Your imagination holds the secret to unlocking more empathy for others

MONTREAL, Quebec — Empathy often seems to be in short supply these days. However, a new study reveals that there’s an easy way of harnessing more of this ability. Researchers from McGill University say the power of imagination can help people understand and share the feelings of others — especially when they need help.

Specifically, the research examined how different forms of empathy influence our willingness to help others.

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of another person and is vital for prosocial behaviors. However, we know that empathy isn’t just one thing – we can experience it very differently, either as personal distress or compassionate concern for that other person,” explains McGill psychology professor and the study’s co-author, Signy Sheldon, in a university release.

Traditionally, empathy research has centered on how imagining oneself helping others fosters compassion. However, this new study shifts the focus to how imagining another person’s situation can impact empathy. It turns out that this form of empathy, known as personal distress, is more pronounced in these imaginative scenarios and might actually spur us to take action and help.

sad couple hugging
(Photo by cottonbro from Pexels)

Collaborating with Albany University, the McGill team discovered that vividly picturing someone else’s problems in our minds heightens our sense of their pain, motivating us to offer assistance. This revelation is a significant stride towards decoding the complex relationship between our mental processes and our actions towards others, shedding light on why some situations or individuals elicit more empathy than others.

The study included three online experiments where participants had to genuinely envision themselves in another person’s position.

“Our experiments revealed that when people simulated distressful scenarios of other individuals, they felt much more personal distress than when these scenarios were not simulated. Interestingly, we also found imagining these scenarios in such a way increased the willingness to help that individual,” says Sheldon, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.

Furthermore, the study underscores the intriguing link between empathy and episodic memory – our ability to recall past events. This connection raises pivotal questions about how memory capacity might influence our empathetic responses, opening avenues for future research in this domain.

In essence, this study not only enhances our understanding of empathy but also highlights the profound influence of our imagination in shaping our responses to the plights of others.

The findings are published in the journal Emotion.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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