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Empathy Can Sometimes Motivate

This Dark, Unjustified Behaviour

Empathy has a dark side which is at odds
with its image as a cure-all for the worlds
Contrary to the common view of empathy as an
emotion solely eliciting compassion and warmth,
empathy can unexpectedly motivate aggression.
The result comes from a new study which found
that when feeling empathy towards someone in
distress, people are motivated to be more
aggressive towards another, even when that other
person is not to blame.
The study, published in the Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, had people reading scenarios
about a person who was in financial trouble
(Buffone & Poulin, 2014).
For some participants, the person was described
as being distressed about their financial troubles.
Others read a slightly different scenario in which
the person was not worried about their financial
Then they were told this person was in competition
with another for a $20 prize in a math test.
Under the guise of an apparently separate
experiment, though, participants could feed this
competitor some hot sauce.
The studys lead author, Anneke Buffone, explains:
Hot sauce was described to them as a clearly
painful and performance hindering substance,
meaning that the more hot sauce they assigned,
the worse the anonymous person would do on the
taskand presumably, the more likely that the
person with financial troubles could win.
The results showed that when the person with
financial troubles was distressed, people in the
study administered more notional hot sauce to their
competitor, despite this competitor being blameless.
Empathy had made them more aggressive and
it wasnt because they were impulsive participants
or feeling under threat.
Empathy alone was enough to motivate aggressive
Ms Buffone continued:
We think that among situational motivators of
aggression, witnessing the suffering or need of
others people have come to care about has been
largely overlooked.
anyone can act aggressively out of an empathic
impulse, not just those with a certain personality.
The authors conclude:
Just as the self-esteem movement was not a
panacea leading to happy, successful, and well-
adapted children, [...] empathy interventions may
not stop problems such as bullying and other forms
of aggression and violence, because aggression
itself may result from empathy. (Buffone & Poulin,