Does Empathy Have a Dark Side?
Empathy – defined broadly as the capacity to recognise, feel and/or react compassionately to others’ emotional states – has a tradition of being conceptualised positively. Manifold societal movements seek to encourage a culture of empathic concern, and a pervading “empathy deficit” was of a particular poignancy to the 44th President of the United States. In many ways, empathy is a positive social force. Psychologists have linked a greater propensity to empathise to a multitude of desirable outcomes including prosocial behaviour and creativity, while attenuated levels of empathy have been associated with negative ramifications, such as bullying. However, an increasing body of work now links certain features of empathy to more sinister correlates, including forms of psychological distress.
Consensus draws a distinction between cognitive (i.e. to recognise and understand) empathy, which is associated with less psychological distress, and affective (i.e. to feel and share) empathy, which is associated with greater psychological distress. However, as empathy is fundamentally an emotion-based process, it makes sense that it is not as simple as our capacity to empathise that determines how distressed we become, but also our ability to regulate any empathy-induced affective experiences. Two popularly-researched emotion regulation techniques are cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Reappraisal involves the ability to change the way one is thinking about a situation to alter its emotional impact, and is typically associated with positive outcomes. Suppression describes the tendency to actively inhibit the expression of emotion and is typically linked to negative outcomes. The importance of considering empathy and regulation together in determining affective outcomes has been long championed by psychologists, such as Nancy Eisenberg.
In a recent study, I assessed individual differences in cognitive and affective empathy, emotion reappraisal and suppression, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, in eight hundred and forty-four volunteers. As well as expecting to replicate known relationships, two key predictions were made. First, that reported ability to reappraise emotions would moderate the effects of empathy on distress, either by enhancing the positive effects of cognitive empathy and/or reducing the negative effects of affective empathy. Second, that the tendency to suppress emotion would also moderate the effects of empathy on distress, either negating the positive effects of cognitive empathy and/or heightening the negative effects of affective empathy.
In line with these expectations, higher affective empathy was associated with greater distress on average, but the effects on depression and anxiety were absent in people that reported being effective at reappraising emotion. Cognitive empathy was linked to less reported distress on average, but the beneficial effect on anxiety and stress was absent in people that reported suppressing their emotions. These findings provide empirical support for the critical interactive role between empathic ability and regulatory capacity in the relationship between empathy and psychological wellbeing.
An unexpected finding was that suppression was associated with lower depression and stress reported for people high in affective empathy. There are at least three explanations: first, this could, of course, be a chance finding that will not replicate in future studies; second, it’s possible that greater levels of suppression are not associated with less experienced depression and stress in this sub group, but simply the depression and stress they report; and third, if robust, it may challenge the long-embedded idea that suppression as an emotion regulation strategy is always bad. There is evidence suggesting that suppression may not be maladaptive for everyone, such as those from different cultures. This unexpected result will require further investigation.
These results point to the importance of regulatory skill in combatting the association between heightened empathy and psychological distress. Methods have been developed to either enhance or reduce the use of emotion regulation techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal and suppression. In conclusion, having high levels of certain empathic traits, such as affective empathy, might have a dark side by leading to increased distress, but only if people are simultaneously not so skilled in regulating (empathy-induced) emotion.
Philip Powell is Research Fellow at the School of Health and Related Research and the Department of Economics, University of Sheffield. His research interests include measuring wellbeing and health-related quality of life; the role of emotions and emotion regulation in health and mental health outcomes, and in economic, medical, and health decision-making; and the associations between digital technology use and psychological wellbeing.