Don’t Walk a Mile in My Shoes

 

What we sometimes say, when we’re trying to feel empathy — or, more often, trying to get someone else to feel it, is “Hey, when you’ve walked a mile in his (or her, or their) shoes….”

The theory is, if you can put yourself in someone else’s place you’ll have more empathy, more understanding, of their situation. Which makes sense, I guess.

But it’s probably wrong. From the Harvard Business Review:

In a series of recent experiments, 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.

That rings faint bells in my conscience. I’ve often been harder on people who are experiencing unpleasant things that I’ve experienced.

In the first experiment, we surveyed people participating in a “polar plunge”— a jump into a very icy Lake Michigan in March. All participants read a story about a man named Pat who intended to complete the plunge, but chickened out and withdrew from the event at the last minute. Critically, participants read about Pat either before they had completed the plunge themselves, or one week after. We found that polar plungers who had successfully completed the plunge were less compassionate and more contemptuous of Pat than were those who had not yet completed the plunge.

Okay, that makes sense. If you’ve never done such a thing, it’s unthinkable. If you have, you’re probably saying to yourself, What a wuss!

But here’s something thornier:

In another study, we looked at compassion toward an individual struggling with unemployment. More than 200 people read a story about a man who — despite his best efforts — is unable to find a job. Struggling to make ends meet, the man ultimately stoops to selling drugs in order to earn money. The results: people who had overcome a period of unemployment in the past were less compassionate and more judgmental of the man than were people who were currently unemployed or had never been involuntary unemployed.

What’s surprising, to me, is that this finding seems so right on. I’ve often spoken in favor of some RINO squishy social welfare program, only to have someone who has truly experienced the condition that the program was designed to address laugh long and hard in my face.

But here’s how the results of the study are characterized in the article:

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.

Penalize? Is that really what’s going on? Or is it just Hey, I made it through the same thing and you didn’t hear me whining or asking the government for help.

First, people generally have difficulty accurately recalling just how difficult a past aversive experience was.  Though we may remember that a past experience was painful, stressful, or emotionally trying, we tend to underestimate just how painful that experience felt in the moment. This phenomenon is called an “empathy gap.”

Second, people who have previously overcome an aversive experience know that they were able to successfully overcome it, which makes them feel especially confident about their understanding of just how difficult the situation is. The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I know that I got through it myself” creates the perception that the event can be readily conquered, reducing empathy toward others struggling with the event.

I buy the second point but not the first. Maybe “forgetting” how miserable you were during a challenging time means you weren’t all that miserable. But however you interpret these results, this seems to be an undeniable conclusion:

This means that many people may be instinctively seeking compassion from the very people who are least likely to provide it.

Which describes a lot of marriages, I guess.

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  1. Grey Hare Inactive
    Grey Hare
    @greyhare

    The misery makes you rise to the challenge. Succeeding gives you the insight to share your experience. The person being ‘penalized’ simply isn’t able/ready to take those steps.

    People need more than empathy to move forward.

    And they need to wear their own shoes.

    • #1
  2. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    Interesting. I once read about a study showing that the people who had the harshest attitudes towards the obese were not the so-called normal, non-fat people, but the ex-obese (note: this was decades ago, pre-stomach surgery “cures” for obesity, when the only way to do it was diet and lots of time in the gym). Their attitude was summed up as “Quit making excuses, lard-*ss. I’ve been there and it can be done”.

    • #2
  3. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    First, let me say I’m skeptical about the very idea of empathy.

    But number B, I think this falls in line with the tendency to overemphasize our own efforts in success and overemphasize others in our failures.

    To do X, you first need to do step 1, 2, and 3. But doing 1, 2, and 3 don’t necessarily end in success. Those who get X after those steps want to believe it was because they were great. Nobody wants to believe it was luck. Which, of course, it always is.

    So they like shouting down anyone who points that fact out.

    I ought to be swimming in government money.

    • #3
  4. Knate Member
    Knate
    @Knate

    I think what’s going on in their conclusion is an implicit conflation of the feeling of difficulty with the actual difficulty of a circumstance.  This is a cultural ill of ours.  Those who’ve been through the circumstance are able to say truthfully, “yes, it feels hopeless and black, but trust me, keep plugging away and you’ll pull through.  I’ve been there.”  The ostensible compassion in the piece says instead, “Yes, it feels hopeless and black.  You’re screwed.”

    • #4
  5. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    In an odd way, I think the lack of empathy springs from a strange form of…well jealousy. Or maybe injustice is a better word.

    “I had to overcome without any help- why you? Why now?” Every older sibling who yelled at their parents that they never got away with [whatever] their little brother/sister can has experienced the same feeling. People I know who grew up on food stamps can get downright nasty when the conversation turns to expanding the program.

    Perhaps the more interesting followup question is: is the compassion helpful or appreciated? I don’t know that compassion as defined by these researchers is automatically a good thing.

    • #5
  6. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    I donno. I buy the general premise, but despite having successfully finished grad school, I have nothing but empathy for those who continue to struggle through it. I was completely miserable and wouldn’t wish that on anyone or discount their bad feelings towards it. And I don’t expect to feel differently as time goes on.

    Additionally, I’ve never experienced anything approximating poverty, and yet I have no qualms about eliminating the welfare state tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.

    Soooo…. is my empathy gauge broken or working?

    • #6
  7. Robert E. Lee Member
    Robert E. Lee
    @RobertELee

    “Don’t walk a mile in my shoes”

    I don’t want someone to walk a mile in my shoes.  If they do, they’ll be a mile away and they’ll have my shoes.

    I think some of this may have to do with compassion overload.  We only have so much compassion, so much empathy, to go round at any given time.  Go over the limit and it’s hard to care.

    • #7
  8. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    Grey Hare:The misery makes you rise to the challenge. Succeeding gives you the insight to share your experience. The person being ‘penalized’ simply isn’t able/ready to take those steps.

    People need more than empathy to move forward.

    And they need to wear their own shoes.

    Nicely put.

    • #8
  9. dittoheadadt Inactive
    dittoheadadt
    @dittoheadadt

    “If I can do it, you can do it.”  Sounds plausible.

    “I’ve never had to do that; you have my sympathy (since I can only assume what you’re trying to do is difficult, never having done it or even tried it myself).”  Sounds plausible.

    • #9
  10. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Demanding empathy from Those not capable of “walking in Yer shoes” is where the real money and power is at.

    The marks develop an overwhelming sense of guilt that They overcompensate by creating quotas, set-asides, grants… no amount of rewards are able to assuage the marks’ shame. It’s a bottomless well from which to draw.

    There are entire industries built on this foundation.

    • #10
  11. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    This post pretty much explains my name, as a teenager without money or parents it simply never occurred to me that I was entitled to someone else’s money or that the government is supposed to take care of me or any other able bodied person. I wasn’t ‘poor’, I just had no money so I set about getting some.

    • #11
  12. Terry Mott Member
    Terry Mott
    @TerryMott

    Penalize? Is that really what’s going on? Or is it just Hey, I made it through the same thing and you didn’t hear me whining or asking the government for help.

    Oh, gag.  Penalize?  Really?  What an adolescent thing to say, that expecting someone to overcome adversity without coddling is a “penalty”.  What next?  “That’s not fair!!! I Hate My Life!!!” as they storm off to their room?

    This from two professors and a doctoral student at Harvard.  Wow.

    • #12
  13. Matt Upton Inactive
    Matt Upton
    @MattUpton

    I can think of one counterexample. The people I know who were waiters/waitresses tip generously and wouldn’t think of stiffing the waiter entirely even if the service was terrible. They understand what it was like and how dependent waiters are on tips for a decent wage.

    The examples listed in the articles showed people making unethical and cowardly decisions because of their problems. Would there be greater empathy from the experienced for those who showed earnest effort through the trial?

    In other words, they may scorn those who failed to take polar plunge, but would they be the ones cheering loudest when the person was on the edge, summoning the courage to jump?

    • #13
  14. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    And then there are those trials that, once you have been through them, you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, leaving only empathy for anyone unfortunate enough to endure the same.

    • #14
  15. Clare Day Member
    Clare Day
    @ClareDay

    Maybe empathy is as empathy does? When you’ve walked your own way through hardships your deepened compassion for others makes you want them to survive and thrive; your message is ‘you can do it’. This often looks brusque which the overeducated read as ‘mean’.

    As for the study’s approved expressions of milk-of-human-kindness which it then found to be statistically more significant in those less well informed by experience, I’m sure there’s some of that but how do they control for the statistical noise of the (guilty) indulgence buyers or the (proud) collectors of virtue-ornaments?

    • #15
  16. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Matt Upton: I can think of one counterexample. The people I know who were waiters/waitresses tip generously and wouldn’t think of stiffing the waiter entirely even if the service was terrible. They understand what it was like and how dependent waiters are on tips for a decent wage.

    I’ve never been a waitress, but I’ve worked a lot of customer service. I will never stiff a tip for a waiter who is professional, courteous, and is prompt with any service that is within their control (e.g. drinks, silverware, dessert menus, etc.). If the kitchen is backed up, or someone in the back screws up an order, or the credit card machine is running slow, I get it, because I’ve been there too.

    I do come down like the wrath of God on waiters who are lackadaisical, lethargic, or distracted in their jobs. As has been repeated, if I could do it, so can they.

    • #16
  17. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    People’s perception of hardship/discomfort/pain during the actual occurrence is much different than people’s remembrance. People tend to remember beginnings, maximums, minimums, and endings during episodes.

    For people that have been through a hardship they remember the end of the hardship – when things got better more than the rest of the hardship.

    Now if you ask people that are currently enduring the hardship for empathy you will get more empathy because they are currently enduring it.

    • #17
  18. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Bottom line.  Empathy is not sympathy.  Empathy doesn’t always lead to sympathy.  Understanding often through similar experiences doesn’t make one automatically sympathetic to the course of action another person may be taking.

    • #18
  19. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    There’s an straightforward psychological answer to this, explained by Nietzsche: Every society has a “table of values” derived from the difficulties the society has overcome.

    So “Thou shalt not steal” indicates that a people got over the habit of stealing and then turned honesty into a value.

    • #19
  20. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    J.D. I’m not giving you your table back.

    • #20
  21. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    It’s pretty simple: anything I can figure out is not that complicated and anyone should be able to do it; anything I struggle with, you are all geniuses!

    I’m in construction, an electrician. I’ve always said that I’m pretty reasonably good at something that’s not all that hard to be good at.

    Other things, like Excel or the ways of a woman’s neural pathways, well, you’re all geniuses!

    • #21
  22. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Actually, Adam Smith has a really interesting discussion about this in “the theory of moral sentiments.” It is not the ordeal itself that people are reacting to, but the reaction. We admire those who can quietly suffer, and we resent those who weep and wail, even if we think it is understandable.

    What I think you’re really pointing out is that those who have experienced something are far less tolerant of overblown emotionalism, which we dislike anyway. The flip side of that is that if a person is reacting admirably to adversity, those who understand the impact of that adversity will likely hold that person in when higher regard.

    In other words, empathy is not going to justify bad behavior.

    • #22
  23. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Mike H:I donno. I buy the general premise, but despite having successfully finished grad school, I have nothing but empathy for those who continue to struggle through it. I was completely miserable and wouldn’t wish that on anyone or discount their bad feelings towards it. And I don’t expect to feel differently as time goes on.

    Additionally, I’ve never experienced anything approximating poverty, and yet I have no qualms about eliminating the welfare state tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.

    Soooo…. is my empathy gauge broken or working?

    Funny, I feel the exact opposite about law school. It’s not that hard if you have half a brain and actually do your work. And for most students it’s a full time job. I find those who moan about it to be dishonest… Simply seeking attention or praise for doing what should be expected of anyone. But don’t get me started… ;)

    • #23
  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rob Long:

    …We found that polar plungers who had successfully completed the plunge were less compassionate and more contemptuous of Pat than were those who had not yet completed the plunge.

    Okay, that makes sense. If you’ve never done such a thing, it’s unthinkable. If you have, you’re probably saying to yourself, What a wuss!

    Survivorship bias probably plays a role:

    Survivorship bias, or survival bias, is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. The survivors may be actual people, as in a medical study, or could be companies or research subjects or applicants for a job, or anything that must make it past some selection process to be considered further.

    Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance. It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence…

    Survivorship bias is a type of selection bias.

    • #24
  25. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Matt Upton:I can think of one counterexample. The people I know who were waiters/waitresses tip generously and wouldn’t think of stiffing the waiter entirely even if the service was terrible. They understand what it was like and how dependent waiters are on tips for a decent wage.

    The examples listed in the articles showed people making unethical and cowardly decisions because of their problems. Would there be greater empathy from the experienced for those who showed earnest effort through the trial?

    In other words, they may scorn those who failed to take polar plunge, but would they be the ones cheering loudest when the person was on the edge, summoning the courage to jump?

    Re: the waitress example, I’ve found it is usually an extreme, but it can go both ways. There’s one ex-waitress in my life I had to stop eating out with. She seemed to be determined to exact revenge on every service person for the bad customers she had had.

    • #25
  26. Richard Finlay Inactive
    Richard Finlay
    @RichardFinlay

    I would say that the first example, at least, does not illustrate what they claim.  The aspiring polar bear turned chicken was not ‘evaluated’ by others who had publicly backed out of (what is essentially) a dare, but by those who went through with it or who (believed that they) were going to.  They had not ‘walked’ in the same ‘shoes’.  It would have been better to find people who had failed to jump with the parachute or do the zip line or bungee jump to see if their empathy led to sympathy.

    Beyond that, though, the notion of not judging until you have experienced something similar does not imply that your judgement will be sympathetic, it just says that if you have experienced the same thing, your (possibly harsh) judgement is legitimate.

    [Edited to correct punctuation because once such a thing is noticed it must not be allowed to persist.]

    • #26
  27. Joseph Eagar Member
    Joseph Eagar
    @JosephEagar

    Do the authors differentiate between perceptually legitimate and illegitimate stressors? My experience is that people who feel what happened to them was illegitimate really are more empathetic, while people who feel it was legitimate (though they may still feel it was unfair) are less.

    • #27
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