The dark side of empathy

Posted on October 18, 2014

Contrary to the common view of empathy as an emotion solely eliciting compassion and warmth, empathy can unexpectedly motivate aggression. The result comes from a new study which found that when feeling empathy towards someone in distress, people are motivated to be more aggressive towards another, even when that other person is not to blame.

The study had people reading scenarios about a person who was in financial trouble. For some participants, the person was described as being distressed about their financial troubles. Others read a slightly different scenario in which the person was not worried about their financial troubles.

Then they were told this person was in competition with another for a $20 prize in a math test. Under the guise of an apparently separate experiment, though, participants could feed this competitor some hot sauce.

The results showed that when the person with financial troubles was distressed, people in the study administered more notional hot sauce to their competitor, despite this competitor being blameless.

Empathy had made them more aggressive — and it wasn’t because they were impulsive participants or feeling under threat. Empathy alone was enough to motivate aggressive behaviour.

Just as the self-esteem movement was not a panacea leading to happy, successful, and well-adapted children, empathy interventions may not stop problems such as bullying and other forms of aggression and violence, because aggression itself may result from empathy.

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Source material from Psy Blog

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