Newswise — Our ability to feel empathy may, at times, make us “too empathetic,” thereby causing us to overestimate the strength of emotion displayed by others. This finding emerges from a new study undertaken in the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa. Doctoral student Navot Naor explains: “In some cases involving exposure to others who are feeling pain, our empathy distorts our judgment of the intensity of their pain. This may lead us to exaggerate the situation and accordingly prevent us from taking the necessary and proper actions.”

Empathy refers to our ability to feel, think, and act in accordance with the emotions and thoughts of others. Psychologists claim that it was the evolutionary development of empathy that enabled the emergence of human society and the transition from small family groups to broader tribal circles.

Naor, Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, and Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa, together with Prof. Gal Sheppes of Tel Aviv University, authored the present study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion. The researchers sought to measure the precision of the empathetic experience. To this end,

the 93 participants in the study were shown pictures with the goal of stimulating their empathetic experience. The pictures portrayed people experiencing mild and routine painful experiences, such as stubbing their toe, cutting themselves while chopping vegetables, and so forth. The participants were asked to gauge “how is the person in the picture is feeling based on how they themselves would feel in that situation,” thereby stimulating their empathetic response. They were then shown a picture of a facial expression manifesting some emotion, and asked to state what emotion was presented and at what level of intensity, from lack of emotion to full-strength expression. The findings showed that following the stimulation of the empathetic response, the participants estimated the intensity of the painful expressions in the pictures at around 10 percent above the actual intensity. Conversely, when no empathetic response was stimulated, they ranked the expression of pain at its true level. Moreover, the ranking of other emotions, such as sorrow and joy, remained precise even after the empathetic experience was stimulated.

The researchers explain that the findings show that empathy is a complex emotion that may even create a bias in the assessment of emotions in others. This bias may prove important in situations when we need to help someone in pain. They add that the ability to judge a situation accurately is important for all humans, but particularly so for professionals such as social workers, who need to make professional decisions based in part on their ability to gauge their clients’ emotional state.

In light of their findings, the researchers performed the test a second time. This time, the participants were asked to use a simple emotional control technique known as “cognitive reappraisal” before viewing the facial expressions. This time, the participants were much more precise in ranking the level of pain, and there was no difference in the ranking with or without stimulation of empathy.

“For the first time, the results of this study show that a cognitive bias is created due to the empathetic experience, and that this bias can be influenced by use of emotional regulation techniques,” Naor concludes. “This innovative conceptual approach could help us understand the difficulties and psychopathologies that result from this bias in judgment and develop treatments for coping with such conditions.”

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journal Cognition and Emotion