spoilers, spoiler, empathy

•Some people seem to exhibit, through their actions, a general unwillingness to feel empathy.
•A study of 1,200 participants revealed that most of them saw empathy as too mentally straining.
•However, it may actually be possible to encourage empathetic behavior in people.

It happens every single time the newest Marvel movie debuts in theaters, or the latest episode of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones hits the small screen. Somewhere out there, someone’s bound to post spoilers, much to the chagrin of people who haven’t had the chance to sit down and watch yet.

In spite of passionate requests to avoid posting spoilers, the people who habitually post them don’t seem to care. It’s not surprising, then, to wonder why being considerate seems to be so impossible for them. Why do they seem incapable of thinking about your feelings, no matter how many times you’ve explained why they shouldn’t post spoilers?

Spoiler alert: It may be because they feel that, in the first place, having empathy is hard work.

Empathetic or “Eh, pathetic”?

A recently published study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Psychology: General revealed an apparent resistance to empathy in some people.

“There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity,” according to study lead Dr. C. Daryl Cameron.

“But we found that people primarily just don’t want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.”

Empathy refers to a person’s capacity to understand the feelings and perspectives of others. Unfortunately, the results of the study, derived from 11 experiments with over 1,200 participants, suggest that people think of empathy as a chore.

The researchers measured the degree to which mental effort, perceived or otherwise, discourages people from feeling empathy. To do so, they asked participants to complete a series of “empathy selection tasks.”

In the first few experiments, the researchers showed the participants two decks of cards that featured child refugees. They then asked the participants to choose a deck.

For one deck, their task is to describe the persons on each card.

For the other deck, the team asked the participants to think about how each child was feeling in their respective photo.

The researchers found that 65 percent of the time, the participants picked the deck that did not require empathy.

A few trials in, they changed tactics: They started using decks featuring people who were either happy or sad.

This didn’t make much of a difference, though, as the participants still gravitated toward the non-empathetic deck.

Encouraging empathetic efforts

Most of the participants said that empathy was “more cognitively challenging.”

They felt that they were better at describing how people looked, rather than understanding what makes them tick.

“We saw a strong preference to avoid empathy even when someone else was expressing joy,” explained Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn University.

Interestingly, this was despite the fact that no one asked the participants to donate any sort of material assistance.

In other words, most chose not to be empathetic, even without much personal cost.

However, participants who were told that they exhibited the ability to feel empathy became more likely to choose from the empathy deck.

Furthermore, they demonstrated a larger chance of reporting that empathy didn’t really take as much mental effort as they’d thought.

According to Cameron, society would greatly benefit from a massive push to be more empathetic. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”

Perhaps you can ask your spoiler-sharing friend to pretend to be in your shoes for a minute or two. It might teach that friend a valuable lesson on empathy… and might prevent you from hitting the block button.


    • https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxge0000595

Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco

Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.