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We talk about empathy, but do we value it?

Showing empathy towards someone – putting yourself in their shoes – is an admirable and important human virtue, especially when that person may not be particularly endearing or opposes your worldview.

But don’t expect everyone to like you for it. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has found that people’s opinion of an empathiser depends on who the target of their compassion is.

The study was motivated by a humanising profile of a far-right extremist published in The New York Times.

“The profile received a lot of backlash from people who thought the journalist’s empathic approach in trying to understand the white nationalist was wrong – they wanted the journalist to more explicitly condemn him,” says lead author Y Andre Wang, from the University of California, US.

“At the same time, some people argued that understanding the humanness of even white nationalists is necessary.”

The importance of empathy has long been declared by Christians (“love your enemies”), Buddhists, philosophers and others as embodied in the Sioux prayer: “Great Spirit, help me never judge another until I have walked in his moccasins.”

In contemporary times, mainstream empathy advocates have extolled the virtue of compassion for others, introducing empathy training into schools and workplaces and arguing that it’s essential for social harmony, diplomatic relations and even world peace.

The Centre for Empathy in International Affairs, for instance, stated in a 2016 report on conflict resolution that empathy is “an essential tool to resolve conflict and to ensure the sustainability of peace”.

In studying it, researchers have focussed on empathisers and their targets. But how is it perceived by others? That’s what Wang and co-author Andrew Todd set out to explore in a series of seven experiments with more than 3000 volunteers.

They showed them various scenarios that involved someone sharing an experience with another person, who then responded empathically or non-empathically, and asked for their impressions of the empathiser – such as how empathetic and warm they were and how much they liked and respected them.

In one experiment, for example, participants learned about Ann and Beth who were meeting for the first time. Ann told Beth she was having a stressful time at work and Beth responded empathetically, “I feel for you – I can really put myself in your shoes in this situation”, or non-empathetically, “Okay, I see”.

Ann was portrayed positively (as working for a children’s hospital) or negatively (as working for a white nationalist organisation). Other variants of this experiment included pro- versus anti-vaccination attitudes, male protagonists, and Ann’s stress coming from cancer treatment rather than her job.

Overall, results showed that empathisers were perceived as warmer but were liked and respected more when they showed empathy for a target who was positively portrayed than one who was depicted in a negative light.

When the negatively portrayed target was having a good time, showing empathy with expressions like “Good for you! I can imagine how excited you must feel”, participants reported even less respect and liking for them.

Conversely, if a protagonist actively withheld empathy from a negatively portrayed target, by condemning them for instance, participants liked and respected them more.

There were somewhat redeeming findings though – when the negatively portrayed target was having a difficult time unrelated to how they were portrayed, such as the white nationalist being stressed from cancer treatment, this effect was reversed.

These evaluations of empathisers pose a conundrum, the authors write.

“People are often encouraged to empathise with disliked others, but our findings suggest that they are not always viewed favourably … [and] might be repudiated by their own peers for doing so.

“Empathy can thus ironically reify the very social divides it is touted to bridge.”

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