Are humans hardwired to care about strangers? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this questions with a resounding yes. Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved for compassion. Caring about strangers is just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to coax it out.
One of the ways we have been taught to coax empathy out is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Try to see things from his point of view.” “Imagine how it would feel to walk a mile in her shoes.” “How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?” (A surprising number of shoes make an appearance in these aphorisms.) We encourage our kids to take the perspective of the people who might be negatively affected by their nasty or self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are doing something to turn them into better people. But does encouraging people to take the perspective of others actually work?
For half-century (give or take a few months) experimental psychologists have been working under the assumption that perspective-taking does, in fact, encourage empathy. The social psychologist Ezra Stotland was the first person to try to encourage empathy with what have come to be called “perspective-taking instructions.” According to Stotland’s research, it worked.
By the way, here’s a fun photo of Professor Stotland with Ted Bundy. That’s Ted on the left; Ezra’s on the right. (This really deserves a blog entry of its own.)
Following Stotland’s 1969 lead, researchers have been using perspective-taking instructions in attempts to manipulate empathy experimentally for five decades. In the typical experiment, subjects encounter a stranger in the lab who is going through something difficult in his or her personal life; then, the experimenter asks subjects to do one of several things. To encourage perspective-taking, researchers might instruct subjects to
try to imagine how the person feels about what has happened and how it was affected his or her life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.
In a variant of these standard perspective-taking instructions, researchers instruct participants to imagine how they (rather than the suffering person) might feel in a similar predicament:
try to imagine how you yourself would feel if you were experiencing what has happened to the person and how this experience would affect your life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.
To encourage still other subjects to remain objective (under the premise that doing so will squelch empathy), researchers instruct subjects to
try to be as objective as possible about what has happened to the person and how it has affected his or her life. To remain objective, do not let yourself get caught up in imagining what this person has been through and how he or she feels as a result. Just try to remain objective and detached.
In the ideal experiment, researchers also assign some subjects to an experimental condition in which they receive no instructions at all. They just learn about a person in need without any prompting to do anything in particular in response. These subjects serve as a control group that enables experimenters to find out both (a) whether perspective-taking increases empathy, and (b) whether remaining objective reduces empathy. Without such a control group, any differences in empathy that arise between people who engage in perspective taking and people who remain objective cannot be attributed to either condition: As a result, we can’t know whether perspective-taking raised empathy above its typical levels, remaining objective lowered empathy below its typical levels, or a little of both. As we’ll see below, this turns out to be really important.
My colleagues and I, with the psychologist William McAuliffe in charge, just published a statistical review (called a meta-analysis) of the results of every experimental investigation that we could get our hands on that compared the effects of these instructional sets on self-reported empathic emotion toward a needy stranger.
The paper was published here, but you can download a pre-publication copy of it here.
We found 85 papers in all. From these 85 papers, we extracted 177 comparisons between any two pairs of the four experimental conditions (imagine-other, imagine-self, remain objective, no-instructions).
Here’s a very quick summary of what we found when we meta-analyzed those 177 two-group comparisons. There are some surprises.
1. Imagining how the needy person feels does not generate any more empathy than imagining how you yourself might feel in the same situation.
In other words, “Imagining how he/she might feel” = “imagining how you might feel.”
2. Imagine-other and imagine-self instructions do not generate any more empathy than receiving no instructions at all.
In other words, Perspective-Taking = No Instructions.
3. People instructed to remain objective experience less empathy than people who are not given any instructions at all.
In other words, No Instructions > Remain Objective.
4. People who get perspective-taking instructions experience more empathy than people instructed to remain objective.
In other words, Perspective Taking > Remain Objective. (SEE: TRANSITIVE PROPERTY OF MATHEMATICS.) This contrast is the only reason why Perspective Taking Instructions Appear to boost empathy. They don’t. Instead, Remaining Objective reduces empathy.
For people who like to stare at the results of meta-analyses, here is a figure that summarizes those results reasonably well.
Take a moment to let these findings sink in. What they show is that perspective-taking instructions do not, as a matter of fact, increase empathy. They’re no better than being given no instructions at all.
By the way, we also examined whether perspective-taking instructions affect men’s and women’s empathy differently, or whether they alter our empathy levels differently when we are trying to empathize with people who belong to our own social groups than when we are trying to empathize with people who belong to other social groups. These two factors made no difference.
So, as I see it, there are three big take-aways.
- While it may be true that trying to take the perspective of needy others encourages empathy for their plights, it’s not true to say that there’s a great deal of experimental evidence for it. Things can be true without being supported by experimental evidence, of course, but the lack of support must surely be some kind of wake-up call to re-think our assumptions.
- The previous evidence suggesting that perspective-taking instructions increase empathy appeared to do so only because they were being compared against “remain objective” instructions, which do, in fact, reduce empathy.
- It does appear that we know how to restrain people from feeling empathy: just tell them to remain objective and ignore how the needy person might be feeling.
What should we make of these results? I see a glass-half-empty interpretation and a glass-half-full interpretation.
Glass-half-empty: The major tool that social psychologists have counted on for half a century for increasing people’s empathy doesn’t work. We have a nice tool for reducing empathy, though: Just tell people to ignore the suffering person’s feelings.
Reference: McAuliffe, W. H. B., Carter, E. C., Berhane, J., Snihur, A. C., & McCullough, M. E. (2019). Is Empathy the Default Response to Suffering? A Meta-Analytic Evaluation of Perspective Taking’s Effect on Empathic Concern. Personality and Social Psychology Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868319887599