Anxiety Makes People Less Empathetic, New Study Finds, So That's Unfortunate

You might be familiar with some of the symptoms of being anxious — sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, tense muscles — but it turns out there's another, less obvious side effect as well. New research suggests that anxious people are less empathetic and more unable to picture themselves in someone else's shoes. Which is unfortunate, but also makes a strange amount of sense. Here's the lowdown on how anxiety might affect empathy.

The Study:

In a new study conduced by researchers from the University of Iowa, participants were tested as to how well they were able to think from another person's perspective. First, however, some of the participants were asked to recall in detail incidents that had provoked a great deal of anxiety, while others were asked to write about either neutral events or events that had provoked anger or disgust.

After they had been primed in this way, participants went through two tests to gauge their ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes. In the first test, participants were shown a picture of a person with a book and asked on which side of the person the book was. From the participants' perspective the book was to the right, but from the perspective of the person in the photograph, the book was on the left. This meant that both answers were correct; how people answered, therefore, was indicative of whose perspective they were considering.

In the second test, participants were given the following scenario: Nick, an incoming freshman, emails his friend David, a sophomore, to ask if he should take a class with Professor Jones. Unbeknownst to Nick, Professor Jones has been rude to David in the past. David replies, “Oh yeah, Professor Jones is a real nice guy.” Knowing what they know about David and Professor Jones, participants will recognize that the email is sarcastic, but participants are asked how Nick will take the email, to see how well they can see from his perspective.

The Results:

So how did people do? Well, in the first test, the people who were primed to have their anxiety levels elevated were more likely to list the book's location from their own perspective than those who were primed with other emotions. And in the second test, people in the anxious condition were more likely to report that Nick would pick up on the sarcasm, meaning they were less likely to fully imagine the situation from his perspective. Whether this means anxious people are more unable or just more unwilling to shift their perspectives is unclear; based on this research, though, it seems that being anxious makes it harder to be empathetic.

This is obviously a kind of sucky finding — after all, times when we're more likely to be anxious are also times when it would probably be useful to see things from other people's perspective (first dates come to mind, for example). But it does make a certain amount of sense, too — after all, anxiety usually happens when our brains have decided, rightly or wrongly, that we are in trouble. Whether you're going to do some public speaking or be a contestant in the Hunger Games, anxiety tells us that something bad is coming and prompts us to protect ourselves. So it makes sense that our brains wouldn't prioritize empathizing with other people under those circumstances. The trouble is that it creates a nasty positive feedback loop where people have more difficulty connecting with people at times when they need to, thus making things go badly and provoking more anxiety.

The research doesn't suggest how anxious people can avoid this problem, but if you're someone with an anxiety attack, chances are just being aware of this tendency and finding ways to recognize when it's happening can help.

So best of luck, everyone, and remember: deep breaths.

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