Empathy is the experience of understanding the condition of another person from their perspective (Delgado 2021). There are three forms of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate (Acenda Integrated Health 2021). Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling and their current state of mind. Emotional or affective empathy is the ability to share the emotions of others. Compassionate empathy involves taking action or encouraging the person to take action based on their emotional state.
While Empathy is regarded as a positive ability that promotes social connectedness, how people with a mental illness express empathy can shed light on aspects of empathy that are not as advantageous as we thought.
In people suffering from depression and borderline personality disorder, their capacity for emotional empathy is significantly higher than the general public (Thoma 2011; Harari 2010). In one experiment by Thoma (2011), Twenty-one patients with unipolar depression were assessed on their emotional empathy using a multifaceted empathy test (MET). They found that people with depression had significantly higher emotional empathy than the controls. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in cognitive empathy between the participants with depression and the control.
In an experiment by Harari (2010), they found, similar to depression, patients with borderline personality disorder demonstrated higher emotional or affective empathy. However, unlike patients with depression, the participants with borderline personality disorder showed a decreased capacity for cognitive empathy.
It seems high emotional empathy is a symptom (or maybe a contributor) to both depression and borderline personality disorder. These studies should make us pause about the effects emotional empathy has. This discovery leads to the question: how can something that may be a contributor (or at least a symptom) of truly painful disorders be something that provides people immense pleasure in the form of social bonds? This question is based on the assumption that social bonds can not be formed from pain because they provide us pleasure.
In a study performed by Bastian (2014), the researchers randomly assigned 54 university students two groups: one group performed a cold pressor task in less than 3 °C ice water while the other group performed a cold pressor task in room temperature water (in both conditions, participants had to locate metal balls in the bottom of the water vessel). Afterward, the participants rated the degrees to which their perception of the physical tasks was described by 12 adjectives and then evaluated seven statements designed to measure their feeling of bonding to the other participants. The experiment found that greater reported unpleasantness positively correlated to higher reported bonding, meaning participants bond more when they share a painful experience.
The results of Bastian’s experiment support the idea that pain can be the driving force of social bonds, which makes sense why emotional empathy, also a driving force for social bonding (Stupacher 2021); at high levels may be a contributor or symptom of distressing mental illness. Maybe painful is an inaccurate way to describe emotional empathy and social bonds, Anyur’s description of it being something that “ allowed us to survive, but also might have left a vulnerability may be a better description (Deisseroth 2021).
Delgado, J. (2021, May 1). What is empathy? Psychology Spot. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://psychology-spot.com/what-is-empathy/
Why it’s important to show empathy. Acenda Integrated Health . (2021, March 8). Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://acendahealth.org/blog/why-its-important-to-show-empathy/
Thoma, P., Zalewski, I., von Reventlow, H. G., Norra, C., Juckel, G., & Daum, I. (2011). Cognitive and affective empathy in depression linked to executive control. Psychiatry Research, 189(3), 373–378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2011.07.030
Harari, H., Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Ravid, M., & Levkovitz, Y. (2010). Double dissociation between cognitive and affective empathy in borderline personality disorder. Psychiatry Research, 175(3), 277–279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2009.03.002
Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Ferris, L. J. (2014). Pain as social glue: Shared pain increases cooperation. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2079–2085. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614545886
Stupacher, J., Mikkelsen, J., & Vuust, P. (2021). Higher empathy is associated with stronger social bonding when moving together with music. Psychology of Music, 030573562110506. https://doi.org/10.1177/03057356211050681
Deisseroth, K. (2021). Projections: A story of human emotions. Random House.