Contrary to the common view of empathy as an emotion solely eliciting compassion and warmth, empathy can unexpectedly motivate aggression.
The result comes from a new study which found that when feeling empathy towards someone in distress, people are motivated to be more aggressive towards another, even when that other person is not to blame.
The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, had people reading scenarios about a person who was in financial trouble (Buffone & Poulin, 2014).
For some participants, the person was described as being distressed about their financial troubles.
Others read a slightly different scenario in which the person was not worried about their financial troubles.
Then they were told this person was in competition with another for a $20 prize in a math test.
Under the guise of an apparently separate experiment, though, participants could feed this competitor some hot sauce.
The study’s lead author, Anneke Buffone, explains:
“Hot sauce was described to them as a clearly painful and performance hindering substance, meaning that the more hot sauce they assigned, the worse the anonymous person would do on the task…and presumably, the more likely that the person with financial troubles could win.”
The results showed that when the person with financial troubles was distressed, people in the study administered more notional hot sauce to their competitor, despite this competitor being blameless.
Empathy had made them more aggressive — and it wasn’t because they were impulsive participants or feeling under threat.
Empathy alone was enough to motivate aggressive behaviour.
Ms Buffone continued:
“We think that among situational motivators of aggression, witnessing the suffering or need of others people have come to care about has been largely overlooked.
…anyone can act aggressively out of an empathic impulse, not just those with a certain personality.”
The authors conclude:
“Just as the self-esteem movement was not a panacea leading to happy, successful, and well-adapted children, […] empathy interventions may not stop problems such as bullying and other forms of aggression and violence, because aggression itself may result from empathy.” (Buffone & Poulin, 2014).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Sean MacEntee