Empathy is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs
54 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2016 Last revised: 28 Mar 2019
Date Written: September 27, 2017
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 taxing and costly, 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 11 studies (N=1,204) and a meta-analysis, we found a robust preference to avoid empathy, which was associated with perceptions of empathy as more effortful and aversive, and less efficacious. 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: Suggested Citation