Dr. Poulin’s research interests focus on understanding the resources that people use to adjust to stressful or traumatic events, as well as what motivates people to respond to the adversity of others. Both sets of phenomena have implications both for social processes in general as well as people’s mental and physical health. Outside of the lab, Dr. Poulin loves hiking, eating (both cooking at home and exploring Buffalo’s burgeoning restaurant scene), and spending time with his two sons and wife, Jessica, an evolutionary biologist.
I think we can all agree that empathy is a good thing, but there are a couple of ways to get to empathy — and one of those two routes is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other.
One way to empathy is to observe and infer what someone else is feeling. This is imagine-other perspective taking.
The second approach figuratively inserts you into someone else’s situation. We often express this — imagine-self perspective taking — as “walking a mile in their shoes.”
But our research suggests that idiom might be problematic.
In our study, we asked people to engage in one of these different forms of perspective taking for someone in need, and then we measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not – and we measured this while people were engaged in a helping behavior.
We found that people who engaged in imagine-self perspective taking felt more threatened and anxious compared to people who used imagine-other.
The findings could be useful for anyone who finds themselves in a caregiving role, whether a parent, a teacher, a volunteer, or a friend. They may be especially relevant in the context of medical professions with high rates of burnout. Maybe doctors and nurses can learn how to maximize empathy without it creating a burden.
In fact, as the nation and the world transition to a service economy, this might apply to nearly everybody, from technical support staff to restaurant servers.
Speaking of the future, parents like me might also consider how we speak to our children in some circumstances.
Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’ maybe we should be saying, “Think about how that person is feeling.’