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The science of empathy—and why some people have it less than others

Empathy is hot in business wisdom these days: Forbes says it’s invaluable, Apple’s training manual offers empathy exercises, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson calls caring “key.”

“Corporate empathy is not an oxymoron,” concluded an article in the Harvard Business Review on January 8. “It is a hard skill that should be required from the board-room to the shop floor.”

Indeed, fellow-feeling has come to be seen as a means to a better bottom line. An empathetic customer service representative creates customer loyalty, while an empathetic manager creates engagement and employee loyalty—deeply necessary in a world where 70% of workers say they are not enthusiastic about their jobs, reports Forbes.

Companies offering “empathy training” have popped up everywhere, often leveraging the old adage that to empathize with someone, you must first “walk a mile in his shoes.” In other words, if you are a manager who has overcome one of life’s many challenges, you are naturally well-placed to empathize with employees facing similar struggles, and help them find a way through.

But people who have suffered are often the least compassionate.

Our research shows that people who have gone through difficult experiences tend to be the harshest critics of those who are struggling or unable to cope. In this case, another old line is perhaps more applicable: familiarity breeds contempt.

We tested compassion among adults in a series of five studies from January 2012 to February 2014: In one study, people participating in a polar plunge—a jump into icy Lake Michigan—read about a man named Pat who backed out of the plunge at the last minute because of the cold. People who had successfully completed the plunge were less compassionate and more contemptuous of poor Pat than were those who had yet to complete the plunge. Numerous studies link empathy to better business results.  

In another study, 323 online participants evaluated a teenager who was presented as either successfully coping with bullying, or failing to cope by lashing out violently. Those who had endured bullying themselves were more compassionate toward the bullied teen who successfully coped with his abuse, compared to people who had never been bullied.

But those who had endured bullying themselves were the least compassionate when the teenager reacted badly to being bullied.

Why? For one, people often don’t accurately remember the emotional distress of difficult times. Moreover, because they overcame hardship, they tend to view it as a life event that can be readily conquered.

The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I did it myself” can lead to decreased compassion and increased contempt for others in similar straits.

But worryingly, because most people assume shared experiences produce compassion, suffering people are actualy more likely to seek comfort or advice from those who are the least likely to provide it. Teach people to place less emphasis on their own past challenges. 

As part of our study, we asked people to decide whether a teacher who endured bullying, or one who had never been bullied, would be more compassionate towards a bullied student. Overwhelmingly, they chose the teacher who had been bullied.

Our work has broad implications. There is widespread belief in the power of shared experiences to create compassion. Many social programs are designed with the input of those who have already experienced addiction, dropped out of school, or lived in poverty. But having these experiences does not ensure empathy towards others.

At the corporate level, this means that employees should be aware that their intuitions about who to approach for help or advice may, at times, be incorrect. Employers should be aware that instilling an empathetic culture is not as straightforward as it seems. And managers should be aware that sharing an experience with an employee may make them less likely to view that person compassionately.

We know empathy can be taught and that committed leaders can create a more empathetic and compassionate corporate culture. Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships flowing smoothly. It creates bonds of trust, which result in higher-quality teamwork. Numerous studies link empathy to better business results. We believe it is important to continue to inculcate empathy and compassion at work.

To do that, though, businesses first need to understand the dynamics of empathy.

One way may be to teach people to place less emphasis, not more, on their own past challenges. For example, a manager who has overcame addiction might consider statistics on relapse when dealing with an employee struggling to find sobriety, rather than judging them based on her own experience.

Perhaps sadly, walking in another’s shoes is not enough to understand that person’s struggles and to create a caring corporate culture. And in that sense, compassion is indeed a hard skill—as complicated as it is powerful.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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