Recent findings on how helpers respond to the distress of others challenges existing notions that “walking in one’s shoes” is the best way to empathize and provide help. A study conducted by Buffone and researchers, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, argues that there are two distinct forms of perspective taking that have measurably different effects on the helper.
“No research has examined consequences on the helper while the helper is actively engaged in a helping task. This is particularly noteworthy because the act of helping itself poses distinct emotional burdens on helpers, such as the strain of performing a difficult task on someone else’s behalf and it also poses distinct emotional rewards, such relief of distress in response to another’s suffering.”
Engaging in helping behaviors has been shown to have both positive and negative effects on the helper. Buffone and a team of researchers were interested in understanding whether these effects were a result of how people go about helping. More specifically, they examined different styles of perspective taking.
Some studies point to two distinct forms of perspective taking referred to as imagine-self perspective taking (ISPT) and imagine-other perspective taking (IOPT). While both forms involve compassionate and empathic feelings for the person struggling, they differ in how helpers are able to separate their own experience and the experiences of those they are seeking to help. Those engaging in imagine-self help are more likely to display greater self-related thoughts and fewer other-related thoughts, demonstrating that they were merging the other person’s experience with their own. Imagine-other perspective taking involved greater self-other distinction overall and did not result in the same heightening of personal distress that has been seen to be taken on by ISPT helpers, who personally experience that distress and other negative emotions.
The differences between these two forms of perspective taking have been supported by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) research, according to the authors. Findings from fMRI studies also suggest that the experience of “putting oneself in another’s shoes” (ISPT) may occur automatically or unintentionally while maintaining a clearer distinction between self and other (IOPT) is a more deliberate process.
In seeking to further understand the different consequences of engaging in imagine-self versus imagine-other perspective taking on helpers, Buffone and researchers investigated three primary questions and accompanying hypotheses. Based on the already existing literature, their team expected that helpers engaging in imagine-self perspective taking, who experience the target’s struggle as their own, would experience stronger negative emotions. This form of perspective taking, they hypothesized, would also result in the helper experiencing the situation as more demanding and physiologically threatening in comparison to helpers who used imagine-other perspective taking and to helpers who simply remained entirely objective.
They also sought to examine whether helpers’ perception of the situation as more or less demanding determines how perspective taking results in helpers experiencing the situation as a threat or as a challenge. Finally, the researchers wanted to find out whether further evidence would support that feeling one’s pain as one’s own (ISPT) leads to debilitating personal distress in contrast to separating oneself in the dilemma (IOPT), which is said to involve other-focused, benign distress.
Participants (N=202) were asked to respond, through a video recording, to a written account of a person facing a conflict. They were told that they were tasked with helping a fellow participant when in actuality, the story was of a fictional person. Participants, who were mostly comprised of undergraduate psychology students, were randomly assigned to imagine-self, imagine-other, and objective reading conditions. Their recording consisted of their recounting of the person’s dilemma and their response to the problem. During the course of this process, data was gathered through multiple assessments of self-report and physiological monitoring.
“This study is the first one that assessed effects of perspective taking on physiology during pursuit of a helping task and therefore the first study to our knowledge that directly tested whether different forms of perspective taking could modulate the effects of helping behavior on helper’s health and well-being,” state the authors.
The findings supported the idea that imagining another’s struggle as one’s own leads to a greater state of physiological threat, which may be arousing enough to be debilitating, versus maintaining an emotional distance while engaging in helping. Additionally, as helpers perceived the situation as more demanding, they were more likely to experience it as a threat rather than a challenge. Finally, participants who self-reported their distress in response to the dilemma were those that experienced physiological threat in the imagine-self condition.
In some ways, these findings counter previous research or colloquial suggestions that “affective empathy” results in better help. The authors write:
“The current research, however, may shed doubt on the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s shoes without such emotional resonance, suggesting that such cognitions may naturally induce vicarious distress.”
Buffone and team comment that such vicarious distress may even lead to helpers abandoning the pursuit of their goals to assist, and therefore, further research should look into how the experience imagine-self vs imagine-other perspective taking might impact the likelihood and quality of helping. The current study is limited, they add, in that it reflects responses to one scenario at one point in time, a condition that may not be reflective of real-world helping circumstances.
“We hope that this research may help generate new insights into the interplay of perspective taking, and its underlying states, namely self-other overlap, contagion, empathic concern and distress, in individuals’ health and well-being, and ultimately on targets of help, as well.”
Buffone, A. E., Poulin, M., DeLury, S., Ministero, L., Morrisson, C., & Scalco, M. (2017). Don’t walk in her shoes! Different forms of perspective taking affect stress physiology. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. (Link)