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Our Collective Lack of Empathy

Lifehacker had an article a few weeks ago that I finally got around to reading this week.  It’s about how “walking in another person’s shoes” actually makes us less empathetic.  That those in the community, going through the experience themselves, have less empathy than those outside the situation.


The article quotes the study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

We found that people who endured challenges in the past (like divorce or being skipped over for a promotion) were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation…Taken together, these results suggest that people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.

Listen, you can sort of see it in our community when we play the Pain Olympics, or we judge another person for the way they’re choosing to address their infertility, but I wonder if those researchers — overall — would find the same results if they were to study us.

Because I think there is a big difference between the empathy we feel for universal experiences vs. the empathy we feel for specialized experiences — the ones that most people will not go through.  The example of bullying in the article is a universal experience.  Most people will feel the effects of bullying at some point in their life.

But infertility is something most people won’t experience, and because of that, I think it brings out a level of support missing from the general world.

I think you can get more empathy here from other IFfers than you can get from the general population, and that is perhaps because we know the two-fold level of emotional pain that comes from infertility: It’s not just that you’re dealing with the emotions of infertility.  You’re also dealing with the emotions of not being like the rest of the world around you as you deal with the emotions of infertility.  And triggers are always around you, in the form of pregnant women and babies and happy families eating next to you in restaurants and baby clothing sections at clothing stores.

I don’t know.  I’m just thinking back to all the times when I’ve been at a baby-centric life cycle event and while the general circle of women aren’t very empathetic, a fellow stirrup queen will always walk by and rub my back or give me a meaningful look for a moment.  And I know that they know.  And they know that I know.

Maybe we’re just the exceptions to the rule?

What do you think?  Do you get more empathy from people who have been through infertility or people who have not?


1 SR { 11.10.15 at 8:09 am }

Intuitively I agree with you Mel. I also believe and have observed that individual struggles to conceive and to carry conceived lives to “live birth” and beyond cut us to our core. I wonder if stripping away so much enables a deeper ability to connect empathically, to show others the compassion we must learn to have for ourselves if we are to survive (and stop the BS storytelling a la the “pain olympics”). Then I see the drama-making and pain olympics again and I wonder if only some of us who have struggled with IF and RPL actually engage our own humility and find our compassion for self and others (or others when it is still too painful or terrifying to find compassion for ourselves) who would score higher on this kind of empathy analysis. I don’t know the answer but it’s something about which I have wondered myself. Thanks for writing about it.

2 Sharon { 11.10.15 at 8:51 am }

I think you must be right when it comes to unique (or even relatively unique) experiences. Otherwise how would people derive benefits from support groups as diverse as those that exist for people living with chronic illness, going through cancer treatment and for survivors of murder victims? All such groups exist, and their members are helped by belonging to them.

3 a { 11.10.15 at 9:03 am }

Well, I sort of think it just depends on the person. My sister was in the military and she was talking about all the crap they put the new people through and how awful it was and how she was looking forward to torturing the new group now that she was in charge (this was very mild stuff, not the serious hazing, as they are all dentists). I was all “if you hated it…why would you want to put other people through that?” She said “because I had to do it, why shouldn’t they?”

I’m not particularly empathetic – people whine about a lot of shit that they should just power through – but I cannot understand why you would want to make someone else undergo something you found trying/difficult/unpleasant if you have the power to make it different.

As far as the infertility community, I am quite certain that there are plenty of people who go through infertility and think that everyone who complains about it should just accept their lot in life and move on. But you’d probably never find them reading infertility blogs. Instead, you’ll find them in the comment section of the news stories.

4 Valery Valentina { 11.10.15 at 9:10 am }

mmmhmm, maybe “we” – the blogging IF community are a specific selection of the all people who have gone through IF? I suppose it is a bit of a big step to equate blogging with empathy, but there may be a correlation?
Reverse this: people who feel anger to ‘fellow’ IF-ers would probably not stick around here?

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.10.15 at 11:12 am }

I do think there’s something very special about our community. It has changed me, taught me so much about the power of empathy. The research surprises me. I wonder if you’re right about specialized experiences as opposed to general.

I wonder if this is what happens in the general: “If I could get through it, you can, too. Buck up.”

6 Cristy { 11.10.15 at 11:51 am }

This got me thinking: is the lack of empathy in more universal situations due to the perceived access to resources that previously weren’t available? For example, bullying has become a much talked about issue, with more resources and support available to those who are subjected to it. Is this access to resources a reason for the apathy? That there is a perceived fix that didn’t exist before?

Like Lori, I’ve grown a lot due to this community. And I don’t believe I would have survived infertility and all the trauma without it. But I’ve also witnessed the dark-side brought on by pain olympics and the comparisons. And it’s caused me to be more cautious.

7 illustr8d { 11.10.15 at 1:24 pm }

As you know, I’m not a member of the IF community, other than being the daughter of a woman who was an IFfer. So I can’t answer this question at all. Still, I just want to say that I think everyone is less empathetic now. I have lots of theories around what it’s about, but I think, in the US anyway, that it’s half PTSD from 9/11 and half the economy putting people in such a stressed out place they don’t know what to do with themselves. I blame those things, that created a world so different from the ’90s. There are other things as well, I know. Why are we no longer tender and gentle with one another? Why is it okay to abandon friends or family who are going through a hard time? I don’t know. I only know I dislike this cold and cruel world very much and I spend a great deal of time thinking about it and thinking about how to change it.

8 nicoleandmaggie { 11.10.15 at 2:03 pm }

I wonder if there’s something about the type of set-back. Many people could look at divorce as a good thing that made them stronger, or even not getting a promotion can end up being not such a bad thing. But there’s nothing really good about infertility or miscarriage.

I also know there’s a strong literature on empathy and agency. When things are framed as being the fault of the person they happen to, people are far less empathetic than when the same thing is framed as being external to that person. Again, it is far more difficult to make the case that people caused their own infertility (or miscarriages) compared to divorce or lack of promotion.

I would also assume people would be equally empathetic or more empathetic to loss of a mother, and other kinds of external tragedies.

9 Maria { 11.10.15 at 3:56 pm }

I am also curious what the research would hold, as I’ve seen and been a part of both sides of the spectrum. My greatest supporters were my family who had no idea what IF was like. And I also got the “I know that *you* know what I’m going through” thing. But I also lost a fellow IF friend who got pregnant before me, because I wasn’t asking her pregnancy-related questions. She’d been through the hell of IF, so, according to her, I should have been more happy and excited for her. But I wasn’t asking her enough baby questions, and ultimately our friendship ended.

10 deathstar { 11.11.15 at 11:49 am }

I think that just because someone did a study on somewhat, doesn’t mean that it’s accurate. I don’t think this applies to life altering events. Several people I don’t even know that well (or at all) have reached out to me because they too have lost a mother. I’m so touched by the fact that people would reach out to let me know that I was no alone. Of course, I’m surprised that it came from this community but it also came from people I barely know in real life.

11 deathstar { 11.11.15 at 11:56 am }

Ohmigod, sorry about that, my laptop (thanks Windows 10) crashed before looking over my comment. So I’ll say it again, you can delete the previous one: The study is not accurate, it’s crap and in my experience, has no relevancy. I’m NOT surprised that people from this community has reached out to me to express their empathy over the loss of my mother and indeed have even asked me to email them if I need to and I’ve also had people in real life that I barely know do the same.

12 Journeywoman { 11.11.15 at 2:05 pm }
13 Jamie { 11.12.15 at 1:42 am }

I don’t know. I think I’d like to read the research article to get a better feel for its validity and reliability. There is a lot of research about the benefits of social support. I wonder if the population samples take into consideration the amount and type of help the people going through the difficult life event used or did not use. A person who seeks out social support for coping may be more empathetic in nature and possibly less judgemental. I do not think the blanket statement is fair or appropriate. It does not seem to take into account differences in coping styles. I could see how society may make it taboo to talk about difficult situations, but there are opportunities for quiet support if you can seek it out.

14 B { 11.16.15 at 7:25 am }

I’m with those who want to see it broken down in more detail according to the way they were treated and/or the coping mechanisms they used when they were going through the event.

I feel intuitively that if you got help (were offered and accepted it) through your life event then you’re likely to turn around and pass that on. Whereas if you were isolated (not offered help/not able to accept it) then you might expect others to shut up and put up – at best. I don’t feel the type of event is as important.

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