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Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from February 2023

“You’re such an empath”: The social importance of practicing empathy in the real world and beyond

February 20th, 2023 · 12 Comments

Ella: What is Empathy, and How Can We “Do It Right”? 

In these modern times, one would not necessarily be exaggerating by saying that you can see the words “empath” or “empathy” or “empathetic”  everywhere you look, whether online or in real life. In the digital universe, you may have seen one of Buzzfeed`s myriad of quizzes promising to tell you whether you are an empath, or browsed a few Tik Tok videos offering you telltale signs that you are one. In the news, perhaps you have heard discussion about “empathy politics”; maybe you have heard remarks that someone in your life could use a little more empathy – or even a little less. 

A few natural questions arise from the wide usage of this word: what is empathy, and how does it work? Is it good or bad to be empathetic? How do we know? 

According to the Psychiatric Medical Care Communications Team, empathy differs from another commonly associated word – sympathy – in its being shown by how much compassion and understanding we give to one another, rather than pity (PMC, 2023). Emotions researcher Brene Brown further elucidates this decision with an excellent analogy: when someone else falls down into a hole, we enact empathy by climbing down into the hole with them, rather than looking down on them from above. In this way, she explains, “empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection” (PCM, 2023). What does climbing into the hole entail for Dr. Brown? It’s simple: we must open ourselves up to perspective taking, seek to listen and stay out of judgment, recognize the emotion the other person is experiencing that we have perhaps felt before, and then communicate that we can recognize that emotion (Psychology Today, 2014). However easy this sounds, it can be surprisingly hard to implement consistently: like anything else, empathy is a skill that needs repetition in order to gain proficiency. 

A potential aid to understanding how to better enact empathy interpersonally is learning how we experience empathy within ourselves. Elliot et al. (2011) explains that empathy consists of three major subprocesses that we can trace to specific brain regions. Firstly, empathy begins with emotional simulation, wherein brain activation centering in primarily the limbic system mirrors the emotional elements of another`s bodily experience (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). Next, we enter into a process of perspective taking via the medial and ventromedial areas of the prefrontal and temporal cortices, through which we attempt to “place ourselves in another’s shoes” (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an emotional regulation process which allows us to soothe our own distress that we feel in response to another person’s pain or discomfort (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). 

As Brene Brown alludes to, empathy executed incompletely can be incredibly disconnecting. We can continue to distinguish empathy from sympathy through conceptualizing sympathy as two out of three critical processes, as described by Elliot: mentalization and self-regulation. Without emotional contagion – or the ability to feel what the other person is feeling – you are disconnecting by looking down on them from above the hole they feel stuck in. Similarly, and perhaps in some cases more damaging for relationships, is empathy that occurs without self-regulation. If you take on the emotions of others such that you can no

If you cannot understand, regulate, and work with your own emotions, unregulated empathy could lead you to take on the pain or distress of others and internalize it. This is not only harmful in that it leads to unnecessary personal suffering, but it also inhibits your ability to provide compassion or understanding for the other person; in short, it becomes all about you. When others are vulnerable with us and we react in ways that – albeit, unintentionally – center our emotional experience over their own, we communicate that their feelings are a burden to us, and we fail to forge connection in a time when it may feel critically necessary for the other person. 

All in all, empathy is an incredibly complex and powerful facet of the human experience. No person can know what it is like to be another person, but when it comes to understanding our emotional selves and that of others, it is essential for connection that we try. 


Cassie: Imagining Human Empathy and its Unique Ability to Transcend Reality

So, by now, it is clear that empathy is important for social connection among humans. In fact, many claims have been made by researchers and laypeople alike which suggest that humans have a special capacity for feeling empathy towards others. While research has largely refuted the idea that humans have a greater capacity for empathy than other non-human animals (e.g., Palagi et al., 2014), human empathic concern is still incredibly fascinating and important to consider as it extends beyond proximal social and physical boundaries.

Have you ever cried while watching or imagining your favorite character in a movie, TV show, or book as they experience grief from the death of a loved one? (Shout out to the heart-wrenching final chapter/movie scene when Hazel Grace reads Augustus’ letter in The Fault in Our Stars and the countless tear-jerking episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.) Or, have you ever smiled so embarrassingly wide at the end of a movie because of a feel-good ending? (Dozens of romantic comedies like The Proposal or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days come to mind.) If so, research suggests that you certainly aren’t alone. 

Aside from helping us to more deeply understand and support our loved ones in times of distress or elation, our incredible empathic capabilities allow us to understand and experience the emotions felt by fictional characters presented on a TV screen or in a book, too. So, when our favorite characters experience happiness, anger, sadness, or fear, we can feel and experience it with them–especially when authors or cinematographers create the right narrative-focused ambience (Keen, 2006; Lankhuizen et al., 2020). For example, one study found that, among a sample of young women with high levels of trait empathy, exposure to emotional movie clips meant to induce either a positive or a negative mood led to a larger cortical gamma response (which measures the processing of emotional information) and a greater subjective emotional reaction than exposure to a neutral movie clip (Maffei et al., 2019). However, among young women with low levels of trait empathy, a difference in gamma response was only observed when participants were exposed to a movie clip meant to induce a negative emotion (Maffei et al., 2019). Another article reports similar findings in dispositional differences between readers regarding felt empathy towards fictional book characters, suggesting that empathic concern is more readily expressed when reading about and trying to understand or empathize with a character’s negative emotions (Keen, 2006). These results suggest that humans have the ability to feel empathy – to some degree – towards fictional characters, despite their own varying empathic dispositions. Thus, they also support that humans have an intriguing – and perhaps unique – capacity for empathy.

But why would humans have the ability to empathize with people who don’t actually exist in the real world? One potential explanation is that empathizing with characters in movies, TV shows, books, and other forms of media increases perceived enjoyment of our watching and reading experiences. Being immersed in a fictional world by engaging in empathic concern for its characters may allow us to more completely buy into the narratives being portrayed, thus leading to greater enjoyment of the media we are exposed to (Green et al., 2004). Another possibility is that engaging in empathy with distant others has real-world benefits – even if those others appear only on a movie screen or in a book. For example, one account suggests that engaging in empathic concern for fictional characters allows us to hone our skills to better understand and interact with others (Mar, 2018). Whatever the reason, humans’ ability to empathize with fictional others seems to have important implications for the centrality of empathy to social connection and human nature.


Pomai: Keeping an Empathetic Mind in the Judicial System and Beyond

Bringing things back to the real world, empathy is crucial to how we understand people – not only those close to us, but also those who we wouldn’t normally share a connection with. It’s easy to be empathetic towards our friends and close relations, but what about those in need or those who we don’t always see eye to eye with? In the case of the judicial system, it’s so hard to be empathetic towards criminals and those prosecuted, especially when they seem so different from us. But empathy is an important part of being human, and it’s needed to ensure that all people, even those who are prosecuted, are treated with compassion and fairness. 

Empathy in the judicial system is complicated and there’s a growing debate regarding the use of empathy in court decisions. Some judges are intentionally empathetic in their cases, while others try to be as impartial as possible. The argument for empathy is that it makes judges more compassionate towards an accused person’s wellbeing (Cormack, 2021), making them less likely to inflict debatably immoral sentences such as the death penalty. However, psychologists also argue that empathy can lead to cognitive distortion and racial bias by overvaluing certain individuals’ perspectives more than others (Cormack, 2021). These distortions include potentially overvaluing a specific witness’s testimony and thus making a false accusation, and overvaluing a victim’s statement and thus being more willing to support the victim despite contrary evidence. For instance, in murder cases, if a judge is a White male (as they often are, given that White people account for ~98% of judges in most states) and is hearing testimonies from a White victim, the White victim’s perspective is significantly overvalued such that a Black defendant is 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a White defendant (IResearchNet, 2022). 

The drastic racial biases in judicial decisions make empathy seem like a dangerous flaw in the judicial system that prevents equality for all people involved. But to really understand empathy’s role, we have to take a step back and ask ourselves, when is empathy present in judges’ decision making? What we find is that arguments against using empathy are irrelevant because empathy inherently plays a role in judicial outcomes. 

As shown by our tendency to empathize with friends, family, strangers, and even fictional characters, empathy is a natural human response and it is inevitable. While we have a good amount of control over who we empathize with, studies have shown that we naturally empathize with people who we can relate to (Colby, 2012). So, we can’t just instruct judges to act impartially because they will subconsciously have more empathy towards groups of people who are more similar to them based on commonalities such as partisanship, race, and gender. Interestingly, a 2015 study found that judges who had daughters were more liberal in their decisions on criminal and civil court cases (Glynn et. al., 2015), which is a clear indicator of the subconscious role that empathy plays in decision-making. Even judges who don’t consciously empathize with a victim, witness, or defendant have too many life experiences that will sway their subconscious empathy towards specific individuals simply because empathy is a crucial part of being human. So to ask a judge to not have empathy at all is to deny people the right to connect with those in need. Yes, there will be mistakes in judicial decisions because empathy isn’t perfect. But judges can learn to set boundaries and work on recognizing what types of individuals they subconsciously empathize with so that they can make more just decisions. 

As for the rest of us, we can reconceptualize how we treat people based on how we view empathy. Empathy is not bad; it is not racist, nor unfair. It is just a tool that everyone can choose to use in a productive way. We should practice having empathy for those who are different from us and those who are distant from us, aiming to be more aware of our empathetic tendencies by taking on the perspectives of more than just our friends and making sure that we’re not judging people based on subconsciously perceived in-group connections. In doing so, we can live life with an open mind and be able to find ways to bridge the gap between our empathy and our biases.



Colby, Thomas B. (2012). In Defense of Judicial Empathy. Minnesota Law Review, 96(1), 



Cormack, Warren. (2021). Reassessing the Judicial Empathy Debate: How Empathy Can Distort 

and Improve Criminal Sentencing. Mitchell Hamline Law Review, 47(4), 81-108.

Elliot et al. (n.d.). Empathy. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from

Glynn, Adam N. & Sen, Maya. (2015). Identifying Judicial Empathy: Does Having Daughters Cause Judges to Rule for Women’s Issues? Midwest Political Science Association, 59(1), 37-53. 

Green, M. C., Brock, T. C., & Kaufman, G. F. (2004). Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds. Communication Theory, 14(4), 311–327. 

Keen, S. (2006). A Theory of Narrative Empathy. Narrative (Columbus, Ohio), 14(3), 207–236. 

Lankhuizen, T., Balint, K., Konijn, E., Savardi, M., Bartsch, A., & Benini, S. (2020). Shaping film: A quantitative formal analysis of contemporary empathy-eliciting Hollywood cinema. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 16(4), 704–718.

Maffei, A., Spironelli, C., & Angrilli, A. (2019). Affective and cortical EEG gamma responses to emotional movies in women with high vs low traits of empathy. Neuropsychologia, 133, 107175–107175.

Mar, R. A. (2018). Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science : a Journal of the American Psychological Society, 27(4), 257–262. 

Palagi, Norscia, I., & Demuru, E. (2014). Yawn contagion in humans and bonobos: emotional affinity matters more than species. PeerJ (San Francisco, CA), 2, e519–e519. 

Rjr. (2022, October 12). The difference between empathy and sympathy. Psychiatric Medical
Care. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from,-Now%20that%20we&text=Empathy%20is%20shown%20in%20how,not%20having%20the%20same%20problems.n species. PeerJ (San Francisco, CA), 2, e519–e519.

Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Brené Brown on empathy vs. sympathy. Psychology Today. Retrieved
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Seeing the World Through Foggy Rose Colored Glasses

February 13th, 2023 · 14 Comments

QOTD: Do We Remember Our Old Cars With Rose Colored Glasses? | Curbside Classic

By: Elle Freedman and Wendy Carballo

“Oh, so you study psychology at Harvard? Does that mean you can read my mind?”

No psychology concentrator at Harvard has escaped this inevitable conversation. What if instead of the typical eye-roll response, you tell them “actually, reading minds isn’t a skill reserved for psych majors. Making inferences about what someone else is thinking is crucial for forming social connections and navigating everyday life.” Either they’ll get an unnecessary ego-boost or ask you to explain mentalization and the theory of mind. 

Mind perception consists of two components, mind detection and mentalizing. Mind detection is simply the notion of identifying another entity with a mind. Mentalizing, or theory of mind, is the ability to infer thoughts, feelings, and desires from other people. Mentalizing allows us to humanize, connect with others, and synchronize behavior to strengthen relationships. But what happens when one’s personal feelings and biases get in the way of mentalization? Can your internal emotions affect your ability to mentalize, possibly over-mentalize, and perhaps become blind to lies and deception? Does seeing the world through rose-colored glasses improve our relationships, or set us up for failure?

Wendy: Being Happy Can Turn a Blind Eye to Reality 

In 2008, researchers Joseph Forgas and Rebekah East made an attempt to illuminate these questions by studying the effect of mood on skepticism and the detection of deception. Specifically, they set up a blind experiment in which undergraduate students were randomly assigned to watch either a neutral, positive, or a negative film meant to induce a happy, neutral, or a sad mood, respectively. After watching the videos, participants were asked to watch multiple clips of males and females who were either honest or deceptive during their testimony of an alleged theft. Finally, to confirm the intended mood-induction, participants took a survey in which they rated their feelings based on a good-bad and a happy-sad scale. 

The results of this study were insightful. As indicated by the scales, it was found that participants who were in the happy mood condition experienced significantly more positive feelings compared to those in the neutral and negative mood conditions. Conversely, participants in the negative mood condition experienced significantly more negative feelings compared to those in the neutral and happy mood conditions which affirms the experimenter’s ability to control mood affect. Moreover, consistent with their hypothesis, participants in the happy mood condition reported greater judgements of innocence regarding the theft testimonies, while participants in the sad mood condition reported greater judgements of guilt. Happy and neutral participants failed to distinguish between innocent and guilty targets, showing that mood has a greater influence on guilt judgments of deception than truthful communications. 

These findings have some intriguing implications regarding mentalization and our interpersonal relationships. Specifically, the idea that experiencing happy moods can hinder our ability to detect lies and lead to false judgments of other people’s actions suggests that positive feelings can hinder our mentalization skills. Conversely, experiencing sad or negative moods can enhance our ability to detect deception and hence read other people’s minds. 


Elle: Emotion and the Fundamental Attribution Theory

Furthermore, a positive mood goes hand in hand with the fundamental attribution error. Forgas and Wyland’s book Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life pools together various studies that affirm the way one feels is inseparable from our cognition and how we subsequently act and make social judgements. In one study, Forgas asked happy or sad people to observe and rate their own and their partner’s behaviors in a videotaped social encounter. The experiment involved conditioning the emotional affect of either happy or sad moods, and then rewatching a video tape of a previous interaction with them and their experimental partners. The group conditioned to be happy “saw” more positive, skilled and fewer negative, unskilled behaviors in themselves and in their partners than did sad subjects (Forgas and Wyland 2006). This is consistent with the idea that people pay attention to affect-consistent rather than affect-inconsistent information, and that can have major implications in the way that we try to make sense of complex and inherently ambiguous social behaviors, which is the underlying mechanics of mentalization. 

This has direct relevance to the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors (individual characteristics that influence behavior, like personality traits and temperament) when forming impressions on others, and to underestimate the importance of the situation that the observed behavior is occurring (O’Sullivan). Forgas put the question of temporary mood’s influence on the occurrence of the fundamental attribution error to the test in a single study of three separate experiments. In the first experiment, participants were conditioned to have either a happy or sad temporary mood and then read an essay and make judgments about the writer. The results showed that happy mood emphasized dispositional inferences over all other stimuli, which resulted in committing the fundamental attribution error, despite being controlled for coercive behaviors. Conversely, the group that was manipulated to have a temporary bad mood gave more weight to external stimuli, therefore being more situationally analytical in their inferences (Forgas 323). Essentially, the group manipulated to be happy was more likely to agree and positively rate a highly popular and coercive essay, whereas the sad group was much more stringent on their judgements and did not fall into the persuasive content of the essays. Negative moods decrease and positive moods increase the FAE because of the information processing consequences of these affective states (Forgas 318). Sad people are less likely to be fooled and coerced, whereas happy people are easily convinced and susceptible to other people’s opinions. 


So are you telling me that being sad will improve my mentalizing skills and I’ll make more friends? 

Not necessarily! Positive and negative moods both have their advantages and disadvantages in social behavior. In regards to mind perception and mentalization, however, these studies raise the thought that it might be advantageous to be a bit more skeptical in judging social cues, and having a negative mood emphasizes situational factors in judgements rather than dispositional. So, mentalizing and forming social bonds is deeper than just recognizing other’s conscious experiences and trying to infer- your own mind and mood could be influencing how you interpret the actions of others and subsequently how you connect with them. The best thing to do may be to just wipe the dust and fog off your glasses before you put them back on!

So then, what does this say about our ability to socialize and create connections? Should we monitor our moods in the presence of others? If you’re a social butterfly or an extrovert, this information has surely shaken your world as our ability to make friends is greatly dependent on our ability to understand others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Surely if one has high energy and thrives in the social scene, then chances are that one is more gullible and less able to understand other people’s minds, correct? Not quite. 

While our judgment skills are certainly influenced by our feelings and emotions, positive feelings towards social interactions need not be mutually exclusive with mentalization and social connection. As Waytz and Epley (2011) underlined in their paper about the effect of social connection on dehumanization, feeling socially connected or satiated can lessen our desire for more relationships and thus lead to the dehumanization of distant others. (Dehumanization, in this context, meaning a decreased practice of mentalization or attribution of human characteristics to others). This would imply then that we can create social connections by putting on our mentalization hats and actively attempting to understand others. Through these lenses, positive feelings in the presence of others need not decrease our ability to read others’ minds but instead motivate us to do so. In other words, we just need a desire to connect and mindfully pursue it. 




Forgas, J. P., & Wyland, C. L. (2006). Affective intelligence: Understanding the role of affect in everyday social behavior. Emotional intelligence in everyday life, 77-99.

Forgas. (1998). On Being Happy and Mistaken. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 318–331.

O’Sullivan. (2003). The Fundamental Attribution Error in Detecting Deception: The Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf Effect. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(10), 1316–1327.

Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(5), 1362–1367. 

Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social Connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70–76.

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