If you ever been in love, then you know that it is hard to imagine that you will not be in love with this person in the future. One of the reasons for this is the empathy gap. This not only affects your love life, but also affects how effective you are at work, how well you perform at school, and how you improve when working out. In all these activities, and in many other areas of your life as well, you can take two perspectives. I will explain how you can take both of these perspectives.
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I train on improving my squash skills, I apply them in competition matches, and improve my squash ranking. But I also know it is not as easy as that. Skills that can be applied in a training settings are difficult to apply in practice.
One of the distinctions between training and competition matches is that there is little stress to perform optimally in a well designed training. When I train my squash skills, I often feel only a little stress. However, when I play a squash match, I feel the pressure of winning every point. Furthermore, when I am training, I underestimate the difference in stress between the training environment and the competitive environment, which is called the empathy gap.
Empathy gap explained
The empathy gap is the tendency to underestimate the influence of your emotional state on your decisions and behaviors, and overestimate the intellectual influence on your decision-making. In other words, you have difficulty empathizing with how you will feel when performing the same activity when under stress. When you are angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like to be calm. When you are blindly in love, it is difficult to understand what it is like not to be in love, or to imagine not being blindly in love with this person in the future.
The most important aspect of this idea is thus that people’s performance is state-dependent, either cold state or hot state. In a training situation, people are said to be in a cold state: they have relatively low state of emotional responses when practicing the skills. Sure, there may be some anxiety, but the levels are far lower than in the competitive environment: the hot state. This is where you may be influenced by your emotional state more than you had estimated on forehand. This is why this is also called the hot-cold empathy gap.
Will you immerse your hand in ice cold water?
Imagine you are asked to immerse your hand into ice cold water of 2°C for 1 minute. What is the minimal amount of money to immerse your hand in ice cold water for minute? What about 3 minutes? Or 5, 7 or 9 minutes? Would you accept €1 for immersing your hand in ice cold water for that amount of time? What about €3? Or €5?
Psychologists Read and Loewenstein asked exactly those question. Some participants first immersed their hand in ice-water for 30 seconds before answering those questions. Some participants where asked those questions a week after they immersed their hand in the ice-water. Participants who had just experienced the ice-water demanded the most money, whereas participants who had experienced the ice-water a week ago, asked for less monetary compensation. The first group was in a hot state when asked to do it again, still experiencing the effects of the ice-cold water. The second group was in a cold state and had difficulty remembering the effects of the ice-cold water a week later.
Empathy gap in social situations
The empathy gap also plays a role in social situations. Most people have difficulty to estimate their likelihood to engage in potential embarrassing situations. An experiment by researchers Van Boven, Loewenstein, and Dunning showed that people in a cold state had much more difficulty to appreciate their willingness to engage in embarrassing situations than people in a hot state.
A group of people was asked about their willingness to mimic objects or animals (such as a bicycle, blender, dog, elephant) or perform a dance right now in front of an audience of other people. At the same time a group of other people was asked about the willingness of the first group to mimic objects or animals or perform a dance. People evaluating their own willingness (the first group) were far less willing to perform these acts than people evaluating others’ willingness to perform these acts (the second group). This is because the anticipation of performing these social acts, brings people in a hot state where they are feeling some anxiety about performing these social acts. However, when this concerns others, they are in a cold state and are less likely to experience this anxiety.
This applies to many social situations. People may have the intention to engage in specific social behaviors on forehand (cold state), but this feels much more difficult in when in the actual situation (hot state). For example, you may have the intention to talk to four new people at a network event (cold state), but this turns out to be much more difficult when actually walking around at the event (hot state).
Decreasing the empathy gap
The empathy gap can be decreased by bringing people in touch with their negative emotional states and thus putting them in a hot state. When people saw fragments of an scary movie (The Shining) they were less likely to engage in potential social embarrassing situations compared to people not seeing these movie fragments. Seeing fragments of a scary movie enhanced emotions of fear and put people in a hot state. This decreased the empathy gap between moment of decision and the actual behavior.
Be aware of differences in perspectives
So now you know that being in a hot or cold state affects your perspective and decision making. So how do you take this into account when making decisions? I can offer these three best practices:
1. Make decisions in a cold state
Make your decisions when in a cold state, but address the hot state and how you will overcome that situation. For example, Starbucks encourages her employees to plan their reactions to angry customers in a cold state. Employees writes in advance what their response will be when a customer yells at them and other tough situations. By planning their responses on forehand (cold state), they are less likely to lose control when under pressure (hot state).
So, if you decide to work-out in the morning (hot state), gather everything you need for your work-out in the evening (cold state). If you want to avoid snacks in the company restaurant (hot state), make sure you put some healthy alternatives in your bag the previous day (cold state). If you are trying to cut down on your financial expenses when buying new clothes (hot state), withdraw the money you intend to spend from a cash machine before you go shopping and leave your card at home (cold state).
2. Train for the hot state
You can also train yourself for the hot state in a training setting. As you have seen above, the biggest difference between the training and actual situation, is that there is little stress to perform optimally in a well designed training. After all, that is the idea of training. However, it can be useful to train under increased stress in order to make performance more reliable in the actual situation. In this way you effectively decrease the empathy gap.
If you are training for certain squash skills, for example, play a game at the end of training and the winner is treated to a drink at the bar. If you are perfecting your project pitch at work, film your performance in front of your camera. Then send your performance in a WhatsApp message to a befriended colleague and ask for two points for improvement. This will bring you closer to the hot state that you will experience in the actual business environment.
3. Take different perspectives for different states
Now that you know about the empathy gap it may also be useful to use different perspectives for different states: use a long-term perspective in a cold state and a short-term perspective in a hot state.
When in a cold state, set goals for the long term. Focus on what you want to achieve in the long run. For example working-out every Sunday morning, playing squash 3 times a week, or applying your training in diversity and inclusivity in every job interview.
When in a hot state, take a short-term perspective. Focus on the current situation. When you dread exercising tonight, just focus on going this single time; and tell yourself you do not have to give everything you have today. When you are craving a cigarette when quitting smoking, focus on avoiding this one cigarette. Focusing on the moment will make it easier on yourself and over time you will start to build up momentum for these new habits.
Why you should never get married when you are in love
So the empathy gap causes you to underestimate the influence of your emotional state on your decisions and behaviors, and overestimate the intellectual influence on your decision-making. So, (1) make your decisions in a cold state, (2) train for the hot state, and (3) take different perspectives in different states. These may prove to be powerful life hacks for a happy life – including your marriage.Why You Should Never Get Married When You Are in Love. Click To Tweet
Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral economist and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.
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Source of top image: Jasmine Carter
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