The empathy gap: why we underestimate the influence of emotions

“I would do much better!” you think, watching someone give a presentation about a topic you are familiar with. “I don’t feel like smoking at all, I’ll definitely be able to quit tomorrow,” you say with a relaxed tone, right after smoking a cigarette.

These are illustrations of the empathy gap: our tendency to underestimate the influence of visceral drives (such as emotions and cravings) on our own behaviour.

This cognitive bias often clouds our judgement by preventing us from putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, in the shoes of our future self, or even in the shoes of our past self. (the typical “What was I thinking?”)

The three types of empathy gaps

Not all empathy gaps are made equal. They can be classified based on their relation with time—past or future—and whether they occur intrapersonally or interpersonally.

  • Intrapersonal prospective empathy gap. This is the inability to effectively predict our own future behaviour when we are in a different state. The smoker feeling relaxed after a cigarette and predicting it will be easy to quit the day after is a good example. Or feeling extremely sad and upset when grieving someone, and not being able to imagine that we will ever be able to feel joy again.
  • Intrapersonal retrospective empathy gap. When we struggle to recall or understand our own behaviour that happened in a different state. For instance, not managing to understand how we ended up yelling on someone when we are currently feeling calm.
  • Interpersonal empathy gap. The difficulty to evaluate the preferences and understand the behaviour of another person who is in a state different from our own. For example, not being able to imagine the anxiety of another person giving a speech when we are comfortably sitting in the audience.

Researchers call these difficulties to evaluate the influence of feelings, emotions, and other visceral drives the dual judgement model. They write: “Given that people exhibit empathy gaps when estimating their own reactions to different emotional situations, the dual judgment model implies that they will exhibit corresponding empathy gaps when estimating others’ reactions to different emotional situations.”

Closing the empathy gap

Because of the empathy gap, we struggle to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different mental state, whether that person is someone else, our past self, or our future self.

The empathy gap may prevent us from seeing that someone does not necessarily have the same feelings toward us as we have toward them, or may make us underestimate how much our feelings for someone affected our judgment in the past. In general, empathy gaps can be responsible for hurtful conversations, miscommunication, or just missed opportunities to learn from each other.

The main reason why we experience empathy gaps is that human cognition is state-dependent: the way we process information and make decisions is strongly influenced by our mental state at the time. Being aware of the state-dependent nature of human cognition and how our visceral drives impact our perceptions and behaviour is an important first step in managing the empathy gap.

  • Debias your predictions. Instead of relying on your intuition to predict how your will act in the future, use actual data such as your past behaviour. How did you react last time someone brought some donuts to the office? What did you say last time your friend bragged about an accomplishment? Our past actions are better predictors than our (sometimes) wishful thinking.
  • Visualise different mental states. Whether you are trying to understand someone else’s perspective or to put yourself in your future self’s shoes, make a proactive effort to visualise mental states that differ from your current one. If you’re feeling calm, project yourself: what does this person’s anger is feeling like? Try to genuinely understand their feelings.
  • Detach yourself from the situation. Sometimes, pretending a situation is not about you may help in closing the empathy gap. Instead of asking yourself what you think or how you feel, consider: how would another person feel in the same situation? What would they think?

As you can see, these three methods have one characteristic in common: they are based on asking questions. Asking good questions is the single most powerful tool you can use to close the empathy gap. Practice asking yourself and others more questions to more accurately assess the impact of emotions on behaviours.

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