New research debunks misconceptions of how – and when – we empathize with others

A new UTSC study finds that in daily life individuals usually empathize with those they are close with, and empathize with positive emotions about three times as often as negative emotions (Getty Image by Carol Yepes)

Tina Adamopoulos

Empathy is fundamental to maintaining meaningful and healthy relationships, making it a big part of our daily lives.


Now, a new U of T Scarborough study is helping us rethink how we engage with empathy – that is our ability to sense and understand someone else’s emotions - while debunking some common misconceptions along the way.


“We want to get a description of empathy by looking at it in everyday life, across different emotions and social contexts,” says Greg Depow, a PhD student studying social psychology at U of T Scarborough.


“We want to study empathy more in environments closer to how it is actually experienced in real life.”


The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at perceptions of empathy in 246 American adults. Depow says one goal of the research is to fill in the gaps from previous work to offer a deeper, authentic view of empathy. This was done by looking at who is more likely to be empathetic and how often we take the opportunity to empathize per day. The research also looked at how this impacts subjective well-being, which is the scientific term for happiness and sense of purpose in life.


What opportunities do we take to empathize?


Recognizing the opportunity to empathize is the first step to understanding how we truly take time to understand someone’s feelings. Empathy opportunities happen when you observe the emotions of another person or stranger. This can be done in person or even on social media, for example, when you notice a friend’s emotional status or posts.


The researchers found that people will empathize when they recognize the opportunity to do so, but often notice other people’s emotions without flagging them as empathy opportunities.


“People were seeing these emotional experiences of other people, but weren’t flagging them as opportunities to empathize. If you crunch the numbers a bit, it seems as though a third of emotions people see in daily life are not seen as empathy opportunities,” Depow says.


Learning what differentiates missed and flagged opportunities may be key to learning how to recognize and provide empathy opportunities more successfully.


“One thing that I’m interested in is differentiating missed opportunities from the ones people are noticing. This is important because people may be missing opportunities to connect with others and promote happiness for both parties.”

Greg Depow
Greg Depow is a PhD student studying social psychology at U of T Scarborough.

How does empathy affect us?


Overall, empathy is associated with healthy well-being, but that could be linked to the emotions people tend to empathize with.


Previous studies have typically focused on how empathy is measured based on the suffering of strangers and its effects on the empathizer, like burnout. But it turns out, people are three times more likely to empathize with positive emotions than negative ones.


“If I look just at negative emotions that people are empathizing with, that’s actually associated with reduced subjective wellbeing,” Depow says. “Because people are empathizing with positive emotions three times as often, overall empathy is associated with increased subjective well-being.”


Who we empathize with is also an important factor. While most studies tend to focus on how people empathize with strangers, Depow says the evidence shows that people are more likely to support those who are close.


“We’re often using it to engage with close others. We do have some data wherein six per cent of occasions, people empathize with a complete stranger.”


Depow adds that confidence is also something that affects our experiences with empathy. People who are confident about their experiences seem to experience increased subjective well-being.


“People find empathy difficult more or less in different situations and that seems to change people’s experience of empathy and the extent to which they empathize.”


The researchers also found that receiving empathy may make us more receptive to empathizing with others. When people empathized in one instance, they were no more or less likely to notice another opportunity to empathize at their next opportunity. However, when people receive empathy in one instance, they were subsequently more likely to notice an opportunity to empathize with someone else.


Looking forward, Depow is looking at how specific parts of the empathy experience may be beneficial in certain emotional situations. For example, it may be beneficial to focus on sharing emotions when they’re positive, and caring about emotions when they’re negative.