Empathy Gap

Thinking Feeling

A hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which a person underestimates the influences of visceral drives, and instead attributes behavior primarily to other, nonvisceral factors. The term was coined by psychologist and behavioral economist George Loewenstein. He argued that human understanding is ‘state dependent.’ For example, when one is angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one to be happy, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be. The implications of this were explored in the realm of sexual decision-making, where young men in an unaroused ‘cold state’ fail to predict that when they are in an aroused ‘hot state’ they will be more likely to make risky sexual decisions, such as not using a condom.

The empathy gap has also been an important idea in research about the causes of bullying. In one study examining a central theory that, ‘only by identifying with a victim’s social suffering can one understand its devastating effects,’ researchers created five experiments. The first four examined the degree to which participants in a game who were not excluded could estimate the social pain of those participants who were excluded. The findings were that those were not socially excluded consistently underestimated the pain felt by those who were excluded.

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