The Empathy Gap: Why We Fail to Understand Different Perspectives

The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state, or to struggle to consider how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making.

When people are in a certain mental state (e.g. happy or angry), they struggle to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different mental state, whether that person is their future self or someone else.

Examples of Empathy gaps

When it comes to misjudging our own emotions and behaviors, the empathy gap can, for example, cause us to:

  • Overestimate our ability to stay composed in an upcoming stressful event, if we’re currently calm.
  • Overestimate the likelihood that we will be able to stop consuming an addictive substance, such as coffee, if we just consumed it so we’re not feeling cravings at the moment.
  • Underestimate how much our feelings for someone affected our judgment in the past, if we no longer have feelings for that person.

Types of empathy gaps

  • Cold-to-hot empathy gaps. A cold-to-hot empathy gap occurs when someone is in a cold (emotionally neutral) state, and has trouble understanding someone in a hot (emotional) state. For example, someone who is currently calm might experience a cold-to-hot empathy gap when trying to predict how they will act in a situation where they’re upset.
  • Hot-to-cold empathy gaps. A hot-to-cold empathy gap occurs when someone is in a hot (emotional) state, and has trouble understanding someone in a cold (emotionally neutral) state.
  • Intrapersonal bias. An intrapersonal empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they consider their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Interpersonal bias. An interpersonal empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they try to consider someone else’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Retrospective bias. A retrospective empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they think about things that happened in the past.
  • Prospective bias. A prospective empathy gap occurs when people experience the empathy gap as they think about things that will happen in the future.

How to handle empathy gaps

  • Visualize different mental states and perspectives. One way to minimize the empathy gap is to visualize how you will feel when you’re in a different mental state than the one you’re in at the moment.
  • Explain the different perspectives. In some cases, and particularly when trying to reduce someone else’s empathy gap, it can be beneficial to explain different perspectives than the one that someone is experiencing at the moment.
  • Think about how others would act. If you’re trying to account for the empathy gap when it comes to predicting your own behavior, it can sometimes help to imagine how other people would act under the same circumstances.
  • Consider past actions. When it comes to empathy gaps that we experience when we try to predict our future thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we often ignore our past, despite it generally being a strong indicator of how we’re most likely to think, feel, or act.

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