Anxiety makes people less empathetic

I have just read a very interesting study which I wanted to share with you all. The results may just surprise you.

What is this study I hear you asking, well, I will tell you! You may be familiar with some symptoms of feeling anxious, whether that is sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat. But, it turns out there is a less obvious side effect, and that is that anxious people are less empathetic. I know, I’m as surprised as you are, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

This study, conducted by the University of Iowa, had participants tested as to how well they were able to think from another person’s perspective. First, some participants were first asked to recall in detail incidents that had provoked a great deal of anxiety, while others were asked to write about either neutral events or events that provoked anger or disgust.

After this happened the participants went through two tests to gauge their ability to put themselves in someone else’s position. The first test showed a picture of someone holding a book and participants were asked which side of the person the book was on. From the participants perspective the book was on the right, but from the point of view of the person in the picture, the book was on the left. Both answers are correct, but the way in which the p[participants answer shows who’s point of view they are seeing it from.

In the second test, participants were given the following scenario: Nick, an incoming freshman, emails his friend David, a sophomore, to ask if he should take a class with Professor Jones. Unbeknownst to Nick, Professor Jones has been rude to David in the past. David replies, “Oh yeah, Professor Jones is a real nice guy.” Knowing what they know about David and Professor Jones, participants will recognize that the email is sarcastic, but participants are asked how Nick will take the email, to see how well they can see from his perspective.

So how did people do? Well, in the first, the people who were primed to have their anxiety levels elevated were more likely to say the book was on the right, showing they were seeing it from their own perfective. And in the second test, people with elevated anxiety levels were more likely to say that Nick would pick up on the sarcasm. This could mean 1 of 2 things. Either that anxious people are unable to see things from another perspective or that they may just be unwilling to do so.

This finding isn’t great, mainly because when people are anxious, it would probably help them a lot to see a situation from another person’s perspective. But it does make sense, after all anxiety happens when our brains have decided, rightly or wrongly, that we are in trouble. So why, when we are anxious, would our brains prioritize seeing the situations from someone else’s perspective? It wouldn’t.

The thing this study doesn’t show is how anxious people can avoid this problem. This is pretty sucky. However, maybe just being aware of this tendency is enough to recognise when it is happening. Until then just remember deep breaths.

Best of luck everyone.