Emotional Exhaustion: Is Empathy a Choice?


Life offers endless opportunities to test your empathy—the ability to feel for and with others—sometimes to its breaking point: A rally that breaks out in violence; an earthquake that devastates hundreds of thousands in another country; a homeless person standing on the street outside your job; a friend whose cancer returns.

The average person feels some sort of empathy in response to these situations and, in the best of cases, is motivated to help. Maybe you donate money to the Red Cross, put your last $10 bill into that downtrodden person’s hand, or drive your friend to chemo. But in certain conditions, our empathy turns to exhaustion as we anticipate that caring will invest too much of our emotional resources in an outcome over which we have no control.

If you’ve felt the latter, you’re likely not a psychopath (characterized by a lack of feeling empathy for others). You’re probably just experiencing emotional exhaustion.


Emotional exhaustion occurs when your emotional reserves feel limited or drained, dampening your ability to feel empathy or compassion for others. This is often a matter of scale: While empathy for one person’s suffering may feel manageable, research shows that the greater the number of people in need at once, the less compassion people feel for them. “People are motivated to avoid the costs of empathizing with multiple suffering victims,” Daryl Cameron, a social psychologist at the University of Iowa, tells mental_floss. This phenomenon is known as “collapse of compassion.”

There are real consequences to caring deeply for the struggles of others. After all, when you empathize, you do more than just feel concern; it’s not uncommon for an empathizing person to “take on the sensory, motor, visceral, and affective states” of another, known as experience sharing, according to Jamil Zaki, a social scientist at Stanford. In a study about empathy [PDF], Zaki uses the example of a crowd watching a tightrope walker becoming physically tense, anxious, even sweaty, as they watch the person teeter high above them.

Yet even babies will crawl toward and attempt to comfort other crying babies. There are specific neurons in your brain called mirror neurons that play a role in helping you to understand the intentions and actions of others, and to gauge the cost of them on your own physiology.


To limit these “costs” of empathy, we’re more likely to “turn off” or deny our empathy for people through subtle acts of “dehumanization,” which, says Cameron, simply means “denying others’ mental states, thinking they have less capacity to think, feel or have conscious experiences.” This is more likely to happen in cases where we feel that our emotional investment will not pay off—say, when those others belong to a group we identify as unlike ourselves or stigmatized individuals, such as drug addicts. “We’re sensitive to the costs and benefits of empathy. We entertain the risks and rewards of empathy for others, and that can shape how much empathic behavior we engage in,” Cameron says.

One of Cameron’s findings, outlined in a recent study in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science, is that if a person thinks of empathy as a limited emotional resource, they’re likely to limit instances of empathy for a stigmatized target. However, if that scale is flipped and people are instead encouraged to think of their empathy as renewable, emotional exhaustion can be staved off.

Cameron and his research team engaged in two nearly identical studies. In the first, 173 participants were split into two groups and asked to read about a hypothetical adult black male named Harold Mitchell who was homeless either because he struggled with drug addiction—considered a highly stigmatized condition—or because of an illness out of his control, which lacks stigma. “They were asked, 'To what degree do you think it would be emotionally exhausting or draining to help him?' and we gave them the expectation that they would receive an appeal for help from this individual at some point,” Cameron says.

The results of this first study showed that people felt helping the drug addict Harold Mitchell would be “more exhausting” than those who assessed the blamelessly ill Harold Mitchell, says Cameron.

The second study kept the same stimuli, though they had a larger sample of 405 people. The only stimuli they changed, says Cameron, was that “we told people that the empathy appeal would be inspiring and rewarding.” The feeling of exhaustion towards the stigmatized drug addict Harold Mitchell went away in participants in the second study, Cameron says, because the researchers had presented a scenario in which helping him replaced “emotional costs with emotional rewards.”

Though Cameron is the first to say that their study is not necessarily representative of the general public because the sample population “tilts white and liberal, people in their mid-thirties, somewhat educated,” these studies suggest “we may have more control and flexible choice over when and for whom we feel empathy,” he says.


Zaki suggests we have an essential, automatic component to empathy—a built-in biological leaning toward caring for the suffering of others—but that our empathetic response is at the same time highly contextual. In the "tightrope" study, Zaki notes that in children, experience sharing—when we take on the feelings and even movements of others—may initially develop as an "undifferentiated response" to the emotions, he writes. "However, over time, children learn and internalize social rules, such as group membership, that produce motives to feel empathy in some cases but not others.”

Cameron suggests this is another avenue around which they could build experiments. “We could look at perceptions of social norms of those around you," he says. "Do your friends and family value empathy?”

And of course, one can’t ignore the effects of media—social and otherwise—we're all so relentlessly exposed to now. “With social media you have more demands on your empathy from the sheer amount of information about others’ lives presented to you,” says Cameron. “It may force us to be more strategic about when to feel empathy.”

Most interesting, however, is the plasticity of empathy, which appears to be highly susceptible to expectation and suggestion. “If our effect did generalize, one thing it does suggest is that what you think empathy is going to be like might matter quite a bit,” Cameron says. “If I tell you [empathy] is a renewable resource, not limited, something self-fulfilling and regenerative, you might make essentially different decisions on how to approach your empathy—and potentially be more expansive.”

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]


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