Mental Health

Empathy Is Key To Understanding Others, But Too Much Can Impair Social Interaction: Study

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New research suggests being excessively empathetic can impair understanding of others. Pixabay

The ability to understand and share in another person's feelings is not only a good trait to have, but it's a key factor of successful social interactions; the other is an ability to understand a person's intentions. Empathy has also been linked to many health benefits, such as reduced stress and anxiety. And yet, new research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggests there's such a thing as being too empathetic — and it hurts more than helps your relationships.

Prior studies have linked these two social skills, empathy and understanding, together, suggesting they connect and relate to one another to some extent; however, the exact link is still unclear. So researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, set out to examine whether or not people who empathize easily with others are also capable of grasping their thoughts and intentions. They conducted two experiments using electroencephalography — a method that records electrical activity of the brain — involving about 200 people. This data would also tell researchers if certain parts of the brain are more active as participants complete the study.

Participants watched a number of video sequences that included a narrator with either a neutral or emotional tone. They had a chance to rate each sequence after they were finished watching, namely if they felt any compassion — if so, how much. Participants' answers indicated to researchers who among them had a higher level of empathy.

Results showed people who empathize easily do not necessarily understand other people well at a cognitive level. This could explain why social skills seem to be based on multiple abilities that are rather independent of one another. What's more, there may be some communication between different neural networks. 

For example, researchers found that parts of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive perspective-taking do, in fact, interact with one another. During more emotional moments, the insula, which is part of the brain's empathy-relevant network, can inhibit the part of the brain that helps a person see someone else's perspective. So while one person may be excessively empathetic, they may not be able to truly grasp the situation.

Researchers believe these findings are important and enough to inform clinical practice. Specifically, they suggest other psychologists develop social skills training that tackles the willingness to empathize, the ability to understand others, as well as the ability to take on someone else's perspective both selectively and separately. 

Source: Zinchenko A, Kanske P, Obermeier C, Schroger E, Kotz S. Emotion and Goal-Directed Behavior: ERP Evidence on Cognitive and Emotional Conflict. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2016.

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