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May 28, 2017

Penn study identifies best way to show empathy for those in distress

Whenever a friend, family member or partner is experiencing a hard time, our natural response is to console and reassure them. There are plenty of ways to go about doing this, but it turns out there could be an ideal approach that also shields us from getting hurt in the process of helping those in need.

One researcher with the University of Pennsylvania's World Well-Being Project has some empirical advice for those who find themselves in a position to be supportive: It's best to try to reflect on the nature of a person's suffering than to actively try putting yourself in their shoes.

In collaboration with researchers at SUNY Buffalo and Brown University, Anneke E. K. Buffone conducted a study on the physiological health effects of displaying these two forms of empathy. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, looked at how these different approaches can either produce a threat response or a challenge response, each with its own impact on the health of those showing kindness.

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

The study enrolled more than 200 college-aged subjects and hooked them up to equipment to measure psychophysiological factors including blood pressure and heart rate.

Three groups of study participants were each provided with the same text of a personal story intended to induce empathy, but the groups were given different sets of instructions to read and respond to the scenario in a videotaped message. The story revolved around a person who was struggling financially after a recent car accident and coping with providing care for a younger sibling after the loss of their mother.

One group was asked to interpret the story by imagining how they would feel if they were facing the same circumstances. A second group was asked to read the story from the vantage point of the person who wrote it. The final group was instructed to remain objective and detached in their reading of the statements.

All three groups exhibited a physiological response simply through the act of helping. The first group showed signs of the fight-or-flight response — an increase in stress and the release of cortisol — while the second group's vitals showed a more positive, prepared physical state.

“When we consider the situation with a little more distance, you’re feeling concern, compassion and a desire to help, but you don’t feel exactly what that other person is feeling," Buffone said.

The researchers said the study is particularly revealing for those who work in caregiving positions, such as doctors and nurses.

“Empathy is very important, and for a lot of caregivers probably is the reason they chose their field,” Buffone said. “We don’t have to teach our medical professionals to suppress that emotional response; we just have to try to help them have the right kind of response, thinking of others as opposed to thinking how they would feel in the same situation.”

A follow-up study plans to analyze the language of empathy used on social media to better understand how people deploy different types of empathy.

The full study can be accessed here.

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