Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes Makes You Less Empathetic, Not More

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Many people assume that empathy comes from sharing similar experiences. If you know exactly what someone’s been through, you’re more likely to feel their pain and cut them a little slack, right?

Wrong. Actually, it seems that the opposite is the case.

A 2015 Harvard study found that it’s actually harder to empathize with someone if you’ve been in their shoes.

For the study, researchers asked people to read stories about people going through challenges that they either had or hadn’t experienced. In one phase, the story was about a man doing a “polar plunge,” an event in which people jump into an ice-cold lake in the winter. Some of the participants had done a polar plunge themselves, and some had not.

The researchers found that people who hadn’t yet engaged in a polar plunge were more likely to feel empathetic toward the man in the story. People who had done one were less likely.

The same result held true for other stories, like one about a man who sold drugs and another about a teenager who was bullied.

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“The results suggest that people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal,” the study authors wrote in Harvard Business Review.

They suggest two reasons for this phenomenon. First, memories are faulty, and people tend to forget just how painful a past experience felt in the moment. Second, people who’ve been through a difficult experience have already overcome it, so they assume that anyone else can, too.

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“The combined experience of ‘I can’t recall how difficult it was’ and ‘I know that I got through it myself” creates the perception that the event can be readily conquered, reducing empathy toward others struggling with the event,” the authors write.

So, next time you need someone on your side, try looking for someone who hasn’t been in your shoes.