Like to Help Other People? Be Careful. It Could Be Hazardous to Your Health.

I tend to be a pretty empathetic sort.  In high school my parents used to always criticize me because I was forever taking the side of the forgotten (or bullied) kid and they wanted me in the popular crowd.  Guess they saw how that turned out.

But now a new study is saying that walking a mile in another's shoes may wind up being hazardous to your health, according to newswise.com.

Huh?

A University of Buffalo researcher says it's how we arrive at empathy that counts.

When it comes to empathy, the idiom that suggests “walking a mile in their shoes” turns out to be problematic advice, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“That’s because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone, who was a PhD student at UB when the research was conducted.

The routes to empathy Poulin mentions diverge at the point of the helper’s perspective.  The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another.

One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other way to empathize is for helpers to put themselves into someone else’s situation, the imagined “walking a mile” scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

“You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT),” says Poulin. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT).  “I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant. On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive (IOPT).”

The current study is noteworthy because it examines the effects of perspective-taking while someone is actually engaged in helping behavior.

“I have some degree of uncertainty about how well people are parsing out the distinction when reporting how much they were feeling for themselves versus the other person,” says Poulin.

The study measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not.

“When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body,” says Poulin. “We can detect this in the lab and what we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.”

Advice for parents: “Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling.’”









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