People tend to stereotype psychological phenomena. It’s tempting to think that stress is always bad, resilience is always good, and so forth. Like other stereotypes, these beliefs help us neaten the world and extract signal from noise. Also like other stereotypes, such beliefs are misleading and often harmful. Call me pessimistic, but whenever the media breathlessly praises a practice or trait—meditation and grit come to mind—I always wonder about its downsides. Jogging is great for you, but not always, and not in every way (ask my knees). The same goes for happiness.
My own favorite human characteristic, empathy, is no different. Recently, empathy has gotten lots of good press. Books like The Age of Empathy, The Empathic Civilization, and The Better Angels of Our Nature suggest that empathy is on the rise, and might provide a cure for many of our social ills. Barack Obama is likely the most empathy-positive president in history, often suggesting that curing our country’s “empathy deficit” is mission critical.
But empathy is not always used in the service of good. Two papers last month highlight this idea through evidence that people use empathy to use other people, manipulating them through a savvy understanding of emotions.
In the first paper, by Sara Konrath and her colleagues gave participants a standard measure of emotion understanding: people’s ability to suss out others’ emotions based on eye gaze (you can try this test here). Konrath further measured people’s levels of narcissism, and in particular “narcissistic exploitativeness,” a mouthful of a term that capture’s peoples tendency to manipulate and use others. Interestingly, this study suggests that narcissists might not inflate their facility with other people: exploitativeness tracked people’s emotion reading skills.
The second paper, by Yuki Nozaki and Masuo Koyasu used a more complex design. These researchers measured individuals’ emotional intelligence, and then had them play two games. In the first, participants played virtual catch with three other players. Two of the players snubbed the participant and another player. In the second game, participants gave the other snubbed player advice on whether to give up money to punish one of the unfair ball hogs from the first game. Emotionally intelligent participants who wanted revenge encouraged the other person to exact it for them, in essence getting the other player to do their (costly) dirty work.
These studies highlight at least two things. First, the “pieces” that make up empathy don’t always go together. In many cases, understanding someone’s emotions (so-called “cognitive empathy”) and sharing those emotions (so-called “emotional empathy”) can split apart. Further, understanding without sharing is a dangerous pattern, which likely underlies intimidation, used car sales tactics, and all sorts of other manipulation. Of course in many—and perhaps most—cases, we use our understanding of others to help them. This highlights the second point these papers make. Empathic ability is value neutral, sometimes helping and other times hurting people. As are so many features of our minds.