When it comes to empathy, "walking a mile in their shoes" might be a bad idea, according to a new study. "That's because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other," said co-author Michael Poulin from University at Buffalo.
The study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone, based on stress physiology measures, adds a new and previously unexplored dimension to understanding how choosing a path to empathy can affect a helper's health and well-being. The study's conclusions provide important insights into areas ranging from training doctors to raising children.
‘New research adds a new and previously unexplored dimension to understanding how choosing a path to empathy can affect a helper's health and well-being.’
The routes to empathy, Poulin mentioned, diverge at the point of the helper's perspective. The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another. One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other way to empathize is for helpers to put themselves into someone else's situation, the imagined "walking a mile" scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT). "You can think about another person's feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT)," noted Poulin.
"But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT). "I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else's burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant. On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it's possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person's feelings without it being aversive (IOPT)." "Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers," he pointed out.
"That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients' shoes. "Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden." Parents might even consider the study's finding when thinking about how they speaking to their children in certain circumstances. "Rather than saying to a child, 'How would you feel if that were done to you?' maybe we should be saying, 'Think about how that person is feeling.'" The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.