Why are we less compassionate toward people who are experiencing struggles that we've previously dealt with?

Rachel Ruttan at the Kellogg School of Management answers

A commonly held belief is that shared experience breeds compassion. If you have been through a difficult life experience—from divorce to dealing with a difficult boss—you will be more compassionate toward others going through that same experience. 

After all, you have “been there,” and thus seem best placed to understand their struggle. This intuition is even supported by some prior academic research, which finds that, for a wide range of experiences, people who have been through a difficult life experience tend to be more compassionate toward others facing similar challenges. 

However, my recent research with Mae McDonnell and Loran Nordgren has shown that the experience-compassion link isn’t this straightforward. In a series of recent experiments, we found that people who endured challenges in the past (a polar plunge, a difficult exam, unemployment, or bullying) were less likely to show compassion for those struggling or failing to endure the same challenge, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation. 

Why does this occur? We believe there are at least two factors at play. First, research on the “empathy gap” has found that people have difficulty accurately recalling past emotional states. That is, though people can recall having been in pain or stressed out, they tend to underestimate how severely they felt that emotional state in the moment. Second, people who have previously endured a difficult experience possess the knowledge that they were able to successfully overcome it. We believe that the combination of forgetting how emotionally challenging a situation was and knowing that they managed to get through it makes the event seem less difficult in hindsight, reducing compassion toward those failing to appropriately cope with the event. 

Whether or not this empathy gap can be overcome remains an open question. One possibility is that compassion can be reignited by having people focus on the difficulty other people have with the distressing event rather than their own experience. For example, an individual who has overcome addiction may focus on the large number of individuals who fail to quit or ultimately relapse rather than her own success. 

Another interesting possibility is that compassion can be reignited by having people make different attributions for their success. People (in Western cultures) often focus on how their own abilities or willpower have contributed to their success, which may lead them to believe that others should simply try harder, do better. But perhaps asking people to think about how they, themselves, were helped by others, or were in the “right place, at the right time” may lead people to have more compassion for those who struggle. These are important questions that we continue to explore.

Rachel Ruttan is a doctoral student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.