Home > Cognitive Bias > The empathy gap: the cognitive scapegoat least likely to earn you brownie points in intimate relationships (or with HR)

The empathy gap: the cognitive scapegoat least likely to earn you brownie points in intimate relationships (or with HR)

I think you’d call that an objective overreaction (Marcinski, 2015)

Try to remember to the last time you had a fight with a romantic partner or friend, especially over a small misstep or misunderstanding. Were you angry at the time? Jealous? Hurt? If so, you probably said and did things you didn’t mean; perhaps you were intending to cause your partner the same pain you felt, or were simply lashing out impulsively, not caring to listen to their side of the story. Only your own feelings mattered.

Now think back to the aftermath, when you had resolved the issue and moved forward. Everything that happened in the heat of the argument might seem a bit silly to you now. Maybe your partner pointed out that you had overreacted; your emotions seemed perfectly valid then, but now, in a state of calm as you and your relationship are, you’re inclined to agree with them. There’s no way you acted like that; you had no reason to. You certainly won’t do so the next time you’re in an argument…right?

Unlike faucet taps, these states are rather mutually exclusive: no lukewarm middle ground here (http://image.wikifoundry.com/image/3/5ac715be43f996a35f99bf5976ec1348/GW350H215)

Wrong, says the empathy gap. This theory that suggests that people in one physical or emotional state find it difficult or impossible to imagine living in another. The bias runs one of two ways: hot to cold, or cold to hot. Hot states, such as anger, pain, hunger, distress, desire, or fear, are deemed “visceral” or “aroused” states; these emotional experiences tend to have a measurable effect on the body (Ruttan, McDonnell, & Nordgren, 2015). Cold states, then, are the opposite: the satiation, the decreased anxiety, the calm following the storm. When you’re in a hot state, your mind goes into overdrive; every small thing becomes connected to that state, and whatever pain you feel is magnified as a result. A friend of mine who’s a track athlete describes one of these sensation as an “elevated feeling of panic and pain”: Essentially, you think it’s the end of the world. Your decision making is impaired, your memory and preferences are altered, even your personality can shift. Because you’re still in this aroused state, you consider those changes to be permanent, rather than (more accurately) attributing them to the emotional or physical state itself. Your behavior, in a word, is state-driven– and you’re completely unaware of it. Nor are you able to stop it. Drug addicts, for example, often feel powerless to stop physical or habitual cravings for their drug of choice, and feel compelled to act to satisfy those cravings despite the negative consequences (Loewenstein, 1996). On the flip side, people in cold states think themselves immune to the strong motivational impulses of hot states, because they, in their current coldness, can’t picture themselves in any other state. When they are thrown into a hot state, they find themselves unprepared for the consequences.

Cognitive psychology provides some insight as to why this gap between hot and cold states has such a great impact on our behavior. Bias plays a major role. The idea that our memories, opinions, and feelings are shaped by our environments and the information we learn following an event has ramifications throughout psychology, and in this case, the hot or cold state can act as a learned factor that colors, even overrides, our memory of a previous, opposite state. If you look at it from the perspective of Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory, hot states and cold states cue the body to act in different ways. Hot states tend to be negative drive states. The sensations of discomfort they provoke prompt us to do something to decrease them, to restore a sense of balance: eating to satisfy hunger, for example, or taking medication or drugs to reduce pain. Every part of our being becomes hyper-attuned to that state, and to taking any possible or impulsive action to reduce its effects. Cold states, then, represent a lack of drive; since we’re not working to remove some uncomfortable sensation, we’re better able to regulate our actions. Problems arise when, in our lack of discomfort, we underestimate the power of the negative drives to influence our behavior. Hence, a gap between the impulsive action we’re conditioned to take while in a negative drive state and the more rational, measured view we have of the world when not in that state: that rationality acts as a mask, or a bias, impairing our memory for the acute discomfort of the negative state.

Other explanations of the empathy gap center on the relationships between physical state and mood, or “affect,” and memory. Studies involving “flashbulb memories,” for example, have demonstrated that people maintain very vivid memories for events connected to high levels of emotion, even if these memories aren’t wholly accurate (Neisser & Harsch, 1992). With this heightened memory for the emotional event, however, comes a tradeoff: people are less able to recall more mundane events immediately preceding or following the emotional one (Hofmann & Nordgren, 2016). People’s memory for affective states is also limited. Someone might be able to recall what the sensation was, why they felt that way, and how severely they ought to have felt it, but not precisely how it felt (Ruttan et al., 2015). I’m willing to humiliate myself for science here. When I was about seven years old, I slipped on a wet rock at the beach while catching crabs and cut my right arm open, from below the shoulder to the wrist. Looking back, I remember how I fell (sideways), what was going on at the time of the injury (my cousin, aunt, and mother screaming, a great deal of blood, and a green tea towel wrapped around my arm), and a recollection for how I must have felt at the time (frightened and in pain). If you asked me to recreate that sensation of pain and fear, though, I wouldn’t be able to do it. The pain is over and I don’t even have a cool scar to prove how bad it was, so now my simple response is “it didn’t really hurt that much.” My inability to call to mind the feeling of that affective state causes me to underestimate the impact that state had on me at the time. The lack of memory prompts a lack of emotional understanding, or a lack of empathy.

See Ruttan et al. (2015), study number 3: an unexpected deviation from the bleak picture we paint of the comfortably employed (Wuerker, 2014)

The bias, mind you, isn’t wholly physical. It can just as easily be applied to interpersonal interactions. An interesting study by the oft-previously-cited Ruttan et al. team looked at the way empathy gaps impacted the experiences of those who attempted to seek support for emotionally distressing events. They found that people who had previously experienced that same distressing event (like bullying, or divorce) actually had less sympathy for their fellow beings than people who had never been through that situation or were currently experiencing it (Ruttan et al., 2015). Because previous experience meant the distress had been overcome, those who had overcome the situation were on the cold side of the fence; they had suffered, they had pushed through, they had succeeded. Out of the hot state, they were more likely to downplay the emotional impact the event had had on them while they experienced it; it simply couldn’t have been as bad as they had once thought, if they had come out alright. And if they had survived, surely the others who were going through the same situation now could do the same. They’d be failures if they couldn’t. They were failures if they were currently struggling. One portion of the study had participants in a variety of employment ranges (currently employed or unemployed, previously unemployed) rate their compassion for an unemployed man in a story who, after numerous failed job searches, got roped into selling drugs. True to form, participants who had previously been (but were no longer) unemployed reported lower compassion ratings than the other two groups (Ruttan et al., 2015). Another study by Nordgren and MacDonald (2011) looked at peoples’ perceptions of the impact of social suffering on an individual. They had participants experience social isolation through an online ball-passing game played between the participant and two other computer-simulated “students”, with one group in a non-isolated condition (receiving the ball about 1/3 of the time between the 3 players), and the other in an isolated condition (receiving the ball very little of the time); participants were then asked to read about events of social isolation and rate them for pain. As predicted, the group currently experiencing social isolation rated the events as more painful than those not experiencing the isolation. This gap between current experience and the lack of it was later extended to observers asked to partner with individuals in these groups, or to the individuals themselves when recalling previous occasions of their own social pain. As expected, individuals had trouble recalling the severity of the social pain of others or even themselves when they weren’t actively experiencing that pain.

What these and other studies show us is the extent to which our attitudes are informed by our own experiences. At the risk of sounding preachy, we must be mindful of where gaps such as these might cause us to underestimate or undermine the impact of a situation on a person, even (or especially) if we’ve experienced the same thing and come out stronger for it. Be it social isolation, traumatic life events, simple physical pain, addiction, or the more murky waters of class/race/gender/orientation/religion interactions, stronger does not necessarily mean warmer. Quite the contrary (yes, I’m aware that the hot-cold pun was bad). Jokes and soapboxes aside, we all have the capability to understand the suffering of others, even if we don’t share experiences with them, even if the very fabric of our existences is woven differently. Having empathy for someone requires more than simply stepping into their “shoes”; sometimes you must call upon memories of your own, and empathy gaps work to ensure that these memories will be devoid of the emotion that very concept of empathy demands you to experience anew. Knowing this, we can better calibrate our interactions with others to compensate for the diminished compassion we might feel for someone whose state is dissimilar to ours, given that that very lack arises not from them, but from us. State discrepancies, as we’ve seen, are powerful influences on behavior. Will this awareness eliminate the empathy gap altogether? It’s doubtful. More like highly improbable. But awareness, as any university counseling or activist type will tell you, is the first step towards concrete change. Even if this change is invisibly cognitive.


Hofmann, W., & Nordgren, L. (2016). The psychology of desire. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65(3), 272-292.

Marcinski, P. (2015). Young angry couple arguing and pushing each other at home [Online image]. Retrieved April 22, 2018 from https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-young-couple-arguing-kitchen-angry-pushing-each-other-home-image52729023

Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of ‘‘flashbulb memories” (pp. 9–31). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nordgren, L. F., Banas, K., & MacDonald, G. (2011). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 120-128. 10.1037/a0020938

Nordgren, L. F., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2007). Evaluating Eve: Visceral states influence the evaluation of impulsive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 75-84. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.93.1.75

Ruttan, R. L., McDonnell, M.-H., & Nordgren, L. F. (2015). Having “been there” doesn’t mean I care: When prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 610-622. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000012

[Untitled image stylizing the hot/cold empathy gap]. Retrieved April 22, 2018 from http://image.wikifoundry.com/image/3/5ac715be43f996a35f99bf5976ec1348/GW350H215.

Wuerker, M. (2014). Cartoon: empathy gap [Online image]. Retrieved April 22, 2018 from https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2014/1/9/1268143/-Cartoon-Empathy-Gap


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