The Pain of Emotional Empathy & Social Bonds

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. 

The table showcases the average performance of the depressive patients (DEP) and the healthy controls (HC) on the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET) (Thoma 2011).

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. 

The figure showcases the empathy scores in participants with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and the control group (HC) in the cognitive and affective empathy scale (Harari 2010).

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.

Example of the cold pressor task but unlike the one in the Bastian (2014) experiment, the participant is not trying to locate metal balls in the container. 

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).

Work Cited

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. 

5 thoughts on “The Pain of Emotional Empathy & Social Bonds

  1. What an interesting topic, Bashaina! I’m really glad that you defined the different types of empathy. Why do you think aversive experiences have such a strong impact on our lives and behaviors. Even when it comes to learning, we tend to learn faster when learning occurs in an aversive context.

    Congratulations on your first blog post!

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  2. Hi Bashaina, I enjoyed reading your blog post because I have always been really interested in the role empathy plays in our lives! I found it interesting that individuals bonded more when they underwent more adverse experiences. Would results differ if one group of participants had a fun, exciting experience together? Reading about the correlation between mental disorders and empathy made me wonder, do individuals who have higher emotional empathy have a greater risk of depression? Could depression increase one’s emotional empathy?

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  3. Great post Bashaina! The fact that the group who underwent a painful experience experienced a greater pain wasn’t all that surprising to me initially. When I used to run track in high school, my teammates would often discuss the nature of pain bonding. After particularly difficult days of practice, I often would feel a much greater bond with my teammates, and I think this post did a good job of teaching me a bit more of the science that goes into those sorts of connections. I was able to have a great deal of emotional empathy with my teammates, as I was able to share the same painful experience that they were going through, and in turn, this brought us closer together. I wonder if this is a strategy that would be effective, or ethical, for coaches to reference in an attempt to bring their teams closer?

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  4. Hello Bashaina, I enjoyed reading your blog post and learning more about empathy and how people with mental illnesses express it. In the clinical interventions seminar that I took this semester with Professor Sheets, we talked about important factors in therapy for promoting positive outcomes, regardless of the treatment used. One of the most commonly discussed is accurate empathy. Given the research you cited suggesting that people with depression and borderline personality disorder have a higher capacity for emotional empathy than the general public, I am curious how one might consider this in the context of therapists and their ability to promote positive therapy outcomes. Is it possible that the best therapists suffer from depression or borderline personality disorder, or is accurate empathy more related to cognitive or compassionate empathy than emotional empathy?

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  5. This post was super interesting to me because I didn’t realize that empathy can be defined as 3 different types of empathy. I really liked how you emphasized how different mood disorders score differently on tests exploring empathy. I found it very interesting that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder score very highly for emotional empathy. However, this doesn’t surprise me; since a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis indicates an instability with one’s sense of self and individuals often have a “favorite person” that they solely rely on for validation and support. In order to ensure they receive constant reassurance, I can see how someone with BPD would value emotional closeness. Additionally, mimicry is a behavior done in BPD patients to build a perceived sense of belonging, so recognizing others emotions and sharing that emotion with them could be considered mimicry.

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