One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 2: research and experiments

December 12, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

[This post is part of a series on empathy gaps. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Yesterday I talked about the effect that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion, nor do you realize you can’t, also known as empathy gaps. Today let’s look at some research and experiments.

Sexual arousal

A comedian once remarked on the question people suggest you asking before considering unprotected sex, “would you die for it.” He said sometimes when you’re in the moment, you think you might.

Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational (which I recommend), wrote about research he did with George Loewenstein on decisions made when sexually aroused versus not. He had male students answer questions about sexual beliefs and behavior. Here is a partial list.

  • Are women’s shoes erotic?
  • Can you imagine being attracted to a 12-year-old girl?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 40-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 50-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 60-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a man?
  • Could it be fun to have sex with someone who was extremely fat?
  • Could you enjoy sex with someone you hated?
  • Would you take a date to a fancy restaurant to increase your chance of having sex with her?
  • Would you tell a woman that you loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?
  • Would you encourage your date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?
  • Would you keep trying to have sex after your date says ‘‘no.’’
  • Would you slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?

They then asked the students to masturbate but not ejaculate and answer the same questions while aroused.

The results: the subjects found more things sexy and were more likely to say they would perform risky or experimental sexual behavior when aroused than they thought they would be.

Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when all the participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high (72% higher) they had predicted when they were cold.

In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136% higher than) they had predicted in the cold state.

Similarly, in the set of questions about using condoms, and despite the warnings that had been hammered into them over the years about the importance of condoms, they were 25% more likely in the aroused state than in the cold state to predict that they would forgo condoms. In all these cases they failed to predict the influence of arousal on their sexual preferences, morality and approach to safe sex.

This effect is stronger than just that their judgment changed. They couldn’t predict that their judgment would change, even in criminal and life-or-death situations.

Physical pain

Another group researched the effect of physical pain (Nordgren, L. F., van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The restraint bias: How the illusion of self-restraint promotes impulsive behavior. Psychological Science, 20, 1532-1528). They tested people’s memory while putting their hands in icy water, which tends to worsen your memory.

Later they grouped people into two groups and asked them how badly the cold water affected their performance. One group had their hands again in icy water when asked to recall the effect, the other group didn’t.

The group with their hands in cold water when asked later estimated the cold water significantly worsened their memory. The group without their hand in cold water when asked didn’t feel the cold water would worsen their memory much.

It seems without feeling the pain, they couldn’t conjure how the pain would affect them.

You know this effect. In the coldness of winter you can’t stand the cold and can’t imagine the weather being so hot as to make you uncomfortable. You’d prefer anything to the biting cold. In the heat of the summer you can’t bear the heat and can’t imagine weather so cold as to be uncomfortable. Anything to get out of that stifling heat.

Emotional pain and bullying

In another set of experiments (Nordgren, L. F., Banas, K., & MacDonald, G. (2010). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering, 100, 120-128), researchers split people into groups — some socially ostracized, others not. Then they asked each group how others would feel when socially ostracized.

Not only did the group not currently ostracized underestimate the emotional pain ostracized people felt, even the group that was ostracized, when no longer excluded, underestimated that emotional pain too.

In other words, people have a hard time imagining how people in different emotional states than their own feel, even though they’ve experienced those emotions too.

Trouble empathizing with others

Other experiments asked people to estimate what external motivation others would need to overcome challenges, like how much money they or others would need to dance in front of other people. They consistently estimated others would need less money then they themselves would. Presumably when considering if they would dance, they felt the potential embarrassment more strongly than they could imagine it for others.

Valuing things

In other experiments (Boven, Leaf; George Loewenstein, David Dunning (2003). “Mispredicting the endowment effect: underestimation of owners’ selling prices by buyer’s agents”. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 51: 363), researchers asked people how much they would buy or sell a mug for, and how much they thought others would buy or sell the same mug for.

They found people valued the mug differently depending on whether they possessed the mug or not. For example, sellers who said they would sell it at a certain price when they didn’t have it raised the price when they got the mug. Buyers underestimated how much sellers would sell for.

In other words, people’s values changed depending on whether they possessed the thing they valued or if they wanted the thing they valued.

For those of us who think our values stay constant, these results poke holes in those beliefs.

Other research

Here are a few sentences summarizing related research from Ariely and Loewenstien’s paper on their results on sexual arousal, above

  • People who do not own an object underestimate how attached they would be to it and how much money they would require to part with the object if they owned it (Loewenstein & Adler, 1995; Van Boven, Dunning, & Loewenstein, 2000).
  • People who are about to exercise predict they would be less bothered by thirst if they were lost without food or water than do people who have just exercised and are thirsty and warm (Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003).
  • People who are sated because they have just eaten are less likely to choose a high-calorie snack to consume at a well-defined time in the future than hungry people who have not eaten (Read & van Leeuwen, 1998)
  • People who are hungry because they have not eaten expect to be more interested in eating a plate of spaghetti for breakfast than people who are sated (Gilbert, Gill, & Wilson, 2002)
  • Heroin addicts who are not currently craving because they just received a ‘‘maintenance’’ dose of opioid agonist, value getting an extra dose a week later about half as highly as those asked to value the extra dose an hour earlier, before they have received their maintenance dose (Giordano et al., 2002).
  • Men who are not sexually aroused predicted they would be less likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior than men who are sexually aroused as a result of viewing photographs of nude women (Loewenstein, Nagin, & Paternoster, 1997)


This effect that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion, nor do you realize you can’t seems strong and consistent across many areas of life, including in criminal and potential life-or-death situations.

This page’s goal is to help you improve your life. Empathy gaps seem to undermine this goal. I describe them as insidious because they seem to catch us unaware and seem hard to understand. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to understand them from the perspective of the Model. The next day I’ll use that awareness to talk about what you can do about the effect.

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1 response to “One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 2: research and experiments

  1. Pingback: One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 1 | Joshua Spodek

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