waiter with a tray of drinks
PHOTO: Kate Townsend

People tend to avoid feeling empathy because it requires too much mental effort, according to a study published by researchers at Penn State University and the University of Toronto, in April 2019.

“Across all of the experiments, participants on average chose the empathy scenarios 35% of the time, showing a strong preference for the scenarios that didn't require empathy,” according to a Science Daily report on the study. “There also weren't any financial costs for feeling empathy in the study because no one was asked to donate time or money to support child refugees or anyone else featured in the photos.”

Participants even avoided feeling empathy in situations involving joy. It seemed like too much effort to participate in the happiness of others. However, when participants were told that they were good at empathy they were then more likely to engage in empathy scenarios and to report that the mental effort was not strenuous. "If we can shift people's motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole," study author, Darly Cameron said. "It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters."

Another study found that “in order for the performance of black service providers to be rated equivalent to whites, blacks had to amplify and fake positive emotions to override those negative racial stereotypes. In other words, to be seen as good as white employees, black employees need to perform more 'emotional labor,' a concept introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild.”

“Though putting on a smile might seem like a small price to pay to get ahead at work, research shows that keeping up a friendly façade is a path to job burnout, a state of complete exhaustion linked to a desire to quit and health issues. Recognizing this situation is a first step to improving conditions for black employees and customers alike.”

Are we as digital professionals designing a service-based world where huge numbers of mentally stressed service workers are forced to fake-smile their way through the day while they beg for ratings from their rich, pampered customers? When we talk about empathy, are we including, or even thinking about, service workers? I stopped using personas years ago because I found, again and again, that they were so very often artificial, happy-smiling fakes that much more reflected the designer’s perfect marriage partner than an actual customer.

Empathy should never trump evidence. We need much more logical, evidence-based thinking. Another study found that people with autism have lower levels of empathy but concluded that that may not be a bad thing. It wrote about “selective” empathy where people feel empathy much easier for people like them. “Autism has been linked to higher levels of logical thinking and rational decision making,” the study authors noted. “Autistic people have also been shown to make fairer social decisions.” (Of course, there is no better example than climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's.)

It’s easy to feel empathy for people like you. One of the most critical and most common of design mistakes is the invention of personas of people made in your image.