy so much as maybe the term empathy is part of the problem (or we have to classify between different kinds of experiences).

      For example, most Americans go to the dentist. Some Americans are extremely afraid of the dentist. However, this isn’t something that you get a lot of empathy on if you’re afraid of the dentist, because most people survive it.


    • The article is talking about issues that have more to do with the workplace than real life IMO. I think the deeper the grief you have felt, the more likely you can be empathetic to those grieving.


  2. Dans la vie de tous les jours, il est plus facile de se refermer sur soi, que de faire preuve d’empathie = EMP. Ce qui me fait peur dans l’EMP est l’implication émotionnelle personnelle et le risque de perte de contrôle, qui peut en découler. A cause de cela, je préfère la notion d’ écoute attentive.


  3. […] readers know, my own position couldn’t be more different. Research is starting to show that people who could empathize are actually less sympathetic to people in situations they’ve exper…. I think it’s a fundamental cognitive and political mistake to conflate what actors do when […]


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