Monday, February 16, 2015

Prior Hardship Doesn't Make Us Sympathetic to Others?

We have all heard that empathy is an important element of good design and good leadership.  We have to be able to put ourselves in others' shoes at times if we want to innovate effectively and lead others successfully.   However, a new paper offers findings that may surprise you.  Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Loran Nordgren have published a paper titled, "Having ‘Been There’ Doesn’t Mean I Care: When Prior Experience Reduces Compassion for Emotional Distress."   What did they find?   The scholars examined sympathy, not empathy... but it's still worth noting their surprising conclusion.  The scholars summarized their findings as follows:

In a series of experiments, people who had previously experienced a hardship—jumping into freezing water, taking an exhausting mental test, unemployment, or bullying—actually had less sympathy for someone else who had trouble enduring the same problem. This appears to be the case both because people tend to forget the distress of their own experience and because they figure others should be able to endure it, too. Nevertheless, most people assume that experience yields sympathy, which may mean we often approach the wrong people for help.

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