We all know the idiom, but researchers at the University of Buffalo say there’s more to empathy than just walking a mile in a person’s shoes. In fact, mentally placing yourself in a person’s position may be more distressing than it is helpful. The healthiest way to empathize with someone, researchers say, is to consider how a person might feel without picturing yourself in their experience.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, says that there are two routes to empathy: imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT) and imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT). IOPT is the healthier way to empathize with people, by observing what someone feels and making inferences on how to treat them based on that. With ISPT, on the other hand, the empathizer takes on the feelings of another person. This can be especially distressing when taking on feelings of grief, anger, and sadness.
“I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant,” Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University of Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive (IOPT).”
The goal of this study, of course, is not to deter people from being empathetic. Empathy helps us help others. Changing the way we approach empathy can be useful for everyone, Poulin says, but it’s especially helpful for people in the medical profession. Burnout happens, but IOPT can help compartmentalize the emotions that doctors and nurses sometimes take on when interacting with patients.
“Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers,” Poulin said. “That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients’ shoes. Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden.”