Researchers have found a way to identify people who might be unwittingly at greater risk of emotional contagion.
Empathic people are likely to have this personality trait.
People with the personality trait of agreeableness are more likely to be highly empathic, research finds.
Agreeable people tend to be friendly, warm and tactful — always taking into account other people’s feelings.
Agreeable people also tend to be trusting, modest, straightforward and compliant.
Psychologists have found that agreeable people are more likely to help others out — and this is partly down to empathy.
In one experiment, participants read stories about someone else having a difficult time.
Afterwards, they rated how likely they would be to help out and how much empathy they would feel for them.
The results showed that people high in agreeableness were more likely to feel empathy for the victim and to be motivated to help them out.
Interestingly, the study also found links between empathy and being neurotic, although neurotic people were more focused on themselves, while agreeable people focused on the other person.
Dr Meara Habashi, the study’s first author, said:
“It is common for persons to experience distress on seeing a victim in need of help.
That distress can lead some people to escape, and to run away from the victim.
But distress does not need to block helping because it may be one first-appearing aspect of empathy.
Distress can actually contribute to helping, but the way it contributes depends on personality.”
Less agreeable people seem to need more reminders that they should help out, said Dr Habashi:
It matters in how we structure our request for help, and it matters in how we respond to that request.
Helping is a result of several different processes running in sequence.
Each process contributes something different.
The way we ask for help -perspective taking — can influence our chances for getting it.”
The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Habashi et al., 2016).
Strangers create an ’empathy deficit’, but it can be overcome.
The strange influence of analytical thinking on the capacity for empathy.
The researchers also tested whether liberal political views are linked to high levels of empathy.
Why people with the most severe personality disorder find it difficult to have romantic relationships and friendships.
People with borderline personality disorder have deficits in brain regions related to empathy, research finds.
The finding helps explain why people with borderline personality disorder have unstable moods.
They also often have trouble maintaining relationships with others.
Dr Brian Haas, the study’s lead authors, said:
“Our results showed that people with BPD traits had reduced activity in brain regions that support empathy.
This reduced activation may suggest that people with more BPD traits have a more difficult time understanding and/or predicting how others feel, at least compared to individuals with fewer BPD traits.”
The study involved over 80 people taking a test which measured any borderline personality traits they had.
Dr Haas explained the reasoning:
“Oftentimes, borderline personality disorder is considered a binary phenomenon.
Either you have it or you don’t.
But for our study, we conceptualized and measured it in a more continuous way such that individuals can vary along a continuum of no traits to very many BPD traits.”
In the brain scanner people were given some tasks which measured the processing of emotions, along with some control tasks.
Professor Joshua Miller, study co-author, explained the results:
“We found that for those with more BPD traits, these empathetic processes aren’t as easily activated.”
Professor Miller continued:
“Borderline personality disorder is considered one of the most severe and troubling personality disorders.
BPD can make it difficult to have successful friendships and romantic relationships.
These findings could help explain why that is.”
The study was published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment (Haas et al., 2016).
A simple technique to help narcissists develop more fellow-feeling.
Narcissists aren’t much interested in other people’s suffering, or, for that matter, any of other people’s feelings.
Erica Hepper, the author of a study on the subject, explains that narcissists are:
“A bit full of themselves, self-centered, and don’t seem too concerned about the effects they have on other people.”
Research by Hepper and colleagues shows, though, that narcissists can be made to feel empathy, if given a nudge in the right direction (Hepper et al., 2014).
In the study, participants were split into two groups: ‘low narcissists’ and ‘high narcissists’.
Those high on narcissism in this study were not considered to have a clinical disorder.
“…people high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful, whereas people with NPD [narcissistic personality disorder] are inflexible and volatile, and don’t manage day-to-day life well.”
Both groups were then given a passage to read which described a relationship break-up.
As expected, the narcissists showed no empathy towards the story’s protagonists, no matter how severe the story.
This is normal for narcissists, whose interest in others is limited to garnering an audience for their antics, or for exploitation.
In another study, though, the narcissists were given a nudge in the right direction.
High- and low-narcissists then watched a 10-minute video of a woman — identified as Susan — describing her experience as a victim of domestic violence.
Sometimes, beforehand, they were instructed to empathise, with the following instruction:
“Imagine how Susan feels. Try to take her perspective in the video, imagining how she is feeling about what is happening…” (Hepper et al., 2014).
When the high-narcissists were specifically told to imagine how the victim felt, their empathy suddenly kicked in.
In comparison, those low on narcissism didn’t need to be told, so instructing them to take the victim’s perspective had no additional effect.
The researchers even confirmed these results physiologically, to check the narcissists weren’t just saying what they thought was expected of them.
The physiological measures also suggested they really were empathising, after being instructed to do so.
Hepper thinks this simple technique of reminding narcissists to take another person’s point of view can be useful:
“If we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend’s point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or sympathetic way.”
It’s not that narcissists can’t feel for others it’s that they need reminding:
“…the current findings […] imply that narcissists’ low empathy is automatic (instead of consciously suppressed or under-reported), and also that perspective-taking induces genuine change in the way that narcissists process a distressed person’s experience.” (Hepper et al., 2014).
All sorts of narratives, including literary fiction, TV shows and even certain video games could be beneficial.
Music is much more than just entertainment: it is a way for people to connect with each other.
Most people are wrong about the best way to empathise with others.
Surprisingly, systematic reasoning beats gut instinct for working out what other people are thinking and feeling.
The result is surprising as the same research found that people thought that gut instinct would triumph.
Dr Jennifer Lerner, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others – that is, to be empathically accurate.
Some are better at this than others, a difference that may be explained in part by mode of thought.
Until now, however, little was known about which mode of thought, intuitive versus systematic, offers better accuracy in perceiving another’s feelings.”
In the first of a series of studies, the psychologists found that most people believed that relying on gut instinct was the best way to read and understand other people.
Actually, though, when they checked this out scientifically, it emerged that carefully analysing information worked better.
Dr Christine Ma-Kellams, the study’s first author, said:
“Importantly, three out of the four studies presented here relied on actual professionals and managers.
This sample represents a highly relevant group for which to test empathic accuracy, given the importance of empathic accuracy for a host of workplace outcomes, including negotiations, worker satisfaction and workplace performance.”
One of the studies found that people who habitually thought systematically rather than intuitively were better at reading other people.
Another study, though, encouraged half the participants to think in a systematic way with the following instruction:
“…write about a situation in which carefully reasoning through a situation led them in the right direction and resulted in a positive outcome.”
The other group were encouraged to think intuitively.
Once again, analytical thought prevailed.
Dr Lerner said:
“The many settings in which the value of intuition is extolled — for example a job interview — may need to be reassessed with a more nuanced perspective.”
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Ma-Kellams & Lerner, 2016).