Longstanding research has argued that empathy is typically reserved for the cases where negative emotion exists – a sense of sadness or pity for the plight of another. That may partly be true, but there’s more to the story as it turns out.
A study published in the European Journal of Personality found that people are more empathetic during positive interactions when others are seen as warm and they themselves are expressing warmth.
Empathy is a broad social experience that can be divided into two primary types: cognitive empathy, which refers to your ability to understand another person’s perspective, and affective empathy, which occurs when you’re sharing in others’ positive and negative emotions.
In humanity’s large-scale socialization, empathy plays an important role. It’s the glue that binds people together. Scientists say it serves a distinct affiliative function that promotes prosocial behaviors such as trust, support, and cooperation.
The purpose of this study was to forego the typical methodologies used in measuring empathy through personality markers. Instead, this study looked to use different assessments to measure empathy by observing individual behavior, the perspective of the person empathizing, and the situations the empathizers choose to involve themselves in. In this way, the study sought to understand empathy’s affiliative role by focusing on its usage in everyday interactions.
What the researchers did
Undergraduate students from the University of Pittsburgh were recruited for the study’s student sample. A community sample was also recruited via flyers and online postings.
Both samples completed an initial questionnaire that included questions related to their demographics, psychological and interpersonal functioning, and their personalities.
Next, they completed ecological momentary assessments which consisted of a span of surveys about their present feelings and thoughts. Individuals were asked if they had engaged in any social interaction between the completion of questions.
Social interactions included any real, direct conversations that lasted at least five minutes in person, over text, call, or video. If so, individuals discussed the situation and the person they interacted with. If not, they completed a different set of questions.
So, what matters most for empathy?
The results indicated that individuals were more empathetic towards others in their life in situations where they perceived the other party as warmer than average. As a result, empathizers themselves also acted with more warmth than they usually would. Experiencing more positive emotions than normal during a conversation also resulted in more empathetic interactions.
Most important, what didn’t matter for generating empathy was the extent to which there was the presence of negative emotions such as sadness. In other words, what we’re seeing here is that empathy comes to people during moments of warmth, social exchange, and positive emotions, not sadness or pity or grief.
I’m reminded of the poem, “Laugh, the World Laugh With You”:
Rejoice, and people will seek you,
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not want your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many,
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.