Looking for a mood or self-esteem boost? Connecting with other people often makes us feel better. At the same time, we all know from painful experience that people aren’t always helpful and can sometimes make us angry or bring us down. So, who should you turn to if you want to improve your chances of getting a boost?

You might think that you will always be better off talking to someone who is high in empathy. It seems obvious that it’s best to talk to someone who has the ability to share and understand your feelings. And indeed, our research indicates that talking with someone, even a total stranger, who is naturally good at being empathic is more likely to lift your spirits.

But what happens if the empathic person deliberately tries to be more empathic? What if they make a strong conscious effort to really share and understand your feelings? You might expect that they would be even better at raising your spirits when they purposefully try hard. But our research suggests that this is not the case. In fact, we found that empathic people are worse at making us feel better when they try hard to be empathic.

My collaborators and I looked at data we had collected from studies we conducted over a few years and also conducted a new study that we designed with the purpose of testing this effect.  Each study involved pairs of undergraduates of the same sex who hadn’t met before. They talked with each other for about 10 minutes about a set of topics we provided, such as their positive and negative academic and social experiences. But, before allowing them to talk, we instructed some of the participants to try to be empathic during the conversation.

Overall, we found that, when given no instructions, empathic people made their interaction partners feel better than non-empathic people did. But that difference completely went away when participants were told to be empathic. In fact, empathic people who were instructed to be empathic during the conversation sometimes made the other person feel worse than empathic people who were left to their own devices!

Why did this happen? It turns out that trying to being empathic made the conversations “flow” less well. By telling participants to be empathic, we think that we took something that is second nature to empathic people and made them focus on it. We know from research in other areas that when experts pay close attention to their behavior it can have an interfering, disruptive effect on the quality of their performance. For example, golfers who automatically golf well (from years of practice) do less well when they pay conscious attention to each action. This is because when you know what you are doing and have done it a lot, stopping to think and analyze your behaviors can wreck your “flow.” This appears to be what happened when our empathic participants consciously tried to be empathic.

So, in general, talking with someone with an empathic disposition is more likely to lift our spirits and make us feel better about ourselves than talking with someone who is low in empathy. But, talking with someone who is purposefully trying to be empathic in that moment does not have these same benefits. These findings suggest that empathy is a skill that can develop over time and become routine, somewhat parallel to what happens with other skills. Practice makes perfect!  But, once that skill develops, thinking about being empathic can backfire.

These findings raise the question of how we can best promote the development of empathy.  Clearly, instructing people to be more empathic is not a good idea! We believe our results point to the importance of early and indirect approaches to cultivating empathy. For example, schools can help children learn to identify their own and others’ emotions. And we know from other research that teaching people that empathy can be learned and developed can increase their motivation to be empathic. These indirect, or “back door” approaches may help foster an empathic orientation without the negative side effects that might come from directly encouraging people to try to be empathic.

For Further Reading

Vorauer, J. D., Petsnik, C., & Quesnel, M. (2020). Who brings you up when you’re feeling down? Implications of dispositional empathy versus situationally-prompted empathic mindsets for targets’ affective experience. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103991

Jacquie Vorauer is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Corey Petsnik and Mathew Quesnel are doctoral students in social psychology at the University of Manitoba.