In this line of research, I examined how people’s ideas about empathy might not match their concrete experiences of someone who shows empathy. Empathy is widely considered to be a moral virtue, and existing research shows that empathizers are liked in many situations (e.g., Goldstein, Vezich, & Shapiro, 2014; Smith, 1759; but see Bloom, 2017). Drawing from attribution and balance theories, my research challenges this prevailing view and suggests that evaluation of empathizers depends on the concrete context in which empathy takes place (Wang & Todd, under review). In one study, participants viewed an empathizer (vs. non-empathizer) positively when she empathized with a liked target, but not when she empathized with a disliked target (e.g., white supremacist). Evaluations of the empathizer were in part explained by participants’ inferences about the empathizer’s affinity for the target. Subsequent studies showed that evaluations of empathizers were moderated by other contextual factors, such as the valence of the empathized experience (e.g., stress versus happiness), and whether the empathized experience was directly linked to how the target is evaluated (e.g., stress because of white supremacy activities versus cancer treatment).
These findings highlight the disconnect that may exist between people’s abstract ideas about empathy and the more complex, concrete experiences of evaluating specific empathizers. In ongoing work, I am exploring how this disconnect relate to act–person dissociation of moral judgment (e.g., Uhlmann, Pizarro, & Diermeier, 2015), and how people’s abstract ideas of other moral values might show similar disconnect from their concrete experiences of moral decision-making.