Chapter 2 — CLaims & Ratings
Overall: This chapter considers people’s control over their emotions and empathy, and highlights motives that drive people toward or away from empathizing. Several of these claims are based on years of well-established evidence, but others are still subject to debate among psychologists.
Claim 2.1: We have the ability to control and regulate our emotions.
The idea that humans have the ability to control and regulate our emotions through various conscious and unconscious strategies is well-established in psychology.
Claim 2.2: In situations when it’s important to build relationships, people ramp up their empathy.
Much research supports the idea that empathy is important for relationship building. Further, research on loneliness and impression management does suggest that people in these situations ramp up their empathy. But relatively little research explicitly creates situations in which relationship building is critical in order to causally test the effects of affiliative desire on empathy.
Claim 2.3: People empathize to help bolster their moral self-image.
Research demonstrates that the need to feel like a good and moral person can be a powerful motivator to act empathetically. Particularly when people's views of themselves as moral and good are threatened, such as when people are feeling guilty or ashamed, much evidence supports that people will then act more empathetically and altruistically to compensate for these feelings.
Claim 2.4: When people think empathizing will be painful, they avoid it.
People's avoidance of painful or costly empathy is well-documented in a number of contexts, including charitable giving, empathizing with mass suffering, and empathy decline in medical contexts. Consciously or unconsciously, individuals use a number of strategies to avoid empathizing in situations where empathy is deemed as undesirable for any reason.
Claim 2.5: Stress reduces empathy.
Particularly in caring professions where burnout is common, evidence supports a link between increased stress and burnout and reduced empathy. However, most studies on this topic are correlational, not causal. Furthermore, although some studies demonstrate that stress can reduce perspective-taking abilities, at least one study finds that stress can increase short-term prosocial behavior. More experimental studies are needed to fully understand the relationship between stress and empathy.
Claim 2.6: When people believe empathy is a valued norm, they empathize more.
Ample evidence supports the idea that valuing empathy provides motivation to empathize; when people believe that their community or context values empathy, they are more likely to act empathetically.
Claim 2.7: Purposely cultivating empathy alters the brain.
Several well-conducted studies indicate that empathy and compassion training lead to corresponding changes in the brain. However, almost all of this work focuses on brain changes resulting from contemplative practice, such as loving-kindness meditation. These studies should be augmented by additional research examining the neural effects of other empathy-building practices.