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.