Do you care too much? With relationships and health at risk, Stylist investigates the dark side to empathy

Posted by
The Stylist web team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Are you on the verge of tears just looking at this, or just wondering how he catches balls? Only a heart of stone would be unmoved by an injured dog, right? Empathy is currently being touted as the panacea to countless problems, but could too much of it actually be doing us harm? Stylist investigates…

Words: Lizzie Pook

Barack Obama thinks it’s more important than federal debt. Pope Francis has linked it to curing rare diseases and ending war. Even your boss is all over it (it could boost profits by 50% don’t you know) while dating sites are weaving it into their matchmaking algorithms.

Indeed empathy is everywhere right now. The newest buzzword in every sphere from human rights to business management, it’s being used in adverts, political speeches and charity campaigns. This month, there’s even a global ‘Empathy and Compassion Conference’ being held in Oslo.

It seems it really is cool to be kind. But then, nobody wants to be the sort of person who isn’t empathetic, right? The sort who walks past people whose shopping bags have split all over a pavement, who rolls their eyes at an injured puppy or tuts at interns who cry in the loos.

However, researchers are increasingly finding that there are emotional costs to caring this much, such as heightened stress levels and the inability to make rational, impartial decisions. Studies also show that as big companies cotton on to the fact empathy is a quick, easy way to sell products (John Lewis Christmas ad, anyone?), our caring natures are in danger of being exploited – potentially meaning we’ll swing the other way and start tuning out important issues. 

So how much empathy is the right amount? And how can we keep our levels at a healthy equilibrium?

“Unlike sympathy – when you acknowledge what someone is experiencing from a detached or intellectual perspective – empathy is when you deeply connect with the other person’s feelings,” says psychologist and executive coach Salma Shah. “But it also means going to a place in which you could be sad or uncomfortable.”

In other words, being empathetic is quite literally feeling what someone else is going through and sensing their emotional experience as if it was our own. It’s the ache we get when we see an old man struggling to walk down the street. It’s the grip in our chest we feel when we see a malnourished child on the news.

“Being empathetic is the ache we get when we see an old man struggling down the street”

And while it might be ‘buzzy’ now, empathy has been part of the human condition since the first tribes walked the planet. It’s what our societies are built on; it’s hardwired into our brains and bodies. Researchers from The Max Planck Institute of Human Development have discovered that, although humans are biologically quite self-centred, a portion of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus recognises this lack of empathy and ‘autocorrects’ selfish tendencies. Studies also show that when we empathise with others, specialised ‘mirror neuron’ cells fire in our brains, much in the same way they would if we were experiencing this pain directly.

There are generally thought to be two types of empathy. Affective empathy: the actual feelings we get when we respond to the emotions of another (hence why you might feel stressed if your loved one has a migraine), and cognitive empathy: the ability to relate to other people’s emotions on a basic level.

As women, our brains are more likely to signal both of these than men’s (studies have even found that introducing high levels of testosterone into women’s brains decreases cognitive empathy). But while it’s thought by some that our levels of empathy are genetic, there’s also evidence to suggest behaviour can influence our empathy levels. Researchers at The New School in New York, for example, found evidence to show that reading literary fiction improves our capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling, therefore boosting our empathy levels.

Do unto others

The overriding message is that empathy is a big fat force for good. According to the latest World Economic Report, people skills like empathy are equally as important as critical thinking and problem solving when it comes to thriving in the modern world. In fact, it improves personal relations to such a massive extent that it means you can not only anticipate others’ behaviour, but you can influence it, too. No surprise then that scientific studies have also suggested that those who empathise more have better social lives, are more likeable, more employable and are better leaders. Oh, and we live longer too.

Empathy has more resonance these days, but also, the world needs it more,” says Belinda Parmar, CEO of The Empathy Business – which helps international companies develop their sensitive sides. “Think about subjects like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Syria – things that are very emotionally involving for people. There’s a strong societal response [towards them]. We are thinking, ‘What is going on in the world? Is this the future I really want for my kids? What’s needed?’ And actually, the answer is more empathy.” And with persuasive powers like that, it’s not surprising that empathy is huge business right now.

“Those who empathise more have better relationships and are more likeable and employable”

Bandied around as a panacea not just for personal happiness, but also in respect of bigger issues like solving the refugee crisis or gender pay gap, empathy has become a clever marketing tool that puts you in someone else’s shoes to such an extent that you feel forced to change your mind (or hand over half your salary).

Last year, the United Nations began to use virtual reality headsets (“the ultimate empathy machine”) to immerse people in emotive experiences – like experiencing life in a refugee camp – in order to encourage fundraising. VR is also being used in education and healthcare (where it’s intended to help doctors develop ‘clinical empathy’ so they can put themselves in the mindset of their patients and better communicate with them).

Six months ago, Save The Children went one step further and recreated a bombed-out school in Syria that visitors could walk around in London; all the while wearing a small child’s backpack. And it works. Anecdotally, after one incredibly wealthy donor to non-profit organisation Charity: Water had already committed to donating £46k, he watched their VR campaign and reportedly upped his donation to £308k on the spot.

But despite its positive impact upon charity fundraising, the increase in empathetic news stories and campaigns could be dangerous for those who are already highly compassionate. “Over-empathising can be damaging because the highly sensitive person can take on the stress of others,” says psychologist Dr Judith Orloff MD, author of Emotional Freedom. “Excessive stress lowers the immune system and makes us more susceptible to flu, colds and IBS.

Indeed, ‘hyper-empathy’ (a condition where just seeing people upset on TV can cause physical distress) can increase our daily stress levels by 15%, while another recent study showed that people cheat more when they’re feeling hyperempathetic, because they can justify making an unethical decision if it helps someone along the way.

Emotional blackmail

Another difficulty comes when companies pull on our heartstrings for financial or political gain. Known as ‘scripted empathy’, this is becoming one of the fastest growing tools for corporations. It’s why Ford publicly revealed it was making male car designers wear pregnancy suits back in 2012. It’s likely why Hillary Clinton recently participated in the Humans Of New York blog to promote her image as caring and compassionate. Not only is this arguably emotionally manipulative, but the onslaught of emotive media coverage puts us at risk of “empathy burnout”.

The more exposed we are to something, the more likely we are to become desensitised to it,” says Dr Charlotte Hilton, senior lecturer in Psychology at Coventry University. “This can work favourably, such as in treatment for phobias, or unfavourably as we potentially feel less compassionate for individuals or populations. Last year, the killing of Cecil the lion evoked global outrage, while coverage of the refugee crisis seemed to attract less compassion. It’s reasonable to suggest that we have become somewhat numb to human pain.

In fact, one study found that individuals working in jobs which required them to listen to clients’ problems became less empathetic as the day went on – and even struggled to care about their family’s issues when they got home. And this could be the reason why recent studies show that, as a society, we are actually losing our ability to be empathetic.

"It’s reasonable to suggest that we have become somewhat numb to human pain.”

Research published in the Personality And Social Psychology Review found that empathy levels for young adults are declining at a rate of about 50% over the last 30 years. What’s more, research shows that the wealthier you are, the less likely you are to be able to empathise with others.

“We are immersed in an environment that often doesn’t support or encourage empathy,” says Hilton. “We may be chasing the better job, the bigger house or flashier car, but really, such focus on personal progression isn’t always associated with an empathic way of being.” Not enough empathy and you could be ruining personal and professional relationships; too much and you could be undermining your mental and physical health. Crikey.

But there are some unexpected factors that can indicate your personal empathy levels. Click here to find out where you fall on the empathy scale - and what you can do about it.