Empathy is a Choice: People are Empathy Misers Because They are Cognitive Misers
55 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2016
Date Written: December 20, 2016
Empathy is considered a core virtue, yet fails in many situations. Understanding empathy lapses addresses a basic question about pro-sociality: to what extent do people choose to avoid empathy? Answering this question informs debates over the automaticity of empathy, and in particular, experience sharing: our tendency to resonate with the experiences of others. Experience sharing is often assumed to be effortless and automatic; here, we suggest that people perceive experience sharing to be effortful, aversive, and difficult, and avoid it for that reason. We develop a new measure of empathy regulation behavior called the Empathy Selection Task. In this task, participants make a series of binary choices, selecting into situations that instruct them to engage in empathy or an alternative course of action. Across 19 studies (N = 2,174) we find strong and replicable empathy avoidance, which is associated with perceiving empathy as effortful, aversive, and inefficacious. People avoid sharing in both negative and positive experiences of others, and empathy avoidance is not reducible to emotion avoidance. People subjectively devalue empathy, requiring higher financial compensation to empathize in an Empathy Discounting Paradigm, and empathy avoidance reduces when the alternative to empathy is comparably effortful. Finally, experimentally increasing perceived efficacy at empathizing eliminates avoidance of experience sharing, suggesting that psychological costs directly cause empathy regulation. These results qualify claims that empathy is a default, and that empathy limits are fixed rather than chosen. When given the choice to share in others’ feelings, people act as if it’s not worth the effort.
Keywords: empathy, altruism, motivation, effort, choice
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