I Know How You Feel…Or Do I?

This paper describes a complicated experiment but one that’s worth unpicking and understanding. It’s all about visceral states – thirst, cold, exhaustion, and such like – and how they affect our ability to empathise with others.

Visceral states are really interesting – they turn out to have all sorts of impacts on people’s decisions. We know that being hungry or tired or excited can radically change your behaviour and your predictions about that behaviour. This experiment starts by confirming what a couple of others have uncovered – that visceral states also have a big impact on how you perceive other people’s behaviour.

The people running the study read participants a story about a hiker lost on a mountain, and then asked whether the hiker’s worst problem was cold, thirst, or hunger. Some of the people they asked were outside, on a cold day, and some of the people were inside in the warm. As hypothesised, people who were themselves cold were far more likely to say the fictional hiker was, too. A second experiment, focusing on the visceral state of thirst by making some participants eat salty snacks, found similar results – in this case thirst got the boost.

But here’s where things get more complicated. Participants were also told something else about the hiker: their politics. For some, the hiker was a conservative, for others, the hiker was a liberal. And participants were asked their own political leanings too. What the researchers discovered was that on average this visceral effect only happened when the hiker’s politics and the participant’s were similar. For people of dissimilar views, the effect was cancelled out.

This is pretty amazing when you think about it. It’s one thing to believe that people of a different political leaning think differently, but imagining they feel cold or thirst differently is bizarre. Of course, that’s not quite what’s happening – instead the kind of extreme empathic projection visceral states bring on seems only to apply to people we identify with. We can still empathise with those different from us, but that empathy won’t be distorted by our own visceral state as it would be to someone in our in-group.

Fascinating, and possibly frightening, stuff

(Incidentally, the paper suggests it doesn’t have to be politics that defines the groupings – other differences work fine too.)

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