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Motivation and the Limits of Empathy

One of the primary topics of study in the EMP Lab is empathy: the ability to vicariously resonate with and share the experiences and feelings of others.  The EMP Lab examines when and why people feel and behave empathically toward others.  This line of research is united by the framework that empathy is often a motivated choice: many apparent limitations of empathy may result from how people strategically weigh its costs and benefits.  This research focuses on motivational factors that cause people to either down-regulate or up-regulate empathy, as well as emotion regulation mechanisms (e.g., reappraisal, situation selection, attention allocation) that shape empathic outcomes.

In one line of research, the lab examines the motivated regulation of empathy in the context of large-scale crises, such as natural disasters and genocides.  Much research has established that people tend to feel more compassion for single identifiable victims (e.g., Cecil the Lion, Baby Jessica) than large masses of victims.  Empathy seems to be fundamentally innumerate, or insensitive to the scope of mass tragedies.  Yet research has found that this “compassion collapse” depends on having the motivation and ability to regulate emotions (Cameron & Payne, 2011, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).  People only show less empathy for many victims than for single victims of disasters when they are expect to incur a financial cost of helping, and only when they can skillfully regulate their emotions.  In ongoing research, we are exploring how other motivations, such as the desire to avoid emotional exhaustion, may cause people to avoid empathy and produce compassion collapse.  The lab is also examining motivational interventions that might counteract compassion collapse.

In related work, the lab has examined motivated empathy regulation in the context of stigmatized out-groups, such as drug addicts and homeless individuals.  Much research has established that people tend to dehumanize, or deny mental states to, stigmatized targets.  Empathy seems to be fundamentally parochial, or insensitive to the suffering of out-groups.  We have found that this dehumanization effect depends on the motivation to avoid emotional exhaustion (Cameron, Harris, & Payne, 2016, Social Psychological and Personality Science).  People anticipate more emotional exhaustion from helping stigmatized (vs. non-stigmatized) targets, and this is associated with greater dehumanization.  Moreover, manipulating people’s beliefs about whether empathy will be exhausting can remove the dehumanization effect.

Currently, the lab is further examining empathy as a choice through the development of the Empathy Selection Task: a free choice task in which people can choose whether to select into or out of empathy-eliciting situations (Cameron, Ferguson, Hutcherson, Scheffer, Hadjiandreou, & Inzlicht, 2019, JEP: General).  This work reveals that people have a strong preference to avoid choosing empathy for others, and that this is associated with perceptions of empathy as effortful, negative, and inefficacious. Currently, the lab is extending this work to examine how people choose to regulate various kinds of moral emotions, and how empathy avoidance varies under different motivational conditions and across different populations.