Mental & Emotional Health

Two Types of Empathy Elicit Different Health Effects

When a close friend shares bad news, our instinct is to help. But putting yourself in a friend’s shoes, imagining how you would feel if you were the one suffering, may have detrimental effects on your own health. That is the finding of a study led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Anneke E. K. Buffone and published in May 2017 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Buffone is the lead research scientist of the World Well-Being Project in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Positive Psychology Center.

A release from the university notes that the research showed that our bodies respond differently depending on the perspective we take when helping someone who is suffering. Stepping into the perspective of the suffering person leads to a health-threatening physiological response, while reflecting on how the suffering person might feel leads to a health-promoting response.

The release quotes Buffone as saying, “This is the first time we have physical evidence that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is potentially harmful.”

Buffone collaborated on the work with Michael Poulin, Shane DeLury, Lauren Ministero and Carrie Morrisson of the State University of New York at Buffalo and with Matt Scalco at Brown University.

Their study builds upon previous work that had shown that helping behaviors can, paradoxically, lead to both negative and positive health effects. Buffone and colleagues were hoping to tease apart the factors that might lead to the different outcomes.

To do so, they devised an experiment that would place participants in the role of “helper” to a person who was suffering. More than 200 college-age study subjects were hooked up to equipment that tracked a set of psychophysiological markers, such as blood pressure and heart rate as well as other cardiovascular measures that can be used to differentiate a threat response — a state of negative arousal — from a challenge response — a state of positive arousal.

Participants were provided with texts, which they were led to believe was written by their study partners. The personal story was intended to induce empathy by describing the troubled background of the alleged other student, describing struggling financially after a recent car accident while coping with the added pressure of having to care for a younger sibling after having lost the mother years prior. Study participants were asked to respond to the writers, through a videotaped message, offering helpful comments and advice.

To evoke the different types of empathy, the researchers divided participants into three groups, each of which was given slightly different instructions prior to reading the statements. The members of one group were told to read while imagining how they would feel if they had had the same experiences; the members of a second group was told to read the story while imagining how the writers would feel and the third were asked to remain objective and detached while reading the statements.