The Empathy Gap
The Basic Idea
Imagine that you are a smoker who is trying to quit. Right after having a cigarette, you tell yourself that it will be the last one. Quitting may seem easy in that moment because you have just gotten a fix and are not feeling cravings or withdrawal. Your confidence comes from your current visceral state, which is a calm, rational one. What you fail to understand is that later, when you are in a different, heightened visceral state, you will not necessarily be able to act in the same way or make the same decisions.
This situation describes the empathy gap, which is characterized by our tendency to underestimate the role that different mental states and emotions have on our behavior. Consequently, we make decisions based on short-term moods instead of considering how our future selves will feel. The empathy gap is often referred to as the hot-cold empathy gap because our mispredictions often have to do with being in either a ‘cold’ visceral state (a rational and logical mental state) and underestimating how our emotions will impact us when we are in a ‘hot’ visceral state (when we are influenced by strong emotions like hunger, desire, fear), or vice-versa.
While the empathy gap often has to do with a lack of empathy with our own selves, it can also describe our inability to understand other people’s perspectives or actions if they are not in the same visceral state as we are.2 For example, if you hear about a hit and run accident, you may not be able to understand what kind of person would be able to drive away after hitting someone, but you are likely judging based on a cold visceral state and not taking into account how that person may have felt in the moment.
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Visceral/Affective factors: states such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, cravings and withdrawals, fear, or pain. These states often cause people to act rashly or irrationally.3
Hot-to-cold empathy gap: when someone is in a hot emotional state (being influenced by visceral factors) and underestimates the role that their current emotions have on their actions and decision-making.2
Cold-to-hot empathy gap: when someone is in a cold emotional state and has difficulty understanding how they might later behave when their emotions are heightened.2
Intrapersonal bias: the empathy gap in relation to one’s own feelings, thoughts and decisions.2
Interpersonal bias: the empathy gap in relation to considering/judging other people’s feelings, thoughts and decisions.2
Anchoring bias: the common tendency to rely too heavily on a particular piece of information (such as our mood) when making decisions.
Projection bias: a self-forecasting error where we overestimate how much our future selves will share the same beliefs, values and behaviors as our current selves.
George Loewenstein and Daniel Read first observed what later came to be known as the empathy gap in 1999.1 In their experiment, they asked participants to indicate their willingness to endure pain for a monetary reward. The painful incident would occur one week later, where participants would have to put their hands in ice-cold water. In order to examine how different visceral/affective states affected decision-making, Loewenstein and Read asked the participants to indicate how much money they would require to endure the pain in three different conditions.1
Participants in the first condition got a taster of what the pain would feel like right before making their decision, participants in the second condition endured the tester a week before making their decision, and the participants in the last condition did not get a sample of the pain at all.
Participants in the first condition indicated the greatest monetary reward for compensation for enduring the pain, suggesting that pain, a hot visceral factor, influenced their decision-making, as they predicted they’d still feel the same in a week.1
George Loewenstein continued to investigate how emotions impacted people’s decisions and their predictions, by using visceral factors such as pain, addiction, thirst and fear as variables in future experiments. He then coined the term hot-cold empathy gap in his 2005 paper Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making, which outlined his various experiments on visceral states.1
Since Loewenstein’s experiments, other researchers have pushed the notion of the empathy gap by exploring the way that it impacts interpersonal behavior. For example, Jason Silverstein, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, conducted a literature review that examined the racial empathy gap. The racial empathy gap suggests that people with darker skin are better at handling pain and therefore people feel less empathy with them in painful situations.4
Other studies have examined the way that one’s financial situation impacts how much empathy they feel with others.5
On a daily basis, we are asked to make decisions that affect our future. The empathy gap shows that we are not very good at predicting how our future self will feel because we only take into account our current visceral state. When we make short-sighted decisions based on current emotions, whether hot or cold, it becomes easier for us to fall off track to our long-term goals.
Trying to quit smoking a cigarette, for example, depends on your state. If you are in a cold affective state, you may think that you are capable of going to a party that night where other people will be smoking. When you go to the party, your emotions may have changed and you might be craving a cigarette, which will be much harder to resist in that kind of environment.
An example like this demonstrates how a short-term decision can put us into a position that makes it more difficult to stay true to our goals. If we had been able to more accurately predict how we would feel once at the party, we would likely not have chosen to put ourselves in that situation. Many of our bad habits, which we are often trying to break, are controlled by visceral factors, such as hunger, desire or cravings, meaning that the empathy gap causes us to make decisions that will make it harder to shake those bad habits.
Additionally, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, the empathy gap poses a problem because predicting other people’s psychological states and how they will act based on those states, is an important part of daily life.6 In fact, it is considered an evolutionary stage to be able to recognize that others have unique feelings that are different from our own. The empathy gap suggests, however, that we often are unable to actually separate our current visceral mood from our judgment of other’s behaviors. It is not only an issue of judgment – failing to respond to others’ psychological states affects how we treat them. For example, if a teacher or a parent fails to take into account a student’s anxiety regarding exams, they may not put the work in to ease their emotions and this can lead to the student not learning or performing as well. 6
There are some existing debates about whether an inability to empathize with our future selves or with other people is really the problem.
For the intrapersonal empathy gap, while it is important to be accurate predictors about our future emotions, we also have to look somewhere to inform our decisions. Anchoring points like our current feelings are sometimes all we have access to and because we have to make thousands of decisions on a daily basis, we don’t always have the time to properly consider how we might feel later. Additionally, when it comes to the cold-to-hot empathy gap, perhaps the problem is not that we are unable to predict how our hot visceral state will make us act, but that we allow our emotions to impact our decisions. If we were always purely rational and logical beings, visceral factors would not change our behavior. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, suggests that instead of being better predictors, we instead need to realize the “value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life” and argues “that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.” 7
When it comes to interpersonal empathy gaps, Paul Bloom also takes issue with the idea that being able to empathize with others makes us better people.7 If we pardon behavior based on someone having been in a hot visceral state, then we may be suggesting that people are not in control of their own actions. Considering too deeply someone else’s psychological state can cause us to stray from rational logic and may make it difficult to stay true to fairness.
Parenting and Children’s Emotional Wellbeing
The empathy gap can mean that parents are not always taking into account how their children feel. As parents usually make decisions for their children, an inability to gauge their children’s emotional lives can cause them to make suboptimal choices for their children.
Kristin Lagattuta, a professor of psychology, examined the empathy gap between parents and their children by asking parents to estimate their children’s emotional lives.8 She found that there was a mismatch between parents’ predictions and children’s self-reports. Most parents showed a positivity bias, not believing that their children’s anxieties and worries were as present as the children themselves reported. Not being able to understand that children experience the world differently, and have different reactions to visceral factors, means that parents may put their children in situations they are not equipped to handle, or disregard their children’s feelings entirely when making decisions that will affect them.8
Risk Mitigation and Addiction
The empathy gap can have serious consequences for drug addicts because it can mean that they make short-sighted decisions that do not take into consideration how powerful cravings and withdrawals are, and therefore could mean that they put themselves in a situation where they are unable to resist falling off the wagon.
Louis Giordano, a professional counselor, worked with Loewenstein to examine whether being in a hot or a cold visceral state would impact recovering drug addicts’ predictions about their future behavior, and therefore the decisions that they made.1
Giordano asked the addicts to predict how much money they would choose, five days from when they were asked, over a maintenance drug that helps withdrawal symptoms. The addicts were asked whether they’d take the maintenance drug or $10, the maintenance drug or $20, and so on.1
To see how their current affective state impacted their decision, the researchers split the participants into two variables. They were asked the previous question either before or after receiving a dose of the maintenance drug. The results revealed that participants who were asked in the first condition required a much larger sum of money to give up their next dose of the maintenance drug.1 Presumably, they were in a hot visceral state in pain because of withdrawal.
This study demonstrates how the empathy gap can cause addicts to mispredict how they will feel in the future. The empathy gap is therefore bad for risk mitigation, as it means that people are not putting themselves in situations that reduce threats and enhance the likelihood of success.
Related TDL Resources
This article demonstrates why it is so important for us to diminish the empathy gap. It discusses how empathy for others, rather than only considering our own emotions can help us make decisions that will benefit a wider population. Neerjah Skantharajah examines the importance of empathy in a time like now, where there is a stigma against the older population which can cause us to behave in ways that are not beneficial to their health.
Since the empathy gap means that we make decisions based on our short-term feelings, it can mean that we are not making the best financial decisions for our future. For example, if you decide to order expensive takeout in a moment of hunger, you might be spending unnecessarily. This article by our writer Kaylee Somerville explores ways in which we can help ourselves save more short-term, instead of looking for immediate gratification for our visceral states.
- Loewenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology, 24(4), S49-S56. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.24.4.s49
- The Empathy Gap: Why People Fail to Understand Different Perspectives. (n.d.). Effectiviology – Psychology and philosophy you can use. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://effectiviology.com/empathy-gap/#Types_of_empathy_gaps
- Psychology. (2016, January 21). Visceral factors. https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/decision-making/visceral-factors
- Wade, L. (2013, September 26). The Racial Empathy Gap. Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/social-justice/racial-empathy-gap-race-black-white-psychology-66993
- Miller, L. (2012, June 29). The Money-Empathy Gap. New York Magazine. https://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/
- Van Bowen, L., Loewenstein, G., Dunning, D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2013). Changing Places: A Dual Judgment Model of Empathy Gaps in Emotional Perspective Taking. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 117-171. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407188-9.00003-X
- Illing, S. (2019, January 16). The Case Against Empathy. Vox. https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/1/19/14266230/empathy-morality-ethics-psychology-compassion-paul-bloom
- Dewar, G. (2017, October). The hot-cold empathy gap. Parenting Science – The science of child-rearing and child development. https://www.parentingscience.com/empathy-gap.html