How Empathy Works

When Empathy Goes Awry

Empathy doesn't always work the way it should. Sometimes it's misplaced, dampened or lacking. Douglas LaBier, a psychotherapist and researcher, posits many people today suffer from what he terms "empathy deficit disorder," or EDD. Those with EDD are self-centered and focus too much on power, status and money. They can't see things from others' points of view, especially those who think, believe and feel very differently from them. This all leads to polarization, disconnection, personal conflicts and even hatred toward those who are different, a huge problem in today's interconnected world.

Sometimes people simply choose to turn off their empathic feelings or use them destructively. Take bullies. Some experts say bullies use cognitive empathy to calculate exactly what to say or do to most hurt or manipulate their victims. Then, during the actual bullying, the bullies turn off their empathic response toward their victims by viewing them as worthless or somehow deserving of punishment.

There could also be the opposite problem of being too empathetic. For example, you're a social worker constantly exposed to the misfortunes of your clients. If you take them too much to heart (via affective empathy), you could become burned out from your job.

Studies show a racial empathy gap exists, even in people who believe race doesn't matter to them. In one study, for example, white participants reacted dramatically when they saw video clips of a needle touching a white person's skin, but not so much when the needle touched the skin of someone who was black or Asian. The participants' reaction was most subdued when the needle touched a black person's skin [source: Forgiarini, et al].

Another study on pain showed participants — both black and white — assumed blacks feel less pain than whites. This perception was even shared by participants who were registered nurses and nursing students. Researchers said the study showed the reason lies not in race per se, but in the belief that blacks have suffered more hardships than whites, which has made them stronger and more resilient [source: Trawalter, et al].

The research has various implications for people of color. Studies over the years have shown minorities receive inadequate pain medication compared to whites; a racial empathy gap may be part of the reason. Similarly, a racial empathy gap may be at work in the criminal justice system regarding the fact that black defendants are given harsher sentences than whites [source: Silverstein].