Anxiety interferes with the ability to take other people’s perspective, new research reveals.
Anxiety makes people focus more on themselves and reduces their empathy for others, psychologists have found.
The study’s results may help explain why anxiety can be such an isolating emotion.
The conclusions come from a series of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Todd et al., 2015).
For the research, people were made anxious by recounting a nervous moment from their past.
Then they were given a series of tests.
In one they were shown a picture of a person with a book next to them.
They were asked to say which side it was on.
Although the book was on the man in the picture’s left-hand-side, it was on the viewer’s right-hand side.
In other words: whether you see the book on the right or the left depends on whose perspective you are taking.
Over half of non-anxious people said the book was on the left, indicating they’d taken the other person’s perspective.
But, of the anxious people, only about one-quarter took the other person’s perspective.
The study’s authors concluded:
“…anxious participants displayed greater egocentrism in their mental-state reasoning: They were more likely to describe an object using their own spatial perspective, had more difficulty resisting egocentric interference when identifying an object from others’ spatial perspectives, and relied more heavily on privileged knowledge when inferring others’ beliefs.”
And they don’t think these results are explained by anxiety being a negative emotion.
The restricted empathy seems to be a unique effect of anxiety:
“…the egocentric effect of anxiety cannot be explained by the combination of negative valence and high arousal alone; rather, it seems that feeling anxious uniquely led to an increased reliance on one’s own egocentric perspective, to the detriment of understanding others’ viewpoints.”
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