Why is Empathy so Hard? Empathy Motivation & Learning to Empathize

What is Empathy?

We commonly think of empathy as when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes. We try to feel what others are feeling. In psychological research empathy is defined more clearly. There is cognitive empathy and affective or emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand others’ emotions while affective empathy is the ability to share others’ emotions (Mackes, Golm, O’Daly, Sarkar, Sonuga-Barke, Fairchild, & Mehta 2018).

In research, empathy is measured in a number of ways. This ability to understand and share emotions can be measured through brain scans, observed actions, and self-report questionnaires. One self-report questionnaire that aims to measure empathy is the Basic Empathy Scale. The Basic Empathy Scale is a 20 item self-report questionnaire. Participants answer using a scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). Items include:

(Carre, Stefaniak, D'Ambrosio, Bensalah, & Besche 2013)

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Why is Empathy Important? 

Many feel that we live in a dog-eat-dog world where any sign of caring for others is a weakness. However, there are many benefits to the ability to emphasize. Empathy can be helpful in dealing with major social issues such as gender bias in the workplace or supporting employee mental health.

Empathy is important for other social issues such as women’s safety and racial injustice. It’s really difficult to empathize with people of a different background. Research shows that “people readily empathize with fellow in-group members (those who share identification with a particular social group), but fail to empathize with out-group members (those who identify with different social groups)” (Weisz & Zaki 2018). Naturally, we tend to empathize more with people who are like us.

For example, a 2010 study examined the empathic concern, empathic accuracy, and perceived empathy of women who had never been mothers, who were pregnant with their first child, or who had just given birth to their first child when watching videos of new mothers. Results showed that “When perceivers had experienced the same life events as the targets, they expressed greater empathic concern and reported greater understanding of targets” (Hodges, Kiel, Kramer, Veach, & Villanueva 2010). So, it’s really hard to empathize with experiences we haven’t lived. 

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How Can You Increase Your Ability to Emphasize?

1. Use Your Imagination While Reading

When you read novels or watch films, do you find yourself feeling what the characters feel? Do you imagine what you might do in their shoes? Do you find that you empathize with characters that are more like you, whether in gender, race, or life situation? What about trying to empathize with the opposite characters, the ones that are less like you?

A 2013 study found that generating imagery across multiple senses while reading led to significantly higher empathy for the story’s characters (Johnson 2013). The results show that “individuals in the imagery-generation condition were over 3 times more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior than individuals in the leisure-reading condition” (Johnson 2013). 

While reading fiction stories, try to get a sense of what someone is going through by creating images across multiple senses. Can you practice empathy by trying to have just as much empathy for the villain as the hero? It seems counterintuitive, but it can stretch your empathy muscle. 

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2. Active-Empathic Listening

Listening is a vital part of communication. Active-Empathic listening involves three stages: sensing, processing, and responding. Sensing is active involvement and attention to the conversation. Processing is putting information together as well as remembering information. Responding is the verbal and nonverbal signs of active listening. Active-empathic listening was found to be related to relational satisfaction (Manusov, Stofleth, Harvey, & Crowley 2020).

Active listening involves showing you are paying attention to the speaker through body language, facial expressions, and asking questions at the appropriate time. You can clarify what is being said or echo what the speaker is saying to demonstrate that you are listening. This is important for making others feel heard. 

Often, empathy is easy enough to practice when we’re on the same side. But what if empathy for me cancels out empathy for you? It becomes hard to have a thoughtful conversation when we’re jumping to defensiveness in an argument. Make sure to actively listen and try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

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Can Empathy Be Taught?

Empathy can be taught in formal interventions. These interventions are often work or school programs. A meta-analysis of 18 empathy trainings revealed that formal empathy interventions are successful and typically have a medium effect size (Teding van Berkhout & Malouff 2016). Although empathy interventions have been shown to be effective, these trainings can be more effective in certain contexts. 

Researchers also found 4 factors “significantly associated with higher effect sizes: (a) training health professionals and university students rather than other types of individuals, (b) compensating trainees for their participation, (c) using empathy measures that focus exclusively on assessing understanding the emotions of others, feeling those emotions, or commenting accurately on the emotions, and (d) using objective measures rather than self-report measures” (Teding van Berkhout & Malouff 2016).

Motivation to be Empathic

Many people understand what empathy is and how they can show empathy, but still they choose not to. This is because practicing empathy can seem difficult and not worth it. We often do not view emotional work as valuable as working on tangible projects. To understand why people are lacking in empathy, we need to understand their motivations

Empathic motives are goal-driven. There are two main types of empathic motives: avoidance and approach. Avoidance motives make people less empathic because they view being empathic as costly or exhausting. Approach motives make people more empathic because “people are often motivated to empathize more when they want to share others’ positive states, when empathy is socially desirable, or when empathy strengthens their social ties” (Weisz & Zaki 2018).

Researchers have also found that “people are motivated to empathize with those who look like them, those who are kind to them, and those who are close to them” (Weisz & Zaki 2018). This can make empathizing in the context of social issues more difficult for people of different social groups. For example, men have a tendency to empathize with other men instead of empathizing with women when they face discrimination or safety issues. 

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Empathizing with others is seen as difficult. A meta-analysis of 11 studies on empathy found “a robust preference to avoid empathy, which was associated with perceptions of empathy as more effortful and aversive and less efficacious” and that “experimentally increasing empathy efficacy eliminated empathy avoidance” (Cameron, Hutcherson, Ferguson, Scheffer, Hadjiandreou, & Inzlicht 2019). People view showing empathy as something that does not benefit them. They also view empathizing as something they are not good at. So how do we make the action of empathizing with others more appealing and less effortful? 

In a study on increasing empathy efficacy, participants were asked to look at 4 faces and describe them physically. Then participants were asked to look at 4 other faces and describe what emotions were being felt by the person in the picture. To influence empathy efficacy, participants were given different accuracy feedback. 

Feedback was changed in order to make participants feel differently about the difficulty of empathizing. Half of the participants were given feedback that made it seem that empathizing was difficult (this was the low-efficacy condition). Participants in this condition were told “ that they were better than 50% of others on the empathy deck and 95% of others on the objective deck” (Cameron et. al 2019). The other half were given feedback that made it seem that empathizing was easy (this was the high-efficacy condition). This group was told “that they were better than 95% of others on the empathy deck and 50% of others on the objective deck” (Cameron et. al 2019). 

Being told they were good at empathizing impacted how they rated empathic efficacy. People who felt that they could empathize, choose empathy more in an empathy selection task (Cameron et. al 2019). This shows that in order to motivate people to be empathic, we have to make it easier. People are more willing to empathize if they have been told they are good at it. 

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How The LIFE App Can Help

The LIFE Intelligence app is a self-therapy app that can help you manage your emotions, relationships, and career. The program encompasses a 9-Mission (topic) self-development course, as well as an emotional management toolkit. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, self-compassion, and meditation encompass less than 1% of all the information you’ll find in LIFE: that’s how holistic it is. 

Empathy often becomes a problem for couples in romantic relationships. It’s no surprise that “individuals’ abilities to be understanding, compassionate, and sympathetic may be related to the overall feeling of satisfaction and love in romantic relationships” (Ulloa, Hammett, Meda, & Rubalcaba 2017). For example, if someone isn’t empathetic to your problems, you’ll probably feel they’re dismissive, selfish, and generally unsupportive of you. That can break down trust and love in a relationship, leaving you feeling resentful and contemptuous. The app provides a handy mood tracker and emotional management toolkit. When you log your mood as resentful, you will be supplied with information on forgiveness and empathy as well as exercises to help you practice empathy. 

Alba Corney
March 25, 2021


Bohns, V., & Flynn, F. (2021). Empathy and expectations of others’ willingness to help. Personality and Individual Differences, 168, 110368–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110368

Cameron, C., Hutcherson, C., Ferguson, A., Scheffer, J., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy Is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 148(6), 962–976. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595

Carre, A., Stefaniak, N., D'Ambrosio, F., Bensalah, L., & Besche, C., (2013). The Basic Empathy Scale in Adults (BES-A): Factor structure of a revised form.. Psychological Assessment. 25. 679-691. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032297

Hodges, S. D., Kiel, K. J., Kramer, A. D. I., Veach, D., & Villanueva, B. R. (2010). Giving Birth to Empathy: The Effects of Similar Experience on Empathic Accuracy, Empathic Concern, and Perceived Empathy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 398–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209350326

Johnson, C. (2013). Potentiating Empathic Growth: Generating Imagery While Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Prosocial Behavior. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(3), 306–312. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033261

Mackes, N., Golm, D., O’Daly, O., Sarkar, S., Sonuga-Barke, E., Fairchild, G., & Mehta, M. (2018). Tracking emotions in the brain – Revisiting the Empathic Accuracy Task. NeuroImage (Orlando, Fla.), 178, 677–686. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.05.080

Manusov, V., Stofleth, D., Harvey, J. A., & Crowley, J. P. (2020). Conditions and Consequences of Listening Well for Interpersonal Relationships: Modeling Active-Empathic Listening, Social-Emotional Skills, Trait Mindfulness, and Relational Quality. International Journal of Listening, 34(2), 110–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2018.1507745

Teding van Berkhout, E., & Malouff, J. M. (2016). The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(1), 32–41.  https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000130

Ulloa, E. C., Hammett, J. F., Meda, N. A., & Rubalcaba, S. J. (2017). Empathy and Romantic Relationship Quality Among Cohabitating Couples: An Actor–Partner Interdependence Model. The Family Journal, 25(3), 208–214. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480717710644

Weisz, E., & Zaki, J. (2018). Motivated empathy: a social neuroscience perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 24, 67–71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.05.005

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