Showing empathy for unpopular or immoral people yields more scorn than praise

DAVIS, Calif. — 2020 has been a challenging year for millions of people around the world. From the coronavirus pandemic, to financial uncertainty, to political and social unrest, countless people are struggling through daily life. With all these hardships, it’s easy to empathize with our fellow man no matter what their background is. Unfortunately, a new study finds not everyone views empathy that way. Researchers at the University of California, Davis say empathizing with someone who is viewed unfavorably by others actually brings more scorn than praise.

“Empathy has become a sort of ‘catch-all’ for desirable personal qualities,” says lead author and doctoral candidate Y. Andre Wang in a university release. “But people’s views on empathy are actually more complicated. We found that what people think of empathizers depends on who is receiving their empathy. People don’t necessarily like or respect those who show empathy toward morally questionable individuals.”

Researchers examined how people displaying empathy are viewed across seven experiments featuring over 3,000 people across the United States. The UC-Davis team showed each of the participants a number of scenarios involving one person sharing a personal experience with someone else. These experiences ranged from positive, like receiving a promotion, to negative, like dealing with stress at work. The person being told the story either reacted with empathy or neutrally.

As the participants graded these reactions and gave their impressions of the individual’s ability to show empathy, researchers threw the group a twist. Researchers gave the participants more information about the person telling the story; turning them into either a positive or negative figure in society. Storytellers portrayed in a negative light were said to be white nationalists or anti-vaxxers. Those portrayed in a positive light were said to work in a children’s hospital.

Is empathy only reserved for people who society likes?

The results reveal participants not only liked or disliked the storyteller based on their background, but also had less respect for people empathizing with someone they didn’t approve of. People who showed empathy for a storyteller that was revealed to be a white nationalist or anti-vaxxer were also condemned by participants.

“People are often encouraged to empathize with disliked others, but our findings suggest that they are not always viewed favorably for doing so,” Wang and study co-author Andrew Todd report.

In these polarizing times, researchers say having more empathy for others is often viewed as a cure for the sociopolitical divisions in society. The study results however, point to empathy becoming a trait tied closely with social status and reserved only for a chosen few.

“Is more empathy always better? Not according to our participants,” Wang adds. “Our findings suggest that people see empathy as a social signal. Whom you choose to empathize with shows whom you care about and what you stand for. Empathy is, of course, valuable. But it is not a panacea. If people who empathize across social divides are repudiated, then empathy might not always bridge those divides. Instead, it might even reinforce them.”

The study appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.