Imagine that you have just become a new parent. Overwhelmed and exhausted, your performance at work is suffering. You desperately want to work from home part-time to devote more attention to your family. One of your supervisors had children while climbing the corporate ladder, while the other hasn’t. Which supervisor is more likely to embrace your request?
Most people would recommend approaching the supervisor who has children, drawing on the intuition that shared experience breeds empathy. After all, she has “been there” and thus seems best placed to understand your situation.
Our recent research suggests that this instinct is very often wrong.
In a series of recent experiments, we found that people who endured challenges in the past (like divorce or being skipped over for a promotion) were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation.
In the first experiment, we surveyed people participating in a “polar plunge”— a jump into a very icy Lake Michigan in March. All participants read a story about a man named Pat who intended to complete the plunge, but chickened out and withdrew from the event at the last minute. Critically, participants read about Pat either before they had completed the plunge themselves, or one week after. We found that polar plungers who had successfully completed the plunge were less compassionate and more contemptuous of Pat than were those who had not yet completed the plunge.
In another study, we looked at compassion toward an individual struggling with unemployment. More than 200 people read a story about a man who—despite his best efforts—is unable to find a job. Struggling to make ends meet, the man ultimately stoops to selling drugs in order to earn money. The results: people who had overcome a period of unemployment in the past were less compassionate and more judgmental of the man than were people who were currently unemployed or had never been involuntary unemployed.
People who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.
A third study examined compassion toward a bullied teenager. Participants were either told that the teen was successfully coping with the bullying, or failed to cope by lashing out violently. Compared to participants who had no experience with bullying, participants who reported having been bullied in the past themselves were more compassionate toward the teen who was appropriately coping with the experience. But, similar to our earlier studies, participants who were bullied in the past were the least compassionate toward the teen who failed to successfully cope with the bullying.
Taken together, these results suggest that people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.
But why does this occur? We suggest that this phenomenon is rooted in two psychological truths.
First, people generally have difficulty accurately recalling just how difficult a past aversive experience was. Though we may remember that a past experience was painful, stressful, or emotionally trying, we tend to underestimate just how painful that experience felt in the moment. This phenomenon is called an “empathy gap.”
Second, people who have previously overcome an aversive experience know that they were able to successfully overcome it, which makes them feel especially confident about their understanding of just how difficult the situation is. The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I know that I got through it myself” creates the perception that the event can be readily conquered, reducing empathy toward others struggling with the event.