Psychology, recent

Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective-Taking?

Are humans hardwired for compassion? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this question with an enthusiastic “yes.” Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved to care for strangers. It’s just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Read a book about compassion. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to nurture it.

One of the ways we have been taught to nurture empathy is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Before you judge people, walk a mile in their shoes,” we exhort our compassion-challenged friends and family. And we parents regularly encourage our kids to imagine the feelings of the people who might be hurt by their self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are doing something to turn our kids into better human beings.

But does trying to take the perspective of other people actually lead to empathy? For half a century, experimental psychologists have been working under the assumption that it does. It was back in 1969 that the social psychologist Ezra Stotland first tried to promote empathy in the lab with instructions to take the perspective of another person. And according to Stotland, it worked: “Any interpersonal process, symbolic or overt,” he wrote, “which causes an individual to imagine himself in another’s position would lead him to empathize with the other person.”

Testing under experimental conditions

Following Stotland’s lead, experimental psychologists quickly began using perspective-taking instructions in their efforts to manipulate empathy in the lab, and they’ve continued to do so for 50 years. In the typical experiment, research participants encounter a stranger in the lab who is going through something difficult in his or her personal life; then, the experimenter asks the subjects to do one of several things. To encourage perspective-taking, researchers might instruct subjects to:

Try to imagine how the person feels about what has happened and how it has affected his or her life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.

In a variant of these standard perspective-taking instructions, researchers might instruct a second set of subjects to imagine how they (rather than the suffering person) might feel in a similar predicament:

Try to imagine how you yourself would feel if you were experiencing what has happened to the person and how this experience would affect your life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how you would feel.

To encourage still other subjects to remain objective (under the premise that doing so will squelch empathy), researchers instruct a third group of subjects to:

Try to be as objective as possible about what has happened to the person and how it has affected his or her life. To remain objective, do not let yourself get caught up in imagining what this person has been through and how he or she feels as a result. Just try to remain objective and detached.

In the ideal experiment, researchers also assign a fourth group of subjects to an experimental condition in which they receive no instructions at all. They just learn about a person in need without any prompting to do anything in particular in response. This fourth group of subjects serves as a control group that enables experimenters to find out both (a) whether perspective-taking increases empathy, and (b) whether remaining objective reduces empathy. Without such a control group, any differences in empathy that arise between the groups cannot be attributed to either condition.

From such a comparison, we can learn whether perspective-taking and remaining objective produce different amounts of empathy, but we cannot know whether perspective-taking increased empathy, or whether remaining objective reduced empathy, or a little of both. This might seem like a subtle distinction in the sorts of conclusions we might draw from experiments on empathy, but as you’ll soon see, it’s a distinction that makes a big difference.

Reviewing the evidence

My colleagues and I, with the psychologist William McAuliffe in charge, recently published a statistical review (called a meta-analysis) of the results of every experiment we could find that compared the effects of these different instructional sets on self-reported empathic emotion toward a needy stranger. (You can read the full paper here).

In all, we found 85 research papers, authored by scores of different psychologists, that had examined these issues experimentally. From those 85 papers, we identified 177 individual tests of whether any two of the four experimental conditions (imagine-other, imagine-self, remain objective, no-instructions) produced different amounts of empathy for a suffering stranger.

In 124 of the tests it was found that empathy levels were much higher in the condition where people were told to imagine the feelings of the needy person when compared to the condition where people were told to remain objective and detached. The difference between these two conditions was large and unambiguous: remaining objective as you consider the plight of a needy person will leave you with less empathy than trying to think about the needy person’s feelings will. So far, so good.

There were surprises in store, however. We also found that subjects who were instructed to imagine how the suffering person might be feeling did not experience more empathy than subjects who received no instructions at all (the control group). Taking the perspective of other people—according to 18 different comparisons of those two conditions—doesn’t actually seem to be better at boosting empathy than doing nothing. On the other hand, actively trying to avoid thoughts about the other person’s suffering by remaining objective—according to the 13 comparisons of those two conditions—is indeed significantly worse than doing nothing. From this pattern of results, it appears that we can reduce people’s empathy by encouraging them to remain objective as they consider a person in need, but we can’t raise their empathy by encouraging them to take the needy person’s perspective.

What should we make of these results? I see a glass-half-empty interpretation and a glass-half-full interpretation. The glass-half-empty interpretation is clear enough: The experimental evidence just doesn’t support the assertion that we can boost our compassion for needy strangers just by trying to imagine how the world looks and feels from their points of view. To be clear, evidence from contrived laboratory experiments shouldn’t be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t true about humans’ behavior and mental processes, but the fact that these experiments contradict our everyday experiences (not to mention the sage advice of professional compassion-activists) should give us pause and leave us with some humility about the reliability of our intuitions.

The glass-half-full interpretation, which is equally true, might actually be more fun to contemplate: The fact that we are better at suppressing our empathy (by trying to remain objective while we consider other people’s plights) than we are at boosting our empathy (by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a needy person) could suggest that we are walking around, out in the wild, with reasonably high amounts of empathy already. Perhaps we take needy people’s perspectives so intuitively that we can’t get any additional empathy-boosting benefits from trying to do it deliberately. This is an interpretation that any compassion-optimist should be able to get behind: However hard it might be for us to become more compassionate than we already are, perhaps we are already walking around with quite a lot of it.


Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology and is Director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. He is also author of the forthcoming book The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code (2020, Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @ME_McCullough

Feature image: Consolation (1894) Edvard Munch. 


  1. Interesting article, but I fail to see the problem statement it’s trying to answer. In other words, why is increasing empathy important? What a priori value does more empathy have?

    I have a severe concern with current trends mistaking strength of emotion for strength of argument. On its face, it is a somewhat rational fallacy chain:

    Premise 1: Those affected by X are most likely to be motivated to research X
    Premise 2: Emotional investment is a good proxy indicator of degree of affect experienced relative to X
    Premise 3: Expertise translates directly into accurate assessment of a truth or util value
    Proposition 1: Those affected by X are more likely to be experts on X
    Proposition 1.1: Affect by X translates directly into expertise in X
    Conclusion: Those most emotional about X, or most emotionally invested in X, are most likely to be experts and therefore have the most accurate assessment of X

    The flaws I see are in Premise 2 and Propositions 1 and 1.1.

    While the development of the heuristics makes sense, they’re unforgivably lazy- the three fundamental flaws I cannot grasp people not seeing:

    1. Motivated reasoning- if there is incentive for people believing that one possible result has a specific truth value, regardless of its actual truth value, those incentized will instead try to convince people that it has the requisite truth value. Borne out not just externally (deliberate deceit) but also internally (cognitive bias and selective sampling).
    2. Bad faith actors. These come in two types: Con men and the mentally non-normal. Con men will manipulate others via their emotions, and the mentally compromised can have outsized, irrational emotional response given the stimulus.
    3. Short cuts. If expertise is awarded social authority (which it is), then those otherwise disenfranchised, in a specific application of point 1, will use their emotions to claim expertise they are otherwise unable to get- we don’t ask gourmands for their input on food preparation, because unless they know something about cooking, they only know what they like, not what it’s what it is.

    To expand on 2, disturbed people - and this can include such benign issues as manic depression- will display outsized emotional response. That’s essentially the core of bipolar disorder, from a certain frame of reference. Their strength of emotion in no way is indicative of their motivation to learn or their expertise.

    I cannot accept that any rational adult in Western society who has achieved an age of 25 cannot recognize people who commit all three of these fallacies; and therefore cannot wrap my head around why this seems to be a dominant movement.

    To wrap it back to the article: The article is implicitly framing the reduction of reflex empathy as bad when someone is trying to be objective. That’s only true if increased affect is inherently desirable. It’s what you do with your increased affect that counts.

    EDIT: Removing personal anecdote on reflection.

    To me, this is empathy over rationality, and I struggle to see another application where it is in a more positive light, as the author apparently assumes is the case? “Empathy” for “mother Earth” led to an overgrowth of brush so that fires that formerly were part of the life cycle and health of the forest now incinerate life that formerly relied on the fire, such as the firecone pine. Sometimes, the right thing to do isn’t the first course of action that appears in front of you- which is what is encouraged by encouraging empathy.

    Imagine this situation:

    Man: “My wife cheated on me! We’re getting a divorce!”
    Empathic response: She’s in the wrong
    What if the man has beaten her everyday for years? That changes the scenario. What if he cheated first? What if he’s good to her, but beats their kids?
    Sometimes it’s not binary, and that’s objectivity talk, not empathy talk.

  2. Fryer and Levitt also published a paper on this:

    Upshot: There’s evidence that the first names are indicative of socio-economic class, not race.

    EDIT: You’re describing the Dunning-Kruger effect there at the end.

  3. Right in one. It’s appalling once you notice it. As it happened, I could start with Fryer’s name. The scary part is, high-profile things aren’t hidden, to hide their censorship. if I had the money, I’d pull backups of the Way-Back machine for reference.

    For instance, this gem was covered in the WSJ and Times, so they don’t hide it:

    Upshot: BLM is incorrect regarding police shootings.

  4. Yeah, I am aware of that one. The really frustrating thing is, that at the time Fryer was defrocked from academic research, for responding to unsolicited sexual texts from a subordinate in kind, he was working on research that proved that consent decrees and the withdrawal of proactive policing, or broken windows, had disastrous consequences in terms of rising black homicides. It’s one the reasons why I have dug so deeply into proactive policing, especially in relation to how successful it was in Scotland, in the absence of race, to show just how effective it can be. Removing proactive policing would be disastrous, but reforming it somewhat is necessary if it’s going to survive- especially in relation to the check and balances that should subsequently occur in a courtroom.

    Here are three talks from that discuss the matter:

    I was also going to provide a link to George L. Kelling speaking at St Olaf College, but it has since been taken down…

    Google really is obstructing the search for knowledge they don’t like. I am sure Quillette users could collectively write a book on the subject of all the unpalatable knowledge that is hidden from us. Jonathan Haidt won’t publicly discuss intelligence anymore, even when he is off campus.

  5. it was found that empathy levels were much higher in the condition where people were told to imagine the feelings of the needy person when compared to the condition where people were told to remain objective and detached.
    In other words, those instructed to empathize felt more empathy than those instructed not to empathize? That's so weird! Thanks "science"! Keep up the good work!
  6. I’m curious as to why the author conflates empathy with compassion, or at least switches from one to the other without explanation.

  7. Empathy is a good thing. Empathy allows one to identify with a troubled individuals in order to aid them. However in order to solve a problem a level of detachment is required. Today empathy tends to become enabling which means the issue never gets properly addressed.

    Using the issue du jour, one has a troubled child. That child claims to be transgender. The parents desire to help the child so they begin indulging him. Next they try to bend their community to accommodate the child, all in the name of love. The parents believe they are being good parents but the kid has not been helped one iota. He has learned and come to expect the world to bend to his whims, meaning now he is not only troubled but entitled. There use to be a phrase called “coping skills” which meant a set of behaviors designed to help one conquer his personal demons. People no longer search for solutions but rather seek out enablers.

  8. If you are a social worker or public servant one may be tasked with helping others. In order to help them one may first need to understand their point of view no matter how misguided. Understanding their point of view allows one to see where their reasoning goes into the ditch. If the person believes he has been heard, he is more likely to be receptive to hearing the flaws in his reasoning. One can listen, understand and guide without indulging.

  9. Response: “Does this interview count?”

  10. Actually, I rather enjoyed the experience of people listening to my belly aching for a change…

  11. Funny thing about this thread is all the posts assume empathy means compassion. Not true. I want to empathize with my opponent. I wanted to be in his head. I want to feel his pain, insecurities and vulnerabilities. I want to know his weaknesses. I want to know him better than he knows himself. Then I want to empathize with his agony of defeat.

  12. More observations and question than answers. These are based on my observations of laypeople’s comments and demands about empathy and not those coming from members of the psychology profession.

    1. Seems the demand for empathy is used in service of the progressive stack. We are to empathise with those who are oppressed, marginalised, othered, etc. I don’t hear people mentioning the need to emphathise with Zuckerberg or Trump. Wealth and power appear to act as a barrier or repelling force, where those who are privileged in some way are less or undeserving of empathy.

    2. Often the demand for empathy is to serve a political end.

    3. "You don’t know (or can’t know) what it’s like to be _______ " appears to be used to negate empathic efforts.

    4. If we are all biased and even unconsciously so, ought these interfere with our ability to empathise with others?

    5. Accusations of one’s lack of empathy are often taken as settled fact. Often it seems to be used as a smear to coerce a person’s act in favour of the other.

    6. I don’t recall a person ever saying “I’ve looked at this through your perspective to understand where you’re coming from, and I’ve concluded you were wrong/mistaken.” Empathy seems more to serve “my truth”, where truth is how a person felt and experienced something, and not “the truth”.

    7. How might the spotlight and false-consensus effects, unreliable narration, self-referential encoding, the illusions of transparency and asymmetric insight, and other phenomenon influence one’s narrative and our empathy?

    8. Socio and psychopaths trained to be more empathetic were found to have gained insights and techniques and became more manipulative. Given so many things are now though to be “on a spectrum”, is it possible socio and psychopathy too are on a spectrum? The call for empathy and its training is seen to be positive, yet might this emphasis on empathy serve malevolence too?

  13. I’ve noticed that the idea of enabling (bad behaviour) and the need to cease it are less commonly spoken of today and our need to be empathic much more so.

  14. Admittedly I’m old. I don’t really understand the need for empathy, to me it makes people needy. To me one of the worst most insulting things another person could do is to pity me. In my day people in search of pity were generally greater with “oh poor baby!” I don’t want people visiting me when I’m ill. Don’t help me up when I fall unless I ask for it. I can not relate to this perpetual need for a pity party. This doesn’t make me tough, strong, macho or superior. It is just my nature and the way I was raised. I wonder if anyone can empathize with my confusion over the current demand for empathy?

  15. Well it assists cohesion & better targeted assistance for societal problems. If one understands another’s struggles better they are less likely to be as prejudicial & may also be able to contribute a more improved approach to their issues. Men’s struggles being understood better is an example of this. They are hurting & we all need to understand why & hopefully act appropriately to improve this situation. It’s purely pragmatism not pity. And men in particular as proven historically won’t seek help.
    I appreciate the concern where especially historical grievances are being used to elicit unnecessary compassion & neediness. IE victim mentality. But exploitation by some does not always render empathy & compassion disadvantageous.

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