Empathy is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs

35 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2016 Last revised: 17 May 2018

Daryl Cameron

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology

Cendri Hutcherson

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Amanda Ferguson

University of Toronto

Julian Scheffer

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology

Eliana Hadjiandreou

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology

Michael Inzlicht

University of Toronto

Date Written: September 27, 2017

Abstract

Empathy is considered a virtue, yet fails in many situations, leading to a basic question: when given a choice, do people avoid empathy, and if so, why? Whereas past work has focused on material and emotional costs of empathy, here we examined whether people experience empathy as cognitively effortful, leading them to avoid it. We developed the Empathy Selection Task, which uses free choices to assess desire to empathize. Participants make a series of binary choices, selecting situations that lead them to engage in empathy or an alternative course of action. In each of 10 studies (N=1,017) and a meta-analysis, we found a robust preference to avoid empathy, which was associated with perceptions of empathy as effortful, aversive, and inefficacious. Experimentally increasing empathy efficacy eliminated empathy avoidance, suggesting cognitive costs directly cause empathy choice. When given the choice to share others’ feelings, people act as if it’s not worth the effort.

Keywords: empathy, altruism, motivation, effort, choice

Suggested Citation

Cameron, Daryl and Hutcherson, Cendri and Ferguson, Amanda and Scheffer, Julian and Hadjiandreou, Eliana and Inzlicht, Michael, Empathy is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs (September 27, 2017). Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2887903. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2887903 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2887903

Daryl Cameron (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology ( email )

University Park, PA
United States

Cendri Hutcherson

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management ( email )

105 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6 M5S1S4
Canada

Amanda Ferguson

University of Toronto ( email )

Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G8
Canada

Julian Scheffer

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology ( email )

University Park, PA
United States

Eliana Hadjiandreou

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Psychology ( email )

University Park, PA
United States

Michael Inzlicht

University of Toronto ( email )

Department of Psychology
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G8
Canada

HOME PAGE: http://www.michaelinzlicht.com

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