Public figures from President Obama to Neil deGrasse Tyson have suggested a lack of empathy is one of our species’ fundamental problems. “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes,” writes author and prominent business-world thinker Daniel Pink. “Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
A lovely thought. But new research suggests it isn’t always true.
A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behavior. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: You also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.
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