We tend to think of empathy as a wholly positive thing, a trait that’s not only favourable to possess but that we should actively foster. Books and courses promise to reveal secret wells of empathy and ways to channel them; some people even charge for “empathy readings”, a service that seems to sit somewhere between a psychic reading and a therapy session.
It would be easy to assume, therefore, that people who express empathy are generally well-liked. But a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that our feelings towards “empathisers” depends on who they are empathising with. While empathisers were considered warmer overall, participants judged people who expressed empathy for those with troubling political views more harshly — suggesting that we don’t always interpret empathy as a pure moral virtue.
In the first study, 464 participants were shown a scenario in which Ann (the “target”) and Beth (the “responder”) were meeting for the first time. In one condition, Ann worked for a children’s hospital; in the other, she worked for a white supremacist group.
Participants then read a conversation between the pair, with Ann telling Beth about a stressful experience at work planning an event for a large group of people. Those in the “empathic response” condition heard that Beth empathised with Ann, while other participants read that Beth gave a non-committal response. Finally, participants indicated how much they liked, respected, trusted and would like to be friends with Beth as well as how caring, kind and understanding they felt she was.
As expected, participants respected and liked Beth more, and considered her more warm, when she answered empathetically in the scenario where Ann worked at a hospital. When Ann worked for a white supremacist group, however, participants did not like Beth more or less depending on her response — though they did perceive her as slightly warmer when she was empathetic. These results were replicated in a second study in which Ann was presented as pro- or anti-vaccination. And in a third, participants liked Beth less when she empathised with a positive experience recounted by white supremacist Ann.
In the next study, participants saw the same information from the first studies, including the same empathetic response from Beth. But this time, the non-empathetic response was actively condemning: participants heard that Beth told Ann that it “sounds to me like you’re getting what you deserve”. And participants liked and respected Beth more when she gave this negative response to white supremacist Ann (though she was still considered warmer when responding empathetically). This was also the case in a follow-up study replacing Ann and Beth with male figures, suggesting that the effect is not gendered.
“Empathy towards white supremacists isn’t favourably looked upon” isn’t hugely shocking news. But the study does shed some light on the way we think about empathy in general. As noted, empathy is often depicted as an uncomplicated moral good — something we should unconditionally strive for. But the results suggest a more complex situation, where empathy is morally relative rather than absolute. This is also evident in assessments of warmth, another seemingly straightforward trait — even when participants didn’t like or respect Beth, they still considered her warm.
Further research could look at how this impacts behaviour — that is, are we less likely to be friends with or act positively towards someone who has empathised with a group or person we dislike? And how does this affect processes like voting or endorsing particular political candidates?
Though we tend to think of empathy as something that exists between two people or groups, we rarely think about the third party observers witnessing it. But as the study shows, understanding the broader social context of empathy may help us better understand its true effects.