The hot-cold empathy gap
Why even smart, sensitive people make bad judgments
© 2009 -2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Call it an empathy gap, or call it a failure of imagination.
When people are calm and comfortable, they have trouble
appreciating the power of "hot" affective states--like fear, hunger,
exhaustion, or thirst.
Conversely, people fail to realize how much their current emotional experiences bias perception.
This leads to classic mistakes, and I doubt anyone is immune. If
we feel secure, for example, we tend to discount the idea that other
people are anxious. As I note below, research suggests that confident,
upbeat parents routinely misjudge their children's anxiety levels.
But to really grasp the power of the empathy gap, first consider how it influences decisions we make about our own, future selves.
For instance, suppose I offered to pay you money to visit my lab
next week and perform a painful task--say, immersing your hand in ice
cold water. How much would you charge for this little sacrifice?
That’s the question that psychologists David Read and George Loewenstein (1989) posed to some university undergraduates.
You might think the students would be pretty good at pricing their own pain. But their answers depended on prior experience.
• People who had just experienced the effects of ice-water immersion demanded the most money for doing it again.
• People who had experienced the pain before, but not recently, asked for less monetary compensation.
• People who had never experienced the pain demanded the least amount of money of all.
Researchers have documented similar effects for addiction and social fear.
One study asked recovering heroin addicts to put a price on
buprenorphine, or BUP, a methadone-like maintenance drug. Researchers
told the addicts that--five days hence--they would be able to choose
between a cash gift and an extra dose of BUP.
How much money would they require to reject the extra drug dose?
Patients asked for more money if they were currently experiencing a
strong drug craving (Giordano at al 2004).
Another study addressed the effects of the empathy gap on social
fear. College students were offered a future acting gig--$2 compensation
to mime in front of their classmates one week later. Among the students
who predicted their willingness to mime, many changed their minds when
the date of their scheduled performance arrived (Van Boven et al 2004,
summarized in Loewenstein 2005).
Interestingly, these students also overestimated their classmates’ willingness to perform as mimes.
Perspective-taking and the empathy gap
If people have difficulty predicting their own desires and actions, how do they handle the feelings of other people?
As the miming study suggests, the hot-cold empathy gap is linked with perspective-taking: We seem to project what we are feeling onto other people.
Leaf Van Boven and George Loewenstein tested this idea at a university gymnasium (Van Boven and Loewenstein 2003).
The study involved two groups of people--those who hadn’t started
exercising yet, and those who had just finished a vigorous, 20-minute
People in both groups were asked to read a story about hikers who got lost in the woods without food or water.
Then they were asked to imagine how the hikers felt. “Which would be more unpleasant, hunger or thirst?”
The participants’ answers depended on how thirsty they were at the time.
Compared to people who hadn’t begun exercising, the people who
had just finished exercising--and who were hotter and thirstier as a
result--were more likely to rate thirst as more unpleasant than hunger
(Van Boven and Loewenstein 2003).
Implications: Minding the gap
In many ways, these studies confirm our everyday experience. Things
feel very different in the heat of the moment. We already knew that,
But that’s the rub. People don’t act like they know it.
If they did, they would be more consistent in their judgments.
They’d consider how their current state might be affecting their
perceptions and make adjustments for it. They’d do a better job avoiding
“hot” situations that provoke them to behave rashly.
They might become better caretakers, too. Studies show that
hospital patients--even terminal cancer patients and children--are
routinely under-medicated for pain (Twycross 2006; Van Hulle Vincent
And how well do parents really understand their children's
anxieties? When Kristin Lagattuta and colleagues (2012) asked parents to
gauge their children's emotional lives, they found evidence of a
mismatch between what parents believed and what children reported about
Parents who reported feeling lots of negative emotions were more
likely to overestimate their children's distress. But most parents
showed a positivity bias -- i.e., they underestimated their children's
anxieties and worries -- and the effect was related to parental
optimism. If parents felt good, they tended to assume that their kids
felt good too.
So I think we can take a lesson from this research. We can’t
assume that our natural reactions are reliable. We need to deliberately
remind ourselves of the empathy gap and take steps to compensate.
For parents, this is particularly relevant. Kids often experience
the world in ways that adults don't, and we need to remember that. Some
• Babies, helpless and dependent, may need more reassurance. They may also experience considerable frustration.
• Kids get frightened of things that don’t faze adults.
• Teenagers may be more self-conscious and more overwhelmed by sexual feelings.
I'm sure you can think of more. Although I can find no research
on the subject, I’d wager that parents who deliberately reflect on the
“empathy gap” have more success recognizing and sympathizing with their
And we can help our kids by teaching them about the hot-cold empathy gap.
Tips for teaching kids about the hot-cold empathy gap
Kids sometimes behave in ways that seem fickle, insensitive, or weak-willed.
As parents, we can explain to our kids why these behaviors are undesirable.
But we can do more. By teaching them about the hot-cold empathy
gap, we might help kids learn practical skills to improve. For example,
we can try these tactics:
• Explain how the hot-cold empathy gap works. Even adults
have trouble bridging the gap between “hot” and “cold” states. Talk to
your child about situations where you have miscalculated, and how your
affective state played a role.
• Use your child’s errors as opportunities for discussion and reflection. How
was she influenced by her affective state? Encourage your child to take
a problem-solving approach. If she’s ever in the same situation, what
can she do to avoid making the same mistake?
• Encourage kids to “cool off” before they make important decisions.
• Help kids identify—and avoid—situations where they may face powerful temptations.
• Help kids prepare for the inevitable. Is your child
going to visit the dentist? Or perform at a recital? Or ensure a long
car trip? Talk with your child ahead of time about what to expect.
• Foster empathy. Encourage your child to consider the
perspectives of other people. Is it hard to relate? Help them remember
times when they were in similar “hot” states themselves. And try to
empathy gap towards others with these practical tips for teaching empathy.
Lagattuta KH, Sayfan L, Bamford C. 2012. Do you know how I feel?
Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child
self-report. J Exp Child Psychol. 113(2):211-32.
Loewenstein G. 2005. Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology 24(4) Suppl. S49-S56.
Read D and Loewenstein G. 1999. Enduring pain for money:
Decisions based on the perception and memory of pain. Journal of
Behavioral Decision Making 12: 1-17.
Twycross A. 2007. Children's nurses' post-operative pain
management practices: an observational study. Int J Nurs Stud.
Van Boven L and Loewenstein G. 2003. Social projection of transient drives. 29(9): 1159-1168.
Van Boven L, Kiewenstein G, Welch N and Dunning D. 2004. The
illusion of courage: Underestimating the impact of fear of embarrassment
on the self. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, Department of
Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Van Hulle Vincent C. 2005. Nurses' knowledge, attitudes, and
practices: regarding children's pain. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs.
Content last modified 4/13