The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to grasp a concept due to their current state. Also known as the ‘hot-cold empathy gap’, it causes people to underestimate the effect that certain influences have on them like hunger, sex, drugs, pain, and emotion. The reason why they use the term ‘hot-cold’ is that when a person is feeling one way, they have a hard time empathizing how it would feel to be the opposite or different way. When a person is angry, it is challenging to imagine being calm. When a person is feeling physically well, it is hard to imagine what it would be like to be in pain. When humans are hot, or under the influence of intense emotions or ‘visceral drives’, they tend to believe their behaviour or desires will help them positively in the long term, which is not always true. When humans are cold, or not feeling very intense emotions, they minimize the influence their future emotions may have on them, which leads to negative experiences in the long term because they do not prepare for reality. The reality is that since we are humans, we experience a variety of emotions and states in varying intensity throughout our lives, and these things can and do influence our decision making, behaviour, and beliefs in a negative way.
In 2011, a study was done on the empathy gap and its effects on students that were bullied. It found that people who did not experience being excluded during the study minimized the pain and overall experience of the participants who were excluded. The study also asked middle school teachers to examine their schools’ protocols on bullying, which found that teachers who were experiencing social pain at that time in their lives gave more suggestions for how to deal with bullies and would punish a bully more severely.
The empathy gap can be a good thing in some situations, like when you are in a dangerous, abusive relationship and it’s hard to leave due to feeling empathy for your partner’s struggles. An empathy gap in that situation is ideal because you don’t want to be interpersonal – trying to evaluate the behaviour of someone who is abusive to you is futile, you’re not a professional and you cannot fix the person. It is better long term to remove yourself from the situation. Although, it is extremely unlikely to have an empathy gap in this situation without a large effort because the hot state from the abuser can cause the victim to be in a hot state as well.
Aside from that, an empathy gap is mostly disadvantageous. It can cause doctors to overlook serious signs of illness in their patients, it causes some white people to minimize the experiences BIPOC have with racism, and it can cause some people who don’t use drugs to judge those with substance use disorders.
A way to avoid an empathy gap would be to practice empathy every day in situations you normally wouldn’t. Maybe your partner stubs their toe and yelps out a swear while you are laughing at a funny video, and in that situation, you would normally brush it off and move on. You don’t make a big deal out of it because at that moment you are happy. Instead, you become mindful of the situation. You pause the video and acknowledge that he is in excruciating pain that may force him to let out a loud noise, maybe even a tear. You bring back a memory of the last time you stubbed your toe and how much it hurt. Is it hard to remember? This is called intrapersonal prospective. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad and excruciating! But it could warrant a hug or, “Are you okay?”
Another example is that many people will minimize the effects alcohol has on them. Before you start drinking, you say you’re not going to send a text to your ex that night. Of course, alcohol affects our decision making and inhibitions, so you send a text to them on the ride home. A good way to combat this is to “play the tape to the end”. Remember the sequence of events from when you’ve drunk alcohol in the past in order and play the “tape” all the way to the final outcome of your actions. Maybe texting your ex wasn’t a very good idea and landed you into some trouble. This is called intrapersonal retrospective. It will influence your decision making so that maybe you won’t drink as much next time, or maybe you will take the proper steps to get over your ex.
We are all born capable of experiencing empathy, but it is actually a learned trait. This is a great example of practising critical thinking and using our emotions, or ‘states’, for long term positive results.