The notion “I know how you feel, I’ve been there too” is a common way to express that we understand another person’s feelings. In fact, having had the same experience as someone else is often seen as necessary to fully appreciate another person’s emotional experience. However, is this true? Is it actually helpful to “have been there too” in order to understand fully how someone else feels?

Most people believe the answer is yes. In a survey we conducted, we asked 400 Americans to predict whether people who had a similar experience in the past would be more accurate, less accurate, or not significantly different in understanding another person’s emotions. Most of the participants (80%) responded that shared experience promotes accuracy in understanding other people’s emotional states. This finding explains, for example, why some people, such as parents and therapists, believe that they should pursue similar experiences in order to have greater insight into how others, such as their children and clients, feel.  

To test whether this common belief is actually true, our research team at the University of Amsterdam developed a task that allowed us to test this belief. First, we collected a set of videos in which people spontaneously shared an authentic story about a negative emotional experience they went through, such as a cheating partner or a sick parent. We then asked each storyteller to rate the emotions they were feeling while telling their story. Later, other participants (the “perceivers”) were asked to watch the videos and rate how they thought the storyteller was feeling. Finally, they were asked whether they have ever had a life experience that was similar to the one the storyteller described.

Our question was whether the perceivers’ ratings of what the storyteller was feeling matched the storytellers’ actual emotional ratings. The higher the overlap between their ratings, the better perceivers understood what the storytellers were feeling.   

So, what did we find? Did shared life experiences foster more accurate insights into another’s life? In a series of studies involving 800 participants, we consistently found the opposite. That is, perceivers were less accurate in recognizing emotions when they had a similar negative experience as the storyteller. No kidding! You read it correctly—in fact, similarity in experience was related to lower accuracy. This counterintuitive finding clearly goes against the common belief and contradicted our own original hypothesis! We presumed that similarity in experience would allow people to consider more relevant information and that this first-hand familiarity with a similar situation would lead to a more accurate understanding of the other person’s emotions. But it turns out this isn’t the case.

Although “I know how you feel, I’ve been there too” is a common way to express understanding of another’s feelings, it may not actually be helpful to “have been there too” in order to understand how someone else feels. In fact, first-hand experience with a similar negative situation may blind us to the unique emotional experience that others have in this situation.

So what’s going on here? What could explain this unexpected finding? One possible explanation, which was supported by our follow-up study, is that participants who had a similar negative experience in the past were more likely to recall their own stressful experiences as they watched the videos. Recalling these relevant negative experiences may evoke personal emotional distress and discomfort in response to the other person’s distress. This overwhelming emotional reaction may divert the perceiver’s attention from the other person and focus it on themselves. This shift in focus may lead to perceiving others’ emotions less accurately.  

You might wonder whether sharing similar experiences (such as the ‘Me Too’ movement) always blinds us to others’ emotions. Well, our findings suggest that, if perceivers can manage their own emotions and stop themselves from (re-) experiencing their own distress, shared life experiences can be helpful for recognizing another person’s emotions.

Also, additional studies we conducted suggest that sharing an experience with another person brings us closer and can spark the beginning of what might later develop into a meaningful relationship. However, such meaningful relationships emerge slowly.  Our research suggests that during the initial steps of relationship building, sharing a common experience doesn’t necessarily enhance understanding of the other person’s negative emotional state. Thus, shared experiences can indeed make us feel closer to others, but at the same time they can blind us to how they actually feel.

For Further Reading

Israelashvili, J., Sauter D., & Fischer, A. (2020) Different faces of empathy: Feelings of similarity disrupt recognition of negative emotions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Israelashvili, J., & Karniol, R. (2018) Testing Alternative Models of Dispositional Empathy: The Affect-to-Cognition (ACM) versus the Cognition-to-Affect (CAM) Model. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, 161-169.

Israelashvili, J., Sauter D.,& Fischer, A. (2020) Two facets of affective empathy: Concern and distress have opposite relationships to emotion recognition. Cognition and Emotion

Interview regarding my research and “How to build a culture of empathy” (January 2020).

Jacob Israelashvili conducted this research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and is now a research associate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research examines the empathetic processes that help people to care more and understand better.