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Empathy often averted because of mental effort

People don't want to feel empathy unless they think they are good at it, study finds

Source: American Psychological Association

Even when feeling empathy for others isn't financially costly or emotionally draining, people will still avoid it because they think empathy requires too much mental effort, according to new research.

Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another person, is often viewed as a virtue that encourages helping behaviors. But people often don't want to feel empathy
  • The researchers designed an "Empathy Selection Task" to test whether cognitive costs, or mental effort, could deter empathy. Over a series of trials, the researchers used two decks of cards that each featured grim photos of child refugees.

  • For one deck, participants were told just to describe physical characteristics of the person on the card.

  • For the other deck, they were told to try to feel empathy for the person in the photo and think about what that person was feeling. Participants were told to choose freely from either deck in each trial.

  • In some additional experiments, the researchers used decks that featured images of sad or smiling people.

  • When given the choice of choosing between decks, participants consistently picked the decks that didn't require feeling empathy, even for the photos of happy people.


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