AICE researchers Jacob Israelashvili, Disa Sauter, and Agneta Fischer published a new paper on empathic process that help people recognize others' feelings more accurately.
Empathizing with others is widely presumed to increase our understanding of their emotions. Little is known, however, about which empathic process actually help people recognize others' feelings more accurately.
In a new paper, Jacob Israelashvili, Disa Sauter, and Agneta Fischer probed the relationship between emotion recognition and two empathic processes: spontaneously felt similarity (having had a similar experience) and deliberate perspective taking (focus on the other vs. oneself). They report four studies in which participants (total N = 803) watched videos of targets sharing genuine negative emotional experiences. Participants' multi-scalar ratings of the targets' emotions were compared with the targets' own emotion ratings. In Study 1 they found that having had a similar experience to what the target was sharing was associated with lower recognition of the target's emotions. Study 2 replicated the same pattern and in addition showed that making participants' own imagined reaction to the described event salient resulted in further reduced accuracy. Studies 3 and 4 were preregistered replications and extensions of Studies 1 and 2, in which they observed the same outcome using a different stimulus set, indicating the robustness of the finding. Moreover, Study 4 directly investigated the underlying mechanism of the observed effect. Findings showed that perceivers who have had a negative life experience similar to the emotional event described in the video felt greater personal distress after watching the video, which in part explained their reduced accuracy. These results provide the first demonstration that spontaneous empathy, evoked by similarity in negative experiences, may inhibit rather than increase our understanding of others' emotions.