Home > Attention, Memory > The empathy gap: how walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (and in your own shoes) is harder than it seems

The empathy gap: how walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (and in your own shoes) is harder than it seems

You’d never do this… right? Source: ballmemes.com

Growing up you are often told to exercise empathy and compassion by ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’. However, what if I were to ask you, for example, if you’ve ever had a friend, usually super strict about only having safe sex, who told you about her last hookup, where in the heat of the moment decided to have unprotected sex. Did you judge that friend for being irresponsible even when that exact same thing happened to you a month ago? What if that same friend had told you this when you yourself had minutes ago just done the same thing? Do you think you would have had the same reaction?

Happen often? Source: me.me

What if I now asked you to walk a mile in your own shoes. For example, have you ever gone grocery shopping with the intention of only buying what was on your list but ended up buying five million other things that you, in hindsight, after eating, never actually needed? Were you famished while doing the grocery shopping? Has this happened to you more than once? When repeated did you expect a different outcome from the last time you shopped while hungry?

If you answered yes to these questions then you most probably have fallen victim to the empathy gap.

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which people fail to understand how different mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions. In other words, it is hard for someone to predict how they are going to feel and act when they’re in a different emotional state than the one that they’re in at the moment. Therefore, you think that you will act a certain way in a specific situation but when actually confronted to that situation you might not act like you thought you would. Furthermore, this cognitive bias results in a failure to understand someone else’s point of view or actions unless you are yourself in that same situation.

So why does this happen?

Well, one theory is that human understanding and cognition (i.e., the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding) is state-dependent. In other words, what we are feeling at a given point will impact how we react or make a decision in that moment. For example, in the grocery store scenario, because we are hungry, this visceral experience (i.e., related to deep inward feelings, it’s intuitive not rational) is going to impact the way that we shop (i.e., we will be more likely to buy excessive and unnecessary amounts of food). However, if we were to eat before shopping, we would be more likely to stick to our pre-written grocery list. Furthermore, while doing the grocery shopping, we are unaware that our need to buy more food is being driven by our hunger and instead we attribute it to us just wanting more food because why not. This phenomenon is called the hot-to-cold empathy gap. So when we are under the influence of a visceral drive, like hunger, (i.e., the hot state) we are not able to understand how much our decisions and reactions are being driven by our current state and instead we attribute our behavior to general and long-term preferences. This is called hot-to-cold because once we satisfy our visceral drive (e.g., by eating food) we enter a cold state (i.e., no longer under the influence of a visceral drive) and when looking back on our actions we do not understand that they were lead by our visceral needs.

Human cognition is state-dependent, when we are in cold state we act very differently than when we are in a hot state. Source: theemotionmachine.com

On the other hand, this underestimation of the influences of visceral drives on our own attitudes, preferences, and behaviors can also go from cold-to-hot. For example, going back to the grocery shopping example, let’s say you had made the grocery list the night before when you were not hungry, but you knew that you were going to be shopping the next day hungry because you were planning on going right after the gym. Yet, you did not expect that being hungry was going to really impact your shopping. Turns out it does. This phenomenon is called the cold-to-hot empathy gap because when you are in a cold state (i.e., not under the influence of a visceral drive) you have a hard time seeing how being in a hot state could change your decision-making or your behavior and this can lead to being unprepared when faced with the visceral drive (e.g., hunger).

But other than our state-dependent understanding, why are we so bad at predicting our own behaviors and decisions, even when we’ve experienced the same situation, for example, one week before hand? Surely, our memory for the event did not degrade in the timespan of one week.

If you focus on the sensation of the pain you’ll remember the pain better…but do you really want to do that? Source: parkinsonsrecovery.com

Well, another explanation that goes hand in hand with the hot-cold empathy gap is that our memory for visceral experiences is restrictive and constrained. What this means is that when experiencing a visceral drive, like pain, people tend to remember the event that produced the pain but not the sensory, intensity, and affective qualities of pain (Loewenstein, 1996). This is because our brains do not store information about pain, emotion, or other types of visceral influences the same way as they store visual and verbal information. We can remember quite well visual and verbal information, for example, most of us know the multiplication table by heart. But when it comes to remembering a past visceral experience, well, we are able to recognize it while it is happening, however, when we attempt to remember it, we tend to only remember the context surrounding it and not what we felt during the experience. Our lack of remembering the sensations is because when we experienced the visceral drive we did not pay attention to its sensory, intensity or affective qualities but instead paid attention to what lead to having that experience. As a result, when we try to retrieve the details of said experience we can only remember what we paid attention to (i.e., the context and not the sensations). For example in one study, participants were asked to submerge their hands in ice-cold water for 30 seconds and then asked if they would do it again for monetary compensation. Those who were told to focus on the sensation of the cold on their hands were less willing to do it again, even for monetary compensation, compared to the participants who were distracted from the sensation of the cold. So by having participants focus (i.e. pay attention) on the sensation of the pain, they were able to remember it better, which shows that we are capable of remembering the sensory, intensity, and affective qualities of pain but only if we are told to do so. Under normal circumstances, we will not do that which explains why we tend to not remember how much visceral drives affect us.

So why does this matter?

Well, the empathy gap can have real world consequences when you look at it from an interpersonal (i.e.,  your relationship or communication with other people) perspective. In other words, people have a really hard time understanding or evaluating behaviors and decisions of another person when that person is in a different state (i.e. hot or cold) than theirs. Let’s take for example the unprotected sex scenario that I talked about in my introduction. You can’t possibly understand why your friend would have unprotected sex, especially since she is so adamant on always using at least three methods of contraception. You may negatively view her and judge her. Yet, you did the same thing just a month ago. Furthermore, the empathy gap would predict that if your friend had come to you with the same story, but you just had unprotected sex, you would not have viewed her negatively. This effect was shown in one study where participants read a vignette about a woman who made a racial slur and were told that this was due to lack of sleep from caring for her baby. Participants who were made to feel the similar tired state as the woman in the vignette rated said woman more positively than participants who were not made to feel tired. Therefore, by being in the same state as the woman depicted in the vignette, participants were able to put themselves in the woman’s shoes and understand better why she made a racial slur. Similarly, by being in an aroused state or by having had unprotected sex minutes before your friend comes to see you, you can better understand where she is coming from and you will be less likely to judge her.

Maybe you should try it then… Source: splinternews.com

However, the empathy gap can have more serious implications and negative outcomes than just not being a supportive friend. In a famous study by Nordgren, McDonnell, & Loewenstein (2011) participants were asked to judge a specific interrogation method as being either enhanced interrogation or torture. For example, participants had to submerge one arm in a bucket of ice water so that they could experience pain that is similar to the cold cell interrogation method. Results showed that when participants had to judge the interrogation form while experiencing the pain, they said the cold cell interrogation method was a form of torture. However, when participants did not have to submerge their arm in ice water or they did but it was 10 minutes before being asked, they said the cold cell interrogation method was not a form of torture. So this study further proved two of my points. The first one being that we really do not truly understand what others are going through unless we are ourself going through it at the same time. The second point being that we really don’t remember the sensory side of our visceral experiences since only after 10 minutes of wait time we have already forgotten what kind of pain we were in. Finally this study as a whole begs the question: how many interrogation methods in our country are currently being used that in reality should be outlawed? Answer: probably way too many…

So, what can you do with all this information?

Lot harder than you thought. Source: lardwantsworldpeace.wordpress.com

Well the take home message here is: next time someone asks you to walk a mile in their shoes, you might just have to literally walk a mile in their shoes. Because unless you are in the same state as them, you will never truly understand why they made that decision or behaved in that way. As for walking a mile in your own shoes, well, the only advice I can give you is don’t be so quick to dismiss your emotional and physical state when they drive your responses. Take a moment to think through what you’re feeling and weigh the pros and cons. At the end of the day, a few extra groceries aren’t the end of the world, however, when it comes to deciding if an interrogation method should or should not be prohibited, I would hope we would take the time to consider its life-altering impact on others.



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

Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on Behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes65(3), 272-292. https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.1996.0028

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 Psychology93(1), 75. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.93.1.75

Nordgren, L. F., McDonnell, M. H. M., & Loewenstein, G. (2011). What constitutes torture? Psychological impediments to an objective evaluation of enhanced interrogation tactics. Psychological Science22(5), 689-694. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611405679

Read, D., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Enduring pain for money: Decisions based on the perception and memory of pain. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making12(1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(199903)12:1<1::AID-BDM310>3.0.CO;2-V



  1. December 6th, 2019 at 10:14 | #1

    Wow, I really liked this article! I’ve never thought about the impact that my own emotional state has on my perceptions of other people and their actions. I think it was interesting how there were two different kinds of empathy gaps, one where you’re in the heat of the moment (like the grocery store) and one where you’re removed from that moment (like the picture with the torture vs. interrogation article). I think this could explain why it’s recommended that you don’t make big or hard decisions in the moment and instead are told to “sleep on it”. Taking that extra time to think resets your emotional state so you can see the situation from both sides of the empathy gap and walk that mile in your own shoes.

  2. ajdela21
    December 16th, 2019 at 18:24 | #2

    I really enjoyed this article because I have definitely fallen victim to the empathy gap when doing some grocery shopping. It’s really interesting that you point out how we don’t really remember sensory information related to our visceral experiences but that we remember the context surrounding that event. It made me think about how we tend to remember things with meaning or look for meaning in our encounters and it seems like we maybe overlook the details to the sensory information because we find more meaning in the event linked to that visceral experience rather than the actual feeling of the visceral experience– I mean, I didn’t even think to pair my emotions with my actions in minor parts of my everyday life (like grocery shopping), much less remember what I felt like whilst performing these tasks.

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