Failures of Empathy: We all do it

Imagine that your absolute rival sports team is in the league championship. In fact, they beat your own favorite team to do so. In the final minutes of the championship, though, your enemy team blows the game and they lose in a whirlwind fashion. The television camera pans to their players and fans, downtrodden and defeated. How bad do you feel for them? Likely not very. You may even experience a glint of joy at their anguish. As a Yankees fan that grew up, and now lives again, in the heart of Red Sox nation, I can admit to you I am pretty consistently both the target and the perpetrator of this.

Empathy is a psychological process that involves the ability to put oneself in the “mental shoes” of another individual to understand his or her thoughts, emotions, or feelings (Goldman, 1993). This often results in the perceiver experiencing similar emotions as the person they are observing (e.g. feeling distress at another person’s distress). In the above example, a person would be engaging in empathic processes if they experience some anguish themselves from recognizing the heartbreak of the fans.

Within the scientific literature, empathy is regularly presented as an automatic process, occurring easily and often, due to our evolutionary roots as social animals (Decety, 2011). More recently, however, research in psychology and neuroscience has started to focus on situations that suggest it may not be automatic—situations in which we fail to show empathy towards other individuals. The interest in this topic is largely driven by the fact that failures in empathy have the potential to result in serious consequences.

But what drives this disregard, sometimes even pleasure, at someone else’s suffering?  For this blog series, I will be exploring different contexts under which failures in empathy occur, as well as the possible underlying neural and psychological bases underlying this phenomenon.

When Our Goals Take Priority:

In 2012, a certain photograph went viral. Shot by Lucas Jackson (Reuters), it depicts three young women attending New York Fashion Week posing just adjacent to a homeless man. It is safe to say these women are not in the midst of an empathic ordeal. The Guardian deemed this one of the most important photographs of the year. Perhaps the reason this photo became so impactful was that we, the public, were so shocked and outraged at the failure of empathy demonstrated by these women. But, if I may be so bold, we are all guilty of this. In posts to come, I will discuss how “abnormal” individuals (e.g. psychopaths) often exhibit behavior consistent with a lack of empathy, but frankly, this is truly not a phenomenon exclusive to those with a DSM diagnosis.  Many of us, for example, regularly pass homeless individuals on the street without acknowledgment. In this post, I will explore how certain goals, motivations, and mindsets can cause everyday individuals to produce failures of empathy.


Fashionistas pose for photographs in front of a homeless man outside Moynihan Station following a showing of the Rag & Bone Spring/Summer 2013 collection during New York Fashion Week


The degree to which we may feel empathic towards another person depends greatly on the characteristics of that individual. I am much more likely, for example, to feel bad for disappointed Mets fans (who, let’s be honest, are never really a threat) than disappointed Red Sox fans. In one study by Guo et al. (2012), they tested the degree to which a target’s financial situation impacted how much empathy people felt towards that target. In the study, they showed participants pictures of individuals in painful situations (e.g. having their ear pricked by a needle or their finger cut by a knife). Before this, however, they told the participants that the person in pain they were viewing had either receives a large sum of money, or no money, before their painful experience. While the participants viewed these pictures, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tracked the brain activity of the participants.

Interestingly, the authors found that many areas in the brain that are involved in empathy, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC), insula, and posterior cingulate gyrus (PCG) were significantly less activated when viewing the “rich” participants versus the “poor” participants. While these results could be interpreted as simply feeling worse about the pain of the people in an unfavorable situation, it could also be the product of strategically not feeling sorry about the pain of people in a favorable situation. Similar to the social psychological concept of upward social comparison (Festinger, 1954), it damages our self-esteem to compare ourselves with those who are better off than us. Therefore, demonstrating less empathy towards the “rich” individuals may have actually been less about feeling worse for the “poor” individuals, and more about the participants themselves protecting their own self-esteem.

Other aspects that could greatly impact the degree of empathy activation are the characteristics of the perceiver. For example, much research has been dedicated to examining how individuals with high levels of social power often experience low levels of empathic concern towards others (see Magee & Smith, 2013 for a review). Recently, one investigation has attempted to pinpoint the neural bases of the negative relationship between power and empathy. Hogeveen, Inzlicht, and Obhi (2013) found that in powerful people, the regions of the brain affiliated with observing the actions of other people were less activated than in less powerful people. This suggests that high, relative to low, levels of power may engender reduced processing of others’ actions. The fact that power is negatively related to empathy is particularly concerning, considering the significant influence and control people in high power positions have over others.

The last example I will present to you demonstrates how failures of empathy can sometimes prove to be beneficial. If feeling distress at another’s suffering hinders performance in certain tasks, a lack of empathy activation is actually functional, and necessary. One particularly relevant example of this is of physicians. For a doctor, becoming highly distressed at each occurrence of another person’s suffering would be highly counter-productive. Accordingly, Decety, Yang, and Cheng (2010) examined the neural differences between physicians and non-physicians when viewing another individual in pain. Using electroencephalography, or EEG, (a method in which electrodes are placed on the scalp to measure electrical brain activity), they found that in physicians, the electrical brain activity associated both with the emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy were practically non-existent. While this effect could partially be due to expertise (the fact that doctors are more accustomed to seeing others in pain), it is striking that physicians may be able to actively regulate empathy activation in order to excel in their work.

In this post, I have argued that failures of empathy occur in regular people, in everyday situations. In the next post, however, I will switch gears to explore how this phenomenon manifests itself in “abnormal” individuals. Stay tuned!



Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35-45.

Decety, J., Yang, C. Y., & Cheng, Y. (2010). Physicians down regulate their pain empathy response: An event-related brain potential study. NeuroImage, 50, 1676-1682.

Festinger, L. (1954) A theory of social comparison processes, Human Relations 7, 117-40.

Goldman, A. (1993) Ethics and cognitive science. Ethics 103, 337–360.

Guo X, Zheng L, Zhang W, Zhu L, Li J, et al. (2012) Empathic neural responses to others’ pain depend on monetary reward. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 535–541.

Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M., Obhi, S.S. (2013) Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2):755-62.

Magee, J. C., & Smith, P. K. (2013). The social distance theory of power. Personality and Social  Psychology Review, 17, 158-186.



2 thoughts on “Failures of Empathy: We all do it

  1. Um, does Keith know you’re a Yankees fan? 🙂

    Interesting to think about the concept you talked about in the context of the physicians, namely being “able to actively regulate empathy activation.” I’m curious about intersections between empathy and emotion regulation and wonder if it’s possible to disentangle the two. Is it possible to feel a high level of empathy and yet successfully regulate the negative emotions you might be feeling in response to another person’s pain or distress?

  2. Ha, I haven’t *explicitly* told him, but I haven’t hidden it either. I knew it would come out someday! I’ll brace myself.

    And exactly! The intersection between empathy activation and emotion regulation is a major interest of mine, and something I hope we might be able to address with our attention project. Do people feel empathy towards outgroup individuals, but then use emotion regulation strategies (such as attention deployment, reappraisal, or others) to regulate this empathy?

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