Home > Memory > Have a Little Empathy: How to Overcome the Empathy Gap and Understand Each Other

Have a Little Empathy: How to Overcome the Empathy Gap and Understand Each Other

Road rage is an example of a common emotional reaction that we might not understand in others

Picture this: you’re driving on a busy street with your friend. All of a sudden, a car comes out of nowhere and cuts you off. You’re in a hurry to get somewhere, and this makes you angry. So, you take the first opportunity to zoom into the left lane and speed past the car that cut you off, looking at the driver as you pass. Its not until your friend shouts “Watch out!” that you slam on the brakes and realize you almost hit the car in front of you at a red light. Your friend chastises you for overreacting and driving recklessly. They don’t understand why you would do what you did, and after calming down, you don’t either. Sound familiar?

Now imagine a different scenario. This time you’re at a friend’s house watching a big sports game with a group of people. Most of you aren’t too invested in the game and aren’t fans of either team, but your friend Jimmy is a huge fan of one team. It’s a close game, but Jimmy’s team loses. Everyone is apologetic towards him, but Jimmy is mad. He picks up the television remote and throws it on the floor and it breaks. Everyone scolds your friend for letting his anger get to him and acting immature. None of you can understand why he would do something like that over something as trivial as a sports game.

Has anything like either of these scenarios ever happened to you? Maybe you’ve gotten upset and done something you normally wouldn’t have done that was dangerous or over the top. Or maybe you’ve seen a friend or colleague do something that you perceive as a ridiculous or inappropriate response to a certain situation. These are all examples of something called the empathy gap. The empathy gap is the idea that we sometimes cannot understand how our emotions are affecting our behavior, or how emotions can lead people to extreme behaviors. Wikipedia gives a good overview of the empathy gap and its different manifestations. Essentially, we aren’t very good at understanding how other people are feeling if we are not feeling that way ourselves. But the consequences of not being able to relate or understand one another go beyond wondering why your colleagues have such bad tempers. Overcoming the empathy gap is very important to increasing our connection with and understanding of those around us, as well as ourselves.

So what causes us to not be able to understand our own or others’ emotions and their impact on behavior? One study showed that it might have something to do with how similar they are to us. This study tested empathy to see whether or not participants would empathize when presented with members of similar ethnic background to themselves feeling sad vs. members of a different ethnic background (Gutsell and Inzlicht, 2012). They found that participants’ brain activity was much more consistent with sadness when presented with members of their own racial group and participants did not show the same response when viewing the sadness of people outside their racial group (Gutsell & Inzlicht, 2012). This research suggests that it might be harder for us to empathize with those who are not like us, which could intensify divides and intolerance between different races, genders, or sexual orientations. Not being able to understand others who are different from us is a huge problem that could contribute to prejudice and lack of connection between people of different groups, clearly showing the importance of striving to overcome the empathy gap.

College-aged students are more likely to sacrifice a longer life in older patients than they are for patients their own age

So, we don’t read the emotions of people we aren’t close with very well. This means the empathy gap likely contributes to racism and separation between people of different races. What else can the empathy gap cause? One example comes from another recent study. Researchers found that college students were more likely to sacrifice length of life for a perceived ‘better death’ when the patients in question were elderly people than when the patients were college-aged (Stephens, Neal, and Overman, 2014). In other words, college students were more likely to choose a longer life than a merciful death for patients their own age and much less likely to choose the same longer life for elderly patients. This is another interesting example of the empathy gap. Young people might occasionally be put into real life situations in which they have to make similar important decisions for their older family members. Perhaps even more common, doctors who are much younger than their patients have to understand the difficulties the struggles elderly patients face and give them treatment and recommendations based on that. This research implies that it might be difficult for younger doctors or family members to relate to elderly people at the end of their lives. Because younger people don’t see themselves as having much in common with elderly people, they cannot empathize with their experiences. Their lack of understanding of an older person’s perspective leads them to give less value to extending their lives than to extending the life of a similarly aged peer. This is where the empathy gap can again have real world consequences in terms of how we interact with others. Once again, it is important to do our best to avoid the empathy gap here and strive to understand the perspectives and experiences of people who are not the same age as we are, so that we can help them adequately by keeping their interests in mind.

Those who have experienced social anxiety are more likely to accurately rate negative emotions in others

Evidence has shown that the empathy gap is a real thing that especially shows up when people are different or perceived to be different from us. But what if we have experienced similar things? A 2016 study addressed this by experimentally inducing social anxiety and discovering that participants who were made anxious were more accurate at rating the negative emotions of others (Auyeung and Alden, 2016). Because these participants had just been made to feel social anxiety themselves, they were able to identify and rate similar negative emotions when they saw them in others. Given what we already know, this makes sense. Unlike the two previous examples in which the empathy gap seemed to arise because people could not identify with others because of a perceived difference based on race or age, these participants saw their own (and recently experienced) emotions in others and could identify them successfully. This teaches an important lesson about the empathy gap. That, if we can in any way relate how someone else is feeling to how we ourselves have previously felt, we might be better at understanding where they are coming from. But, since we can assume that everyone has experienced emotional states or some level of social anxiety, why do we sometimes fail to empathize with others even when they are experiencing an emotion we have experienced ourselves?

One answer may be memory. In one experiment from a study examining different emotional states and how they impact the empathy gap, researchers found that participants who completed a memory task while in “pain” (holding their non-dominant hand in ice water) performed worse on the memory task than participants who were not in pain (Nordgren, van der Pligt, and van Harreveld, 2006). In addition, the ‘pain’ participants were more likely to attribute their poor performance to factors other than the fact that they had been in pain while taking the test (Nordgren, van der Pligt, & van Harreveld, 2006). This research suggests not only that people in stressful emotional states have worse memory during that time and therefore might not realize that what they are doing is not in line with their general actions, but also that the memory of the effects that such a stressful emotional state has on your actions fades extremely quickly. In other words, we forget the impact that our emotions had on what we acted and therefore try to attribute our behavior to something else. This explains why we cannot automatically empathize with anyone who is experiencing an emotion we may have experienced before: because our memory for our experience of that emotion and how it affected us may be impaired or erased. It is important to nurture these memories rather than to suppress them, and to try to understand the impact of our emotions rather than dismiss them, so that we can access those memories later and have an easier time making sense of the emotions of others (thereby avoiding some of the aforementioned negative effects of the empathy gap).

Another example of the empathy gap…

How is this all relevant? We all have to deal with different emotions and emotional states at different times. We also often have to interact with people of different ages, races, genders and sexual orientations, and divides between different groups that can result in things like racism or sexism are all too common. We will never be able to experience other people’s emotions in the same way and at the same time that they experience them, or understand how it feels to be a member of a group we don’t belong to. But if being more aware of the emotions that they are experiencing could help us understand them, this could help us in our daily interactions with one another. The takeaway is this: next time you’re in an emotional situation and about to react to something, take a second to think whether what you are about to do is really something you would like to see yourself doing. In other words, is this a fair and proportionate response? Similarly, when someone else is struggling with a problem or reacting extremely to something that may be emotional for them, ask yourself if you have ever felt that way in a different context. If you can access your memories rather than suppress them and recognize the emotion a fellow person is feeling, perhaps you can help calm them down or find a better way to process it, whether they share your age, race, gender, or not. At the very least you will be able to understand what is going through their mind and why they might be reacting in a certain way. Making sure we make an active effort to relate to others rather than look at their situation solely from our own perspective could go a long way in reducing the empathy gap.





Auyeung, K. W. & Alden, L. E. (2016). Social anxiety and empathy for social pain. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 40, 38-45.

Empathy gap. (n. d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy_gap

Gutsell, J. N. & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 596-603.

Nordgren, L. F., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2006). Visceral drives in retrospect: Explanations about the inaccessible past. Psychological Science, 17(7), 635-640.

Stephens, J. D. W., Neal, D. S., & Overman, A. A. (2014). Closing the empathy gap in college students’ judgments of end-of-life tradeoffs. International Journal of Psychology, 49(4), 313-317.


  1. vmpaqu20
    May 8th, 2017 at 15:46 | #1

    This is a fascinating cognitive bias. It’s interesting that it affects not only understanding other people’s actions, but even your own. I wouldn’t have expected it to be so heavily connected to memory, and now I wonder if it is also connected to false memory. It seems likely that after having an over-the-top, immature response, people might want to re-write the story in their memory to give it reasons other than the reason of simply being controlled by their emotions. This fits with the idea behind many cognitive biases: we don’t accept facts that don’t fit our own beliefs and we re-write information to fit our own constructions of our beliefs and identities. A great explanation of this idea can be found here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe It seems we are trying to make up for a lack of inhibition, when we let ourselves give in to our automatic processes instead of making controlled, rational decisions. It would be interesting to see whether the empathy gap differs in DAT individuals because of their lack of inhibition. It is definitely an important cognitive bias to explore, especially with its connections to the own-age and own-race biases.

  2. xniu
    May 9th, 2017 at 03:59 | #2

    Hi Liam, I really enjoyed reading your post. I think your post is very coherent and always consistent with the topic “empathy gap”. I did not know about empathy gap before but after reading your post, I got so many informative explanations and your post reminded me of other cognitive aspects that we talked in class. According to your first two studies, you mentioned the own-age bias and own-race bias so that people from different backgrounds would find it hard understanding each other. In Vianny’s post, she specifically mentioned own-race bias. Personally, I wonder if the own-age bias and own-race bias are also related to attention, which you did not explicitly mention but could be highly relevant. Since people are more likely to direct their attention to those who share more similar characteristics with them, it is not surprising that they cannot get the reason why people from different backgrounds are mad because they do not pay attention to their sensitive and taboo topics. Also, the empathy gap is closely associated with the topic I talked about in my post – the halo effect. Basically, the halo effect is that a good overall impression on someone is likely to influence our opinions about other aspects of that person. A good impression can be introduced when someone shares a lot of similar characteristics with us. In contrast, maybe we do not necessarily like those people who are dissimilar to us. Therefore, the halo effect might jump in and prevent us from understanding their behaviors and thus we are trapped in the empathy gap.

  3. Liam Wilson
    May 10th, 2017 at 15:44 | #3

    Great point about attention! I agree with you that attention must play a role in the empathy gap and may be one of the reasons that we struggle to understand people who aren’t similar to us. This reminds me of the attention threshold that we have talked about – if someone has angry about something that you can understand or have experienced before, you are much more likely to be able to attend to and understand the reason that they are upset than if someone is emotional about an issue you have no personal experience with. I think attention might also play into why we have trouble understanding our own behavior as well because attention is limited and when we are in very emotional states, we probably do not have enough attention to devote to thinking about how we would act differently if we were calmer. It almost seems like a form of attentional blindness in which we don’t notice a behavioral change in ourselves because we are so focused on the emotions we are experiencing. Interesting point as well about the halo effect! Thanks for the comment! @xniu

  4. Liam Wilson
    May 10th, 2017 at 15:54 | #4

    I think you’re right about false memory! The study I cited about memory is a sort of false memory, or at least a memory misattribution (so maybe more of a memory error than a false memory) in which participants who are no longer in pain (the ’emotional state’ in this experiment) do not attribute their poor performance on the memory test to their previous emotional state. As you said, this is probably because people do not want to believe that their behavior is heavily influenced by their emotions. Therefore, I think a memory misattribution such as this is common where people find other explanations for their behaviors rather than admitting that they were controlled by their emotional state. I also agree it would be interesting to see if DAT individuals show a different pattern in regards to the empathy gap. It seems like they would show an even more pronounced version of the empathy gap because they would have more trouble inhibiting their emotional responses and attempting a controlled process like trying to understand why another person is upset, but maybe not. Cool comic too! Thanks for commenting! @vmpaqu20

  5. tecime20
    April 17th, 2018 at 18:07 | #5

    Very interesting and engaging overview! I thought the study regarding misattribution of the poor performance to factors other than the pain state was especially compelling, and a facet of this bias I hadn’t even considered when researching it myself. I’m not entirely sure, however, that awareness of this bias will necessarily make it easier to control; memory, especially when it is connected to emotion, seems highly fallible and elastic. On the flip side, this bias also affects our ability to understand emotional reasoning when in a cold emotional state, so it really works to manipulate our reactions to situations no matter how we’re feeling at the time.

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