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Do We Have Less Sympathy For People Facing Things We've Overcome?


When you need sympathy, it matters whose shoulder you cry on. And here's a bit of a surprise - tell your trouble to somebody who's had the same experience and they may sympathize less. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to talk about some research that suggests that. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: I'm a little surprised because you'd think you'd want to go to somebody who can say, I know just what you're feeling.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I would've said the same thing. But as I say it, I can think of all kinds of examples where that's not true. So if you go to David Greene, Steve, and you complain about how hard it is to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning every day...

INSKEEP: David would be like, tell me about it.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, so he's going to be unsympathetic because he deals with it every single day. Rachel Ruttan, Loran Nordgren and Mary-Hunter McDonnell find that people who endure emotionally distressing events often show less compassion for others who are struggling with the same event compared to people who haven't been through such an event.

INSKEEP: What's an example of this?

VEDANTAM: Well, they use several examples. Let's say I give you a very difficult mental challenge and you solve that challenge successfully. And now you're thinking about somebody else who's confronting a challenge for the first time and finding it really hard.

INSKEEP: Like some math problem or whatever, OK.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, do you feel sympathetic toward that person or do you actually say, I did that. I solved it.

INSKEEP: Come on, you can do this.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. The researchers also find something very interesting, Steve. Compared to people who've never been unemployed, those who've experienced unemployment show less compassion to people currently dealing with unemployment. It's not so much, I think, you're less likely to care. You're more likely to think, if I can get through this and I can find a job, so can you.

INSKEEP: So the key here is if you need sympathy, go to somebody else who's clueless.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I think the interesting thing is intuitively, many of us think that if we are going through something difficult, we should go to somebody else who has been through that difficult thing themselves. Obviously, there are lots of people who've been through difficult things who still can be sympathetic and empathetic. But I think what these studies suggest is that trauma often doesn't make us kinder and more compassionate. It also has the potential to make us tougher and harsher.

INSKEEP: I'm also just thinking about as a listener because you're talking about the listener being less sympathetic. If I have been through this unemployment experience before and you start telling me about yours, I might just think about my own story. I might not really be listening. But if it's a new experience for me that you're relating, I am going to listen and I might really sympathize.

VEDANTAM: I think that's an excellent theory. Another theory, Steve, is that once you've actually been through a difficult experience, it might be very hard to put yourself back in the mental frame of somebody who's confronting that experience for the first time because you've dealt with it. You're at the top of the mountain now. It's very hard to put yourself back at the bottom of the mountain and look up at that cliff.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's the host of a podcast, which explores the hidden factors that shape compassion among other ideas. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.