Research & Insights

Been There, Done That: Sometimes Experience Makes Us Less Empathetic

A study from Northwestern University and Georgetown University challenges the assumption that people who have successfully overcome setbacks – such as unemployment or bullying – are more sympathetic to those who are still struggling than individuals who haven’t experienced hard times themselves.

Researchers Rachel L. Ruttan, Loran F. Nordgren and Mary-Hunter McDonnell designed a series of experiments to see whether having experienced challenging situations would make people more compassionate toward others currently dealing with the same problems.

It turns out that people who have successfully dealt with challenges in the past are more compassionate to those currently undergoing them – but only in instances when those currently suffering are also successful in fighting through. The results of the study were published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In one experiment, 227 participants were asked to read a vignette about an unemployed man. The man was very motivated and sent out many job applications but was unsuccessful at finding a position. After struggling financially and not receiving any job offers, the man took up a friend’s offer to sell small amounts of illegal drugs to make ends meet.

Next participants were surveyed on how compassionate they felt toward the man in the story, answering questions such as, “When you think about [him], to what extent do you feel compassion?” and “When you think about [him], to what extent do you feel sympathy?” Participants also gave their overall evaluation of the man (good or bad, like or dislike, etc.) and how difficult they felt it was to overcome unemployment. The experiment was designed so that some of the participants had been unemployed in the past, some were unemployed at the time and some had never been unemployed.

The researchers found that participants who had been unemployed in the past were less compassionate toward the man in the story, and they saw him less favorably than did participants who had never been unemployed or were unemployed at the time.

A second experiment revealed similar trends. Participants read one of three vignettes about a high schooler who was being bullied by peers. The bullies “publicly tease the student in the cafeteria and threw a half-eaten apple at him.” In the first version of the story, the student fails to control his emotions and physically hurts the bullies. In the second version, the student endures the bullying without reacting. While in the third version, the student again fights the bullies, but “the aggression is said to stem from the grief associated with the loss of a sibling.”

The study participants again ranked their compassion toward the student and evaluated him personally. Some participants had experienced bullying in the past, while others had not.

Among participants who saw the version of the story where the student loses control, participants who had been bullied themselves were less compassionate toward the student than participants who had never been bullied. However, among participants who saw the version of the story where the student endures, former victims of bullying were slightly more compassionate toward the student than participants who had never been bullied.

It turns out, the difference is whether the person is able to overcome the challenge. “When evaluating an individual enduring an emotionally distressing event, having endured the event facilitates compassion, likely by facilitating the ease with which the other’s perspective is adopted (‘I’ve been there too’),” the researchers note.

“When evaluating an individual who fails to endure a distressing event, having previously endured the event may reduce compassion because the event seems less difficult to overcome in hindsight. In turn, others’ struggles to adequately endure the event seem unacceptable.”

These findings have political implications, since “[m]any social programs are designed with the input of those who endured distressing events, including rehab programs designed by former addicts, and social welfare programs crafted by individuals who used to live in poverty themselves.” However, these individuals may not actually be the most compassionate toward those who are struggling since they successfully overcame the challenges themselves.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Rachel L. Ruttan and Loran F. Nordgren, Northwestern University
Mary-Hunter McDonnell, Georgetown University

Posted: November 16, 2015
Tagged as: