If you had to explain the concept of empathy to an unfeeling alien, by some convergence of circumstances I'll leave up to your imagination, how would you approach it? You'd probably say something about putting yourself in someone else's shoes. For most people, that's the first thing that comes to mind when they think about empathy. According to research, though, different types of empathy exist, and they're not all created equal. In fact, one type might even harm the person doing the empathizing.
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at how different approaches to empathy influence health. The study identified two routes to empathize: reflecting on how someone feels, or imagining how you would feel in their situation. Both evoke feelings of empathy, but the latter is far more personal.
To see if either approach had any health effects, researchers put more than 200 college students in an experiment intended to induce empathy. Participants were given texts supposedly written by someone else in the study. In the statement, the (fake) student described the troubled life they'd led — financial issues after a car accident, caring for their younger sibling, and losing their mother years ago. (Talk about bad luck.) Afterward, participants were asked to record a video message with advice and helpful comments.
The catch? The students were unknowingly divided into three groups, each of which received slightly different instructions at the start of the study. One group was asked to focus on how the author must feel; another was told to imagine how they would feel in those circumstances — basically, to walk a mile in their shoes. The third was asked to remain objective. The first two instructions, of course, were intended to elicit the two different approaches to empathy mentioned earlier.
All the while, participants were hooked up to a machine monitoring their vitals. When researchers compared groups' health data, they found that the "mile in their shoes" group showed physiological signs of stress, as if those participants were personally anxious. The imagining-feelings group showed some signs of a stress response, but not to the same extent.
Although researchers acknowledged the importance of empathy in society, they concluded that taking on someone else's perspective can be unhealthy in the long term. "There are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other," explained co-author Michael Poulin in a press release.
He went on to point out the high levels of burnout in emotionally taxing jobs like nursing or social work; workers who take the more stressful route to empathy might reach the end of their rope sooner than someone who adopts a more removed perspective.
None of this is to say that empathy is a bad thing. It's considered a driving force behind prosocial behaviors, and on a more anecdotal level, it makes you a better friend. On the other hand, empathizing with the entire world is a monumental (read: impossible) task. Maybe it's time to show yourself some empathy and take a step back.