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Empathy? It seems we can’t even spare it for ourselves

Jan. 20, 2012
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University 
and World Science staff

No won­der there nev­er seems to be enough em­pa­thy to go around. New re­search sug­gests most of us can’t even fully em­pa­thize with our­selves—our fu­ture selves, to be pre­cise.

Sci­en­tists say this may ex­plain why we of­ten “chicken out” at the last mo­ment af­ter mak­ing bold plans.

In a pa­per pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Be­hav­ior­al De­ci­sion Mak­ing, sci­en­tists from the Uni­vers­ity of Col­o­rad­o Boul­der and Car­ne­gie Mel­lon Uni­vers­ity ar­gue that this “il­lu­sion of cour­age” is an ex­am­ple of an “em­pa­thy gap”— that is, our in­abil­ity to im­ag­ine how we’ll be­have in fu­ture emo­tion­al situa­t­ions. 

When the mo­ment of truth is far off, you aren’t feel­ing—and there­fore are out of tou­ch with­—the fear you’ll probably ex­pe­ri­ence when push comes to shove, ac­cord­ing to the “em­pa­thy gap” the­o­ry that the sci­en­tists ad­vo­cate.

In three ex­pe­ri­ments, they found that peo­ple over­es­ti­mated their will­ing­ness to en­gage in psy­cho­log­ic­ally dis­tant, em­bar­rass­ing pub­lic per­for­mances. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­so found they could mit­i­gate this mis­judg­ment by in­duc­ing im­me­di­ate emo­tions that put the par­ti­ci­pants in tou­ch with their ex­pected fu­ture fear.

In the first two ex­pe­ri­ments, col­lege stu­dents were asked if they would be will­ing to en­gage in a fu­ture em­bar­rass­ing situa­t­ion — tell­ing a fun­ny sto­ry to their class in one stu­dy, and danc­ing to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” in front of the class in the oth­er — in ex­change for a few dol­lars. Stu­dents were ei­ther asked out­right or af­ter be­ing ex­posed to short films de­signed to arouse mild fear and an­ger. 

Stu­dents who did­n’t view the clips sig­nif­i­cantly over­es­ti­mated their will­ing­ness to sing or dance, the re­search­ers said. But when the stu­dents ex­pe­ri­enced neg­a­tive emo­tions thanks to the mov­ie clips, they were much more ac­cu­rate in pre­dict­ing their own fu­ture dis­in­ter­est in per­form­ing.

“Be­cause so­cial anx­i­e­ty as­so­ci­at­ed with the pros­pect of fac­ing an em­bar­rass­ing situa­t­ion is such a com­mon and pow­er­ful emo­tion in eve­ry­day life, we might think that we know our­selves well enough to pre­dict our own be­hav­ior in such situa­t­ions,” said Leaf Van Boven, a psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­ent­ist at the Un­ivers­ity of Col­o­rad­o Boul­der and co-author of the stu­dy. “But the am­ple ex­pe­ri­ence most of us should have gained with pre­dict­ing our own fu­ture be­hav­ior is­n’t suf­fi­cient to over­come the em­pa­thy gap — our in­abil­ity to an­ti­cipate the im­pact of emo­tion­al states we aren’t cur­rently ex­periencing.”

“Peo­ple fre­quently face po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ing situa­t­ions in eve­ry­day life, and the il­lu­sion of cour­age is likely to cause us to ex­pose our­selves to risks that, when the mo­ment of truth ar­rives, we wish we had­n’t tak­en,” said study co-author George Loewen­stein, who is with Car­ne­gie Mel­lon. “Know­ing that, we might choose to be more cau­tious. Or, we might use the il­lu­sion of cour­age to help us take risks we think are worth it, know­ing full well that we are likely to re­gret the de­ci­sion when the mo­ment of truth ar­rives.”


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No wonder there never seems to be enough empathy to go around. New research suggests most of us can’t even fully empathize with ourselves—our future selves, to be precise. Scientists say this may explain why we often “chicken out” at the last moment after making bold plans. In a paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Carnegie Mellon University argue that this “illusion of courage” is an example of an “empathy gap”— that is, our inability to imagine how we’ll behave in future emotional situations. When the moment of truth is far off, you aren’t feeling—and therefore are out of touch with—the fear you’ll probably experience when push comes to shove, according to the “empathy gap” theory that the scientists advocate. In three experiments, they found that people overestimate their willingness to engage in psychologically distant, embarrassing public performances. The investigators also found they could mitigate this misperception by inducing immediate emotions that put the participants in touch with their expected future fear. In the first two experiments, college students were asked if they would be willing to engage in a future embarrassing situation — telling a funny story to their class in one study, and dancing to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” in front of the class in the other — in exchange for a few dollars. Students were either asked outright or after being exposed to short films designed to arouse mild fear and anger. Students who didn’t view movie clips significantly overestimated their willingness to sing or dance. But when they experienced negative emotions thanks to the movie clips, they were much more accurate in predicting their own future disinterest in performing, the researchers said. “Because social anxiety associated with the prospect of facing an embarrassing situation is such a common and powerful emotion in everyday life, we might think that we know ourselves well enough to predict our own behavior in such situations,” said Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the study. “But the ample experience most of us should have gained with predicting our own future behavior isn’t sufficient to overcome the empathy gap — our inability to anticipate the impact of emotional states we aren’t currently experiencing.” “People frequently face potential embarrassing situations in everyday life, and the illusion of courage is likely to cause us to expose ourselves to risks that, when the moment of truth arrives, we wish we hadn’t taken,” said study co-author George Loewenstein, who is also with Carnegie Mellon. “Knowing that, we might choose to be more cautious, or we might use the illusion of courage to help us take risks we think are worth it, knowing full well that we are likely to regret the decision when the moment of truth arrives.”