The Empathy Gap: Why People Fail to Understand Different Perspectives

The Empathy Gap

 

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state, or to struggle to consider how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making. Essentially, the empathy gap means that when people are in a certain mental state (e.g. happy or angry), they struggle to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different mental state, whether that person is their future self or someone else.

For example, if a person is currently feeling calm, the empathy gap can cause them to struggle to predict how they will act when they’re angry. Similarly, if a person who is on a diet is currently full, the empathy gap can cause them to struggle to assess how well they will be able to handle the temptation to eat when they’re hungry.

Furthermore, when it comes to misjudging other people’s perspective, the empathy gap can cause someone who feels safe to struggle to imagine the perspective of someone who feels scared. Similarly, the empathy gap can cause someone who is looking for a fight to struggle to imagine the perspective of someone who is looking for a peaceful solution.

Overall, the empathy gap has serious implications when it comes to interpreting and predicting people’s behavior, including your own, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the empathy gap, and see what you can do in order to account for its impact.

 

Examples of empathy gaps

Examples of empathy gaps appear in a variety of situations and take various forms.

When it comes to misjudging our own emotions and behaviors, the empathy gap can, for example, cause us to:

  • Overestimate our ability to stay composed in an upcoming stressful event, if we’re currently calm.
  • Overestimate the likelihood that we will be able to stop consuming an addictive substance, such as coffee, if we just consumed it so we’re not feeling cravings at the moment.
  • Underestimate how much our feelings for someone affected our judgment in the past, if we no longer have feelings for that person.

When it comes to misjudging the emotions and behaviors of others, the empathy gap can, for example, cause us to:

  • Struggle to understand why someone who is nervous about something acted the way that they did, if we don’t share their feelings on the topic.
  • Struggle to see that someone doesn’t necessarily have the same feelings toward us as we have toward them.
  • Struggle to predict how a person will act when they’re angry about something, if we’re currently calm.

A notable example of how the empathy gap can influence people is that it can cause them to underestimate the influence of visceral drives on their decision-making, when it comes to factors such as hunger, desire, fear, or pain. This happens primarily when people believe that they will act in a rational and controlled manner in a certain situation, but end up failing to do so due to the influence of their visceral drives, which they weren’t actively experiencing when they were thinking about the future.

Accordingly, the empathy gap can cause people to be unprepared for situations where they are affected by various visceral drives that cause them to do things that satisfy their instincts, urges, and cravings in the short-term, but that also fail to help them accomplish their long-term goals, or to act in the way that they would ideally prefer. The influence of the empathy gap in such cases can be so powerful that people often continue to assume that they will be able to handle a certain type of situation properly, even if they have been repeatedly proven to be wrong about this in the past.

 

Types of empathy gaps

There are several criteria that can be used in order to categorize the different types of empathy gaps.

First, there is the hot/cold distinction, which distinguishes between two types of empathy gaps:

  • Cold-to-hot empathy gaps. A cold-to-hot empathy gap occurs when someone is in a cold (emotionally neutral) state, and has trouble understanding someone in a hot (emotional) state, generally as a result of underestimating the influence that emotions, impulses, and visceral drives have on the individual in the hot state. For example, someone who is currently calm might experience a cold-to-hot empathy gap when trying to predict how they will act in a situation where they’re upset.
  • Hot-to-cold empathy gaps. A hot-to-cold empathy gap occurs when someone is in a hot (emotional) state, and has trouble understanding someone in a cold (emotionally neutral) state, generally as a result of underestimating the influence that emotions, impulses, and visceral drives have on them at the moment. For example, someone who is currently passionate about some topic might experience a hot-to-cold empathy gap when trying to understand how other people feel about this topic, if they’re not as passionate about it.

In addition, empathy gaps are often also categorized based on two other notable criteria:

  • Intrapersonal/interpersonal bias. An intrapersonal empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they consider their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Conversely, an interpersonal empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they try to consider someone else’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Retrospective/prospective bias. A retrospective empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they think about things that happened in the past. Conversely, a prospective empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they think about things that will happen in the future.

Each empathy gap can be categorized based on these three criteria. For example:

  • A situation where you fail to understand why you acted in an emotional manner in the past (e.g. why you failed to perform well during a stressful interview), involves a cold-to-hot, intrapersonal, retrospective empathy gap.
  • A situation where you are emotional about something and fail to predict the future behavior of someone who doesn’t care about the same thing as much (e.g. if you’re planning a romantic gesture toward someone who isn’t interested in it), involves a hot-to-cold, interpersonal, prospective empathy gap.

Overall, empathy gaps can be categorized based on whether they’re cold-to-hot or hot-to-cold, whether they’re intrapersonal or interpersonal, and whether they’re retrospective or prospective. All these types of empathy gaps have one thing in common: they involve a struggle to understand mental states that are different than our present state, as well as a similar struggle to understand how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making.

 

The outgroup empathy gap

The outgroup empathy gap (also referred to as the intergroup empathy gap) is a cognitive bias that causes people to be more empathic toward members of their ingroup than toward people in their outgroup. Essentially, this means that people are more likely to understand and share the mental state of those that they identify with and view as part of their social group.

For example, the outgroup empathy gap means that people are less likely to show empathy toward people who are of a different race or who have a different political affiliation.

The outgroup empathy gap can therefore be viewed as a separate type of empathy gap, whereas the other types of empathy gaps mentioned earlier (e.g. intrapersonal/interpersonal) can be viewed as closely related subtypes of the same underlying phenomenon.

 

Why people experience empathy gaps

The main reason why people experience empathy gaps is that human cognition is state-dependent, meaning that the way we process information and make decisions strongly depends on our mental state at the time.

For example, when we feel full, it’s hard for us to predict how we will behave when we are hungry, since our current mental state is so different. Essentially, in this example, the issue is that it’s difficult for us to imagine how we will feel when we crave something we enjoy, at a time when we are at a mental state where that craving is weak, and especially immediately after we have satisfied that craving.

The same principle applies to other situations. For example, when we are angry about something, we struggle to imagine the perception of someone who doesn’t care about the same thing, because we are at a distinctly different mental state than they are, and because we generally find it difficult to adjust from the anchor of our current mental state in order to account for that.

In addition, there are some further causes for empathy gaps, that play a role in specific situations. For example, empathy gaps toward people in one’s outgroup have been attributed to the need to form boundaries around one’s social group, in order to regulate to whom one extends trust and help.

Furthermore, some factors can increase the likelihood that we will experience the empathy gap in certain situations. For example, anxiety can increase the empathy gap toward people that are perceived as belonging to a different social group.

Overall, the main reason why people experience empathy gaps is that human cognition is state-dependent, meaning that it is strongly affected by our current mental state, which makes it difficult to properly evaluate other mental states, or to predict their influence. In addition, empathy gaps can be prompted by additional factors in certain cases, such as increased anxiety.

Note: in some cases, the term ’empathy gap’ is used in a more general sense, to refer to the inability to show empathy toward others, or to understand their perspective, thoughts, or emotions, or behaviors. In addition, some factors, including personal factors such as trait empathy, interpersonal factors such as perceived fairness, and cultural factors such as preference for social hierarchy, can also influence the likelihood that people will display either empathy or this type of generalized empathy gap.

 

How to handle empathy gaps

So far, we saw what the empathy gap is and why it can be problematic. Next, we will see a few techniques that you can use in order to handle the empathy gap in various situations, either by reducing it directly, or by accounting for its existence.

For the sake of clarity and brevity, these techniques are generally written with a focus on one of the main types of the empathy gap, and namely on the cold-to-hot, intrapersonal, prospective bias, which represents our difficulty to predict what we will think and do in the future, when we’re in a more emotional situation than we’re in at the present.

However, while reading about these techniques, remember that the empathy gap can play a role not only in the way we predict our future behavior, but also in the way we examine past actions, as well as in the way that we consider other people’s actions. Furthermore, the empathy gap can occur not only in a cold-to-hot direction, but also in a hot-to-cold direction, as we saw above. This is important to keep in mind, since some of the below techniques can help account for other types of empathy gaps, beyond the one that they’re focused on.

 

Visualize different mental states and perspectives

One way to minimize the empathy gap is to visualize how you will feel when you’re in a different mental state than the one you’re in at the moment. For example, when it comes to predicting your future behavior, this means that instead of just trying to figure out what you will do, you need to first try and truly understand how you will feel and what you will be thinking.

As noted above, this technique is also helpful in other scenarios, such as if you’re trying to understand someone else’s feelings and behavior. The more you can get inside their head and see things from their perspective, the better you will be able to mitigate the influence of the empathy gap.

Note: in some cases, you can also attempt to change your mental state directly. This can be useful, for example, if you’re in a hot state, and need to cool down by using relevant cooling strategies, such as distracting yourself from the thing you crave by focusing on an enjoyable but unrelated activity. However, when preparing for the future, you should generally not rely on your assumed ability to alter your mental state when the time comes, since the empathy gap will often cause you to overestimate your ability to do so.

 

Explain the different perspective

In some cases, and particularly when trying to reduce someone else’s empathy gap, it can be beneficial to explain different perspectives than the one that someone is experiencing at the moment.

For example, if someone is displaying an empathy gap toward others, and fails to understand why they’re acting the way they are, you can explain to that person the rationale behind the actions in question, and how the people in question feel. Furthermore, you can ask the person who is displaying the empathy gap to try and explain those actions themself, for instance by coming up with one or two reasons why those people may be acting the way they’re acting.

 

Think about how others would act

If you’re trying to account for the empathy gap when it comes to predicting your own behavior, it can sometimes help to imagine how other people would act under the same circumstances.

For example, instead of asking yourself whether you will be able to stick with a certain diet, ask yourself how likely someone else would be to stick with that diet, under the same set of circumstances that you’re in. This can be beneficial, since it allows you to analyze the situation in a more detached and emotionally neutral manner, which reduces the likelihood that your predictions will be distorted by wishful thinking.

 

Consider past actions

When it comes to empathy gaps that we experience when we try to predict our future thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we often ignore our past, despite it generally being a strong indicator of how we’re most likely to think, feel, or act.

For example, consider a situation where you’re someone who wants to stick with their diet, and one of your goals is to avoid eating unhealthy snacks while at work. However, you know that every day, around noon, you go to get some coffee from the breakroom, and end up also eating one of the fresh pastries that they keep there, meaning that you fail to maintain your diet.

Because of the empathy gap, in such a situation you might overestimate your ability to resist those pastries, even if you’ve already failed to do so many times in the past. This is because, when you choose to eat them, it’s usually at a time when you’re feeling hungry and are directly in front of the tempting food, but when you’re thinking about avoiding that temptation, it’s usually at a time when you are feeling full and don’t have the temptation in sight.

Accordingly, to avoid this issue, where you keep repeating the same mistake due to the way that the empathy gap influences your planning, you can examine your past actions, and see how you truly act when you’re in a different emotional state, rather than how you think and hope you will act. This will enable you to accurately predict your future thoughts and behaviors, and will help you prepare yourself accordingly.

In the case of breaking your diet, for example, examining your past behavior could allow you to realize that if you go into the break room hungry, then you’re probably going to eat unhealthy pastries, even if you wish that wasn’t the case. Then, instead of continuously engaging in the same detrimental behavior, you could modify your actions in order to behave in a way that will allow you to accomplish your goal.

For instance, you could decide to eat a small healthy snack before you go into the break room, which could reduce the impact that hunger has on you when it comes to resisting that pastry. Alternatively, you could decide to bring some coffee with you to work, and avoid going into the break room at all during the time when the pastries are there.

Overall, the important thing to remember with regard to this technique is that when trying to predict your future behavior, you shouldn’t just try to imagine what you would ideally like your future behavior to be like, since the empathy gap will often cause you to overestimate the likelihood that you will actually behave that way. Instead, look at how you acted in similar situations in the past, in order to get an accurate picture of how you will likely act in the future, and then try to account for any empathy gaps you might have, so you can prepare for the future accordingly.

Note that, as with other debiasing techniques, looking at past actions can also help you reduce your empathy gap when it comes to predicting the behavior of others. That is, instead of trying to predict how people will act based on what you want to believe they will do, try to look at how they actually acted in the past, in order to get a more accurate picture of what their future behavior will likely look like.

 

Use other debiasing techniques

Since the empathy gap is a cognitive bias that we experience due to the way that our cognitive system works, it can be countered using the same debiasing techniques that are used in order to counter similar biases. Such techniques include, for example, increasing your awareness of the bias, slowing down your reasoning process, and increasing your personal accountability for the decisions that you make.

Note: when it comes to dealing with the empathy gap, a related cognitive bias that’s worth learning about is the egocentric bias, which causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they examine events in their life or when they try to see things from other people’s perspective. Understanding the egocentric bias and the debiasing techniques that are used to overcome it can be beneficial, due to the similarity between this bias and the empathy gap.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state, or to struggle to consider how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making.
  • The main reason people experience empathy gaps is that human cognition is state-dependent, meaning that it is strongly affected by our current mental state, which makes it difficult to properly evaluate other mental states, or to predict their influence.
  • Cold-to-hot empathy gaps occur when someone is in a cold (emotionally neutral) state, and has trouble understanding someone in a hot (emotional) state; conversely, hot-to-cold empathy gaps occur when someone is in a hot state, and has trouble understanding someone in a cold state.
  • Empathy gaps can be intrapersonal or interpersonal, meaning that they can occur when we consider our own or someone else’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors; they can also be retrospective or prospective, meaning that they can occur when we consider things that have happened in the past or will happen in the future.
  • You can use various techniques to reduce empathy gaps or account for their influence, including visualizing different mental states and perspectives, thinking about how others would act in similar situations, considering past actions, and using general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process.