LivingWhy are we not empathic? Because we are lazy

Why are we not empathic? Because we are lazy

We are not empathic, for lazy.

Part of the success of human civilization lies in empathy, in building a community, in cooperation. However, it is clear that humans do not show empathy towards all our fellow humans , but only towards those we love and, furthermore, towards those with whom we have to live.

But, if empathy in theory is survival instinct, why aren’t we more empathetic? Why are there no massive donations to charity, fraternity worldwide… and instead the human confrontation continues?

Governmental and economic interests aside, humanity is sometimes not empathetic. A study released by the American Psychological Association has come to an interesting conclusion about why those of us who don’t put ourselves in each other’s shoes more often.

The reason: it takes too much mental effort

“Many people commonly assume that people suppress feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or expensive, such as donating to charities,” explains lead researcher Dr. C. Daryl Cameron. “But we found that the main reason is that people don’t want to make the mental effort to empathize with others, even when it comes to positive emotions.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology included 11 experiments with more than 1,200 participants.


The researchers designed a “selective empathy task” to test whether cognitive costs or mental effort could deter empathy. During a series of trials, the researchers used two decks of cards that featured grim photos of refugee children.

For a deck, participants were told to describe the physical characteristics of the person on the card. For the other cover, they were told to try to empathize with the person in the photo and to think about what that person was feeling. Each participant could freely choose from each deck in each test.

In all experiments, participants chose to show empathy only 35% of the time , showing a strong preference for the mallet that did not require empathy.

In some additional experiments, the researchers used platforms that displayed images of sad or smiling people. When given the option to choose between the covers, the participants constantly selected the covers that did not require empathy, even among the group of photos of happy people.

“We saw a strong preference for avoiding empathy even when someone was expressing joy,” acknowledges Cameron.

To avoid bias, no one was asked to donate time or money to help refugee children or anyone else.

In the survey questions after each experiment, most participants recognized that empathy was more challenging , cognitively, because it required more effort than simply describing the physical characteristics of other people.

The participants who most avoided empathy during the experiment also recognized that empathy is a requirement , or they felt insecure, irritated or distressed at the idea of experiencing it.

Can you manipulate empathy?

Participants who were told they had empathy skills were more likely to select cards from the empathy deck, and they also later stated that empathy required less mental effort.

Cameron that the cognitive costs of empathy might cause people to avoid it, but it might be possible to increase empathy through positive reinforcement.

“If we can change people’s motivations to be more empathetic, that could be good news for society in general,” says the researcher. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and victims of natural disasters.”


“Empathy Is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 18 APR 2019 doi: 10.1037 / xge0000595.

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