Empathy vs. Emotional Contagion: You Have to Make an Effort

“I really know just how you feel!” It’s great to have that kind of connection with colleagues. Empathy can, however, require a real effort.

A recent post explored the way emotional contagion contributes to the climate of a team. When people share space and activities, they share their feelings as well. Although many people try to hide their feelings, they are only partially successful in doing so. Feelings tend to leak out, especially when people spend a lot of time together.

Empathy is quite different from emotional contagion although they might seem similar at first glance. Emotional contagion is a reflexive response to others’ emotional state. It is independent of thoughtful consideration. That is, an observer can share another person’s fear on the basis of observing gestures, facial expressions, and behavior that express fear without any idea of why that person is fearful.

In contrast, empathy requires deliberate, conscious understanding of the other person’s perspective. To be empathic requires the observer to not only know how the target feels, but to comprehend the basis of that feeling as well. This difference is supported by neuroscience research (See Singer & Lamm, 2009) demonstrating that emotional contagion is closely involved with the limbic system while empathy requires active involvement of prefrontal and temporal cortex. As such, empathy is a higher order cognitive process requiring greater concentration and mental effort from people than does participating in emotional contagion. Emotional contagion only requires that you are in the vicinity.

In a recent article philosopher Amy Coplan (2011) goes further in distinguishing self and other oriented empathy, labelling the self-oriented variety as pseudo-empathy, because it relies excessively on an egocentric bias.

That is, pseudo-empathy builds on a projection process—if I were in that situation, I would feel X—that assumes that the observer and target are alike. This assumption is viable to the extent that two people are identical or that they are in situations, such as an attack by a ferocious animal, that prompt universal reactions. This assumption is tenuous at best in the complex, multicultural, multidisciplinary, multigenerational work world of the 21st century. People encounter others who differ from them in ways that shape one another’s emotional reactions to a variety of situations. For examples, hearing off-color joke may seem trivial to one person may be deeply offensive if not frightening to a colleague. For both parties, imagining one’s own reaction in this situation would fall well short of empathy with the other.

Empathy requires making an effort to figure out someone, remaining open to the idea that the other person may differ from you in important ways.

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