Imagine you’re a college student who just went through a big breakup. You’re so depressed that you’re having trouble finishing an essay for a certain class, and you’re hoping that you can plead your case and get the essay’s deadline pushed back. You’ve heard through the grapevine that the teaching assistant recently went through a breakup, and you also know that the professor has been in a happy marriage for 30 years. Who do you choose to hear your request? If you think it’s the TA, you’re wrong. Science says so.
It’s natural to assume that the recently heartbroken TA would be your safest bet for pushing back your deadline since that person knows firsthand the struggles you’re going through. But according to Harvard researchers, having “been there” actually makes you less empathetic toward other people’s struggles.
For a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers had participants read stories about people going through struggles that they either had or had not experienced. In the first experiment, subjects read about a man who had signed up to participate in a “polar plunge”—an event that challenges people to jump in an icy lake in the dead of winter.
Participants who were signed up but hadn’t yet engaged in a polar plunge themselves were much more empathetic toward the man in the story than those who had already completed the plunge. The same was true in a story about an unemployed man who turned to selling drugs and a story about a bullied teenager — in both cases, those who had experienced unemployment or bullying were far less compassionate toward the subject of the story than those who hadn’t.
According to the researchers, this happens for two reasons: one, it’s hard to remember how bad a past experience was. We know it was hard, but we underestimate just how hard it was. Two, people who have overcome a past challenge know that challenge can be overcome, so they think that anyone can overcome it. What does this mean for everyday people? When looking for empathy, you’re better off seeking out someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes. And when lending an ear to someone in need, try to remember that the challenges you’ve faced were probably much harder than you give yourself credit for.
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