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Having High Levels of Empathy Is Good for You. But Is There a Flip Side?

A new paper from psychologist Casey Brown explores the extent to which empathy can help – and harm – elderly couples as they age. Published in Clinical Psychological Science, the paper expands upon existing research on empathic accuracy, a behavioral measure of how attentive and attuned an individual is to another’s feelings.

“There’s a wealth of research that suggests having high levels of empathy is good for you – it’s associated with better mental health, better interpersonal relationships and increased happiness,” explains Brown, a professor in Georgetown University’s College of Arts & Sciences. “But there may be a dark side to empathy. If a live-in companion is depressed, suffering from negative emotions or a long-term illness, it may harm an empathic partner’s mental health.”

A woman with long hair smiles, wearing a blouse wiht a floral pattern.

Professor Casey Brown, who joined the College of Arts & Sciences in the fall.

The mechanisms of this emotional diffusion aren’t entirely understood, Brown explains. An individual might feel guilty when recognizing a partner’s depression or the negative emotions could have a contagious aspect, spreading automatically between individuals. The paper comprises two studies conducted by Brown and colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University. 

“In one study, we looked at neurotypical married couples who are aging, and we examined whether empathic accuracy had positive or negative associations with mental health depending on a partner’s level of depression. Would empathic accuracy make you more likely to share your partner’s depressive symptoms?” says Brown, who holds an appointment in the Department of Psychology. “And we asked that same question within a sample of dementia-caregiving dyads.”

As expected, couples with one partner suffering from a neurodegenerative disease exhibited more symptoms of depression and mental distress. In both populations, researchers found that higher levels of empathic accuracy meant an individual was more tied to their partner’s mental well-being. 

“Empathic accuracy is associated with better mental health– fewer depressive symptoms–if your partner lacks depressive symptoms. In contrast, empathic accuracy is associated with worse mental health – more depressive symptoms – if your partner exhibits a lot of depressive symptoms.”

Measuring Empathy, Moving Forward

To assess depressive symptoms, Brown’s team relied on self-reporting for neurotypical couples. For the subjects diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases, trained nursing staff conducted clinical interviews to assess depressive symptoms. These assessments and interviews were previously validated by other research teams.  

“We measure empathic accuracy in a really interesting and objective way,” Brown says. “Research participants use a dial to rate the emotions portrayed by other people in video clips. Then, we compare the participants’ ratings collected via the dial to what the person in the film said they were feeling, giving us a sense of how accurate participant ratings are.”  

For the study of neurotypical adults, researchers had the couples watch video playback of their own arguments to gauge their partner’s emotions. This gave the researchers unique insight into their empathy within a relationship, which would likely eclipse an individual’s empathic ability with a stranger. 

For Brown, this research is at the nexus of her interests – she pursues questions on the basic processes of emotion, empathy, aging and neurodegenerative diseases. 

“I’m fascinated by the ways that other people can help or hinder our mental health by influencing our emotions, particularly in aging couples where one individual is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease,” Brown says. 

Excited by the results, Brown sees future applications of the research, especially in preserving mental health within dementia-caregiving dyads.  

“In the context of dementia caregiving, this line of research could eventually shed light on how empathically accurate individuals can avoid depressive symptoms when their partner is depressed,” Brown says. “How can we help the partners of those diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease?”

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)