With age comes experience, and, if we’re lucky, also some wisdom. But what about empathy? Said differently, does compassion for those dealing with life’s smorgasbord of difficult events (e.g., divorce, death, natural disaster, and the like) come from having personally “been there”? Are experienced older adults more compassionate toward younger adults going through difficult times, compared to older adults with less similar experience?
Published research suggests that firsthand survival of difficult events can lead to connection and compassion for others struggling with similar issues. In fact, research dating back as far as the late 1960s has shown prior experience with events to facilitate the ease with which another’s perspective can be adopted, and the likelihood of responding empathetically.
But even if you’re not familiar with this research, most of us can think back on our own life experiences and drum up memories of a time when we were struggling and an experienced soul offered their support—making us feel a touch more hopeful about our ability to overcome (or at the very least endure) the unpleasant event in question.
Indeed, a wide variety of experiences—from teenage acne to domestic abuse—have been studied with respect to empathy. And findings endorse the notion that people who have been through a distressing event tend to be capable of more sympathetic responses toward others facing the same experience, compared to individuals without a similar history.
That said, new research qualifies this truism with findings that shed light on a caveat to the relationship between experience and empathy. Specifically, the researchers found in a series of experiments that adults who had previously endured a life event were compassionate for others currently experiencing the same difficult event, but only if they viewed them as appropriately coping with that event. However, if the experienced individual believed that the other person was failing to endure the event, or saw their coping as insufficient in some manner, then the experienced adults evaluated the individual’s failure more harshly than those individuals assessing the event with no similar prior experience.
In sum, experienced individuals were more biased—both in the positive and negative directions—when judging individuals who were viewed as either surviving or failing to survive similar life events from their own past. Taken as a whole, these new findings qualify prior research on empathy-based experience and demonstrate a paradox to human experience. Namely, that in the face of adversity, it may not always be in an individual’s best interest to seek out the wisdom of those with similar experiences—especially if the individual seeking advice and comfort is struggling to cope properly in the eyes of the more experienced survivor.
The authors explained the underlying reasons for these findings as being spurred, in part, by experienced individuals having difficulties recalling the full extent of emotional distress; and this diminished recall ability led to less compassion toward others’ inability to endure what they remember as being able to personally survive successfully. Said differently, gaps in compassion illustrate the tendency for those not currently aroused in an emotional state to underestimate the severity of the experience for the person in the midst of experiencing the difficult event. Even beyond this, the researchers argued that those who have endured stressful events also possess the knowledge that they managed to survive the experience. As such, tasks that have been successfully completed in their past may be recalled as being easier to overcome and endure that they actually were at the time of the event.
This new and illuminating research on experience and compassion provides some food for thought for both older adults giving advice and younger adults experiencing trying circumstances who seek out the compassion and wisdom of those people who have lived through similarly difficult experiences. It seems that although experience may beget wisdom, it does not always beget compassion.
Ruttan RL, McDonnell MH, and Nordgren LF Having “been there” doesn’t mean I care: When prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015); 108: 610–622.