In the golden age of superhero movies, I feel safe in asserting that, like many others, I enjoy a good superhero story from time to time. There is something satisfying about a superhero taking down the big bad villain in an epic showdown during the climax of a superhero story. What does this have to do with empathy and aggression? Everything.
The job of a superhero is to help those who can’t fight for themselves. Everyday people can’t stop the Joker or Magneto; we require the help of someone like Batman or the X-Men (X-People, really) to save the day. The process is something like this: (1) the villain attacks or threatens innocent people; (2) the superhero sees the distress of these people; (3) they jump to the rescue, saving the people from harm; and, (4) they attack the villain, eventually incapacitating them.
Part of the usual process is the superhero jumping from feelings of sympathy/empathy, toward eventually attacking the villain. This makes perfect sense in the superhero story. But what about everyday life? Does the average person who experiences empathy towards a distressed individual become more likely to act aggressively to help the suffering person?
There is a ton of research on empathy in the psychological literature, but it has traditionally been concerned with exploring links between empathy and positive interpersonal interactions like social support or helping behavior (e.g., here, here, here, and here; measure your own dispositional empathy here). However, new research by Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin explores whether empathy might actually lead to aggressive behaviors in everyday life.
Across two studies, these researchers found that whether you were thinking about recent past events in your life (i.e., seeing a close other who was being hurt physically or emotionally by another person), or you were thinking about helping another person in the future, if you felt empathy toward a person, and also perceived that person to be in distress, you were more wiling to use physical and/or verbal aggression to help the person in need. What this means is that if a person did not feel empathy or did not perceive the person to be distressed, that person was less likely to act in an aggressive way to help the person.
Amazingly, the researchers also found that those who felt empathy toward a person in distress would be more likely to act aggressive toward another individual who had nothing to do with causing the initial distress! In some situations, people are willing to act aggressively to help a suffering individual, even if it means harming another innocent bystander.
What is the takeaway message from all of this?
This research provides some evidence that empathy can actually lead to aggressive behavior on the behalf of someone who is suffering, and might even lead us to occasionally harm another innocent person. This research is part of an emerging trend in the field of psychology that highlights that emotions or thoughts that are typically considered good (e.g., empathy or self-esteem) can sometimes lead to unexpected consequences. Furthermore, genes and neurohormones might also affect when people are more or less likely to act on their empathy in aggressive ways.
However, the social sciences are complex, and additional questions always remain. Are there limits to which one is willing to act aggressively when feelings of empathy arise? Are there certain sorts of aggression that we think are acceptable to engage in when one is feeling empathetic, and should other sorts of aggression always be considered unacceptable, regardless of feelings of empathy? How can we influence people such that feelings of empathy lead to prosocial, and not antisocial, responses?
What do you think?