Tag Archives: empathy

A psychology-heavy reflection on human connections


Making up for lost time by updating more than once in one day!

Consider the following situations:

  1. A young woman, a “friend” of mine (please note the oozing sarcasm), is terrified by the mouse she saw in her apartment.  Her under-dog landlord is swamped with petty-requests from tenants.  Young woman continues to tiptoe around her home near tears, landlord feels stressed by to-do list, mouse stays warm and probably well-fed.
  2. Students in my program are exceedingly anxious about our comprehensive examination. Professors dismiss concerns with “proper tactics” for dealing with the test. Students no less anxious because professors didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, professors annoyed that students’ anxiety still interfering with work.
  3. My boyfriend is newly recovered from a cold. I am going out of town for the weekend.  He doesn’t want to hang out. I am upset that he doesn’t want to see me before I leave, he is upset that I don’t remember that he’s sick.
  4. I am super giddy about the happy state of affairs with said boyfriend.  Single friend doesn’t like being reminded that she is not in a relationship. I talk about Y and am upset by lack of enthusiasm, friend is sad about her current status and frustrated with my lack of awareness.
  5. I’m visiting where I used to live for one night only.  Number of friends who want to see me > number of friends I have time to see.  People are upset that we did not hang out, I feel overwhelmed by demands.

Let’s do this Jeopardy-style: “All of these scenarios have this in common.”

What is empathy gaps?

One of my friends, N, studies empathy gaps.  In social psychology, empathy gaps are the biases by which we evaluate another person’s situation.  An empathy gap is a cognitive inability to understand the other person’s situation due to a difference in emotional states between the perceiver and the observed.   Typically we talk about empathy gaps in the context of medical decision-making.  When a doctor and a patient work together to come to some agreement about a patient’s care plan, each is affected by the process differently.  To the patient, his or her life may be on the line, he or she may be feeling physically ill and weak, and the whole process may be overwhelming.  The patient is in a “hot” emotional state, or in a state where his emotions are so visceral that they influence his decision making processes and other higher-order functions.  Conversely, the doctor is in a “cold” emotional state: this patient is just one on her to-do list for the day, she’s been through this protocol more times than she can count, and she’s thinking about how she will avoid traffic to make it on time to her daughter’s play that evening.  The doctor isn’t necessarily a cold person, she is just unlikely to be dramatically influenced by her context in the way that the patient is.  When these two individuals encounter one another, they have a hard time understanding one another, which makes for difficult and sometimes poor decision making.  Now that I’ve given you the elevator speech on empathy gaps (hope I did it justice, N!)…

My gosh, these are everywhere in real life, people!  I guess I should have expected that – the fundamental attribution error describes our human tendency to overestimate the effect of personality variables and underestimate the effect of the situation.  (That homeless guy on your street corner? He’s a loser, right? Or maybe he just has been struck with some really terrible luck and has no social support network to help him get back on his feet.)  We are awful at truly empathizing with people.  It doesn’t make sense to me – we are more like each other than we are alike to any other living thing on this planet.  If we can see appreciate the power of the situation on our disposition, why do we fail at perceiving it in others?

It turns out that when we think about the beliefs, values, and intentions of other people, a similar part of our brain is active as when we think about our own beliefs, values, and intentions.  The human mind is a black box, honestly a mystery to anyone who is not ourselves.  But it is essential for our function as social beings to at least somewhat understand what others around us are thinking, and how that is going to influence our behavior.  (The kid on the playground: “Is that bully going to punch me?” A young child: “Is Dad going to feed me now?”  Your boyfriend: “What did I do wrong?”)  So we try, and not entirely fruitlessly.  We think, whether consciously or not, “If I were this person/in this situation, what would I do?”  And we assume that they are like us, and form our perceptions/expectations about their behavior accordingly.  I guess what I don’t understand is, if this is the way our brain is neurally dealing with other people, then why do we not behaviorally deal with them in the same way, and avoid some of the items in my list (above)?

This is where I’ve come to rely on improv.  I don’t know why we haven’t learned to accommodate for our glaring errors in the case of empathy gaps, but I think I found a way that might attenuate them.  By truly respecting the other people in our lives, by acknowledging that this upcoming surgery is a big deal to the patient, even if it’s not to the doctor, by making the patient feel like a superstar before he goes in for surgery because his concerns were all well founded and he was right to express them – by doing all of these things, we can connect on a more intimate level, one which fosters understanding and cooperation.  In improv, when we make each other look and feel awesome, no one is a star and no one is a straggler, but the group as a unit is a success.  I’m holding tight to that philosophy each time I encounter an empathy gap in the future (and I’m getting better at picking up on them!)