Happy people think they’re good at empathising with the pain of others. They’re wrong

Which of your friends – the happier, or the more melancholy – is better at spotting your excitement that Chris is attending your birthday, or that a B+ has left you disappointed?

Evidence suggests that more upbeat people consider themselves especially empathic, and it would be reasonable to believe them, given that they know more people on average, and tend to form deeper, more trusting relationships. The reality, however, is more complicated. New research led by Yale’s Hillary Devlin suggests that cheerful people may think they’re high in empathy, but their confidence outstrips their ability.

Devlin assessed her 121 adult participants’ level of trait positive affect – essentially their average happy mood from day to day – and asked them how strong they were at empathising. Happier participants believed they were better empathisers in general.

The researchers next studied videos of people giving a monologue about an autobiographical event. For each of the four videos (two positive events, two negative) participants rated, second-by-second, the level of negative or positive emotion they thought the speaker was currently feeling.

Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than the others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.

There was one ray of sunshine for the positive participants: they were marginally more accurate in the two positive videos at spotting upward shifts in the speakers’ emotions, for example as their happiness intensified slightly. This raises the possibility that upbeat people may be more sensitive to shifts in emotion that match their own disposition. But more generally, their high confidence in their own empathy appears unfounded, and they may struggle to drop down into the headspace of someone feeling very low.

In psychology research, measures of empathy are often based on participants’ assessments of themselves, so this new study suggests researchers need to be aware that such beliefs may not track reality. For the rest of us, it’s useful to know that you don’t need to be a Pollyanna to figure out how people are doing. Sometimes, it’s the Eeyores who are more understanding.


Devlin, H., Zaki, J., Ong, D., & Gruber, J. (2014). Not As Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion Is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance PLoS ONE, 9 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110470

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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