In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, the many wrongs that befall Offred strike a chilling chord among most readers. When she is struck with a cattle prod we can almost feel her pain, and recoil at the terrible injustice of her imprisonment.
It is so unsettling because we know that each scenario in this fictional work was influenced by an element of history. “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real,” Atwood wrote of her work in the New York Times.
We are therefore easily able to put ourselves in Offred’s shoes and feel empathy towards her. It taps into our very human capacity to share the feelings others feel. In fact, when we see someone else hurt, the brain areas linked to our own pain also become active.
But it turns out that our emotional state has an effect on how much empathy we feel. Our emotions literally change the way our brain responds to others, even when they are in pain. In particular, it is when we feel bad that it can have a consequence on our social world.
It is apparent that our mood can influence our behaviour in a myriad of ways, from the food choices we make – when we are in a bad mood we eat less healthily – to our friendships. When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods can even spread on social media, a 2017 study found.
In fact, our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel when injured. It provides us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: our feeling towards that pain is exaggerated.
Worse, a recent study, published in December 2017, has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy. Emilie Qiao-Tasserit at the University of Geneva and her team wanted to understand how our emotions influence the way we respond to others while they are in pain. Individuals were made to feel pain with a temperature-increasing device on their leg. The team also showed participants positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner, in addition to making them feel pain, or when watching clips of others in pain. Did participants feel empathy towards those who they knew were made to feel pain, the team wondered.
Negative emotions can suppress our brain capacity to be sensitive to others’ pain
It turns out that those who watched a negative clip and then saw others in pain showed less brain activity in areas that are related to pain: the anterior insula and middle cingulate cortex. These are usually active when we see others in pain as well as when we experience pain ourselves. “In other words, negative emotions can suppress our brain capacity to be sensitive to others’ pain,” explains Qiao-Tasserit.
This work is revealing. It shows that emotions can literally change our “brain state”, and that by doing so our own feelings modify how we perceive someone else’s.
Along similar lines, another study by Qiao-Tasserit and colleagues found that after watching a negative clip, people tended to judge a face with a neutral emotion as more negative.
These results obviously have real-world implications. If a person in power, say a boss, has been exposed to something negative in their lives – even something as simple as a negative movie – they could be less sensitive to a colleague in pain and even view them more negatively. Our bad moods literally make us less receptive to others’ feelings.
Anxious and depressed patients who suffer from an excess of negative emotions are more likely to focus on their own problems and be isolated
A lack of empathy has other implications too. Findings show that reduced empathy will result in less money donated to charity. Brain scans reveal that we also show less empathy to those who are not in our immediate social circle, say teammates in a sports club.
So why would negative emotions reduce empathy? It could be that a specific type of empathy, called empathic distress, is at play. This, explains Olga Klimecki, also at the University of Geneva, is “the feeling of being overwhelmed” when something bad happens to someone else, which makes you want to protect yourself instead of being overcome by negative feelings. This type of empathy even shows very different brain activation compared to typical empathy. This kind of distress might naturally also reduce compassion.
It might also be that any situation that elicits negative emotions encourages us to focus more on ourselves and any issues we face. "Anxious and depressed patients who suffer from an excess negative emotions are more likely to focus on their own problems and be isolated," says Qiao-Tasserit.
One 2016 study by Klimecki and colleagues even found that empathic distress increases aggression. Here participants were subjected to unfair scenarios and then had the chance to punish or forgive their competitors. What’s more, the participants in her study were asked to do personality tests before they came into the lab. She found that those who were more naturally compassionate reacted with less derogatory behaviour.
For Klimecki this was telling. In her extensive research on empathy she has shown that it is possible to cultivate more compassionate behaviour. She found that feelings of compassionate empathy can be trained. Our emotional responses to others are therefore clearly not set in stone.
This shows that we can all re-engage our inner empathy, even in the face of someone else’s distress. And when we think a bit more positively it will help broaden our attention towards others’ needs. “This could contribute to greater relationships, a key factor of happiness,” says Qiao-Tasserit.
So next time you are in a foul mood, consider the effect it might have on the people you communicate with day-to-day. You may also want to time your reading of chilling dystopian novels or horror movies wisely. If you read or watch them while in a bad mood, that’s the perfect time to keep your empathy at bay, and feel a little less distressed at the pain – real or fictional – of others.
Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Future’s staff writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on twitter.
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