Jun 13, 2019

Combatting the End of Empathy


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The concept of empathy has seen a steady high in buzzworthiness the past few years as audiences debate its influence on our cultural, political and environmental climates—permeating even within our own personal lives and relationships. So if talk of empathy remains on the rise, to what can we attribute the decline of its appeal?


According to a new study from the American Psychological Association, people avoid feeling empathy because they perceive it as requiring too much mental effort, regardless of whether or not it costs time or money. Even when the emotions associated are positive and involve joy and smiling, people had a strong preference for avoiding feelings of empathy for others.

As marketers, appealing to an audience amidst a cultural climate of indifference poses a unique challenge. If the goal is to reach the hearts and minds of target consumers, what happens when the balance between the two is skewed? If genuine acts of empathy are perceived as not worth the effort, how can you effectively set out to not only shift perspectives, but change behaviors?

Path of Least Resistance 

Participants in the study noted that empathy felt more cognitively challenging, requiring more effort and feeling less “good,” than it did to report back surface-level observations. In the age of information overload and constant connectivity pervading our time, perhaps the easier route becomes the go-to.

As Researcher and Author Brene Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

A Call to Connect

The healthcare industry stands as a prime example of an emotionally complex industry built on connections between people (patients, physicians and payers).  Without the ability to appeal to patients through a distinctive emotional territory, resonance and adoption fall short. A loss of empathy deteriorates the entire system. Similarly consider market research in any industry, without any sense of empathy, the ability to connect with consumers to uncover rich insights fails. So how can we instill meaning back into mindsets in order to connect more authentically and engage more fully?

One saving grace of the study findings was that if participants are encouraged to think they are more attuned to feeling empathetic, they are more likely to employ empathy in practice, and report that it actually requires less mental effort. If today’s society doesn’t perceive empathy as a worthy endeavor, perhaps reframing the narrative to reward acts of empathy could shift individual motivations to ripple outward for a more profound impact.

“If we can shift people’s motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole,” said lead researcher of the study, C. Daryl Cameron, PhD. “It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”

If a win for empathy is a win for us all, how can we continuously evolve the story around it to be less cognitively costing in order to get back to basics in the business of reaching both the head and the heart?


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