The Hurtful Consequences of Empathic Shame
When rape survivors tell people about their assault, they all too often face unhelpful and even hurtful reactions. Law enforcement may doubt them, healthcare workers may blame them, colleagues may shun them, and even close friends and family may avoid them. It’s difficult to overstate how devastating these reactions can be. Research suggests that negative reactions like these increase posttraumatic stress and depression, and hinder survivors’ recovery.
But why do people so frequently treat victims of sexual assault poorly?
My research suggests one powerful and surprising predictor—empathy.
Over the last decade empathy has become a buzzword. There are currently over 2000 books on Amazon.com with the word “empathy” in the title. Pundits, politicians, CEOs, and celebrities alike encourage people to be empathic, a trend that is evident in the many social media hashtags such as #empathymatters. While empathy-skeptics exist, research generally indicates that empathy is a psychological force of good in society because it normally increases helping behavior. However, whether empathy leads us to treat others well, or to treat them poorly, may depend on which emotion is evoked within us when we empathize.
Empathy can work in two different ways to trigger an emotional response. Sometimes we feel as others do. That is, we reflect the emotional state of another person in a mirror-like way. For example, if someone else feels ashamed, we will also feel ashamed. On the other hand, sometimes empathy leads us to feel for others, which is still an emotional response but not necessarily the same emotion the other person was feeling. For example, if my friend feels ashamed, I might feel concerned or angry at the person who made my friend feel that way.
There are a huge variety of emotions one might feel when a friend or acquaintance discloses that they have been assaulted, but here I will focus on anger and shame. I am focusing on these two emotions because previous research indicates that these emotions change how people respond to rape survivors. Anger is a motivating force for action; if we feel anger when our friend tells us they have been raped, we are more likely to stand up and do something about it. On the other hand, shame is a paralyzing emotion. If we feel shame, we are more likely to withdraw and distance ourselves from other people and the source of our shame. Shame may lead us to treat rape survivors poorly as we try to place physical and psychological distance between ourselves and the source of our shame. In terms of rape disclosure, if people directly reflect the emotions of others they may be more likely to reflect a rape survivors’ feelings of shame, which is a very common emotion for survivors. Conversely, people who tend to feel different emotions may be more likely to feel anger on behalf of a rape survivor, and therefore be more likely to offer to help them.
In a recent research study, I attempted to predict how people would treat a hypothetical rape survivor. I did this by measuring people’s habitual empathic tendencies and what emotions they felt in response to a hypothetical rape disclosure.
I asked 282 American men and women to complete an online questionnaire called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index that measures empathic tendencies. I then asked these participants to read a date rape scenario involving a female victim called Kathy and report how they felt afterwards. Finally, I asked participants how much they blamed Kathy for her assault, how much they would distance themselves from her, and whether they would offer to help her.
Sadly, all too many participants indicated they would blame and distance themselves from Kathy. But—how people reacted could be predicted by their empathy and emotions.
Whether participants were likely to help Kathy was the easiest behavior to predict, with distancing intentions and blaming less so. People who reported tending to empathize by feeling different emotions were more likely to offer to help Kathy, and less likely to blame her or want to distance themselves from her. These helpful intentions were the result of feeling more anger and less shame. In contrast, people who said they empathize by reflecting other people’s emotions were more likely to treat Kathy poorly and less likely to offer her help. These hurtful intentions were the result of relatively more feelings of shame and less feelings of anger. It seems likely that participants’ feelings of shame reflected the shame they assumed Kathy felt. But it remains possible that participants may have felt ashamed for other reasons such as feeling ashamed on behalf of their gender (Kathy’s attacker was a man).
Nevertheless, if empathy arouses shame within us, it can paradoxically lead us to treat others poorly. Empathic shame is likely quite rare and may even be unique to disclosures of sexual assault. In another study I used the exact same method, but had participants read about a robbery rather than a sexual assault. In this experiment I did not find any evidence that participants felt ashamed. Even participants who said they tend to reflect other people’s emotions did not report shame. It appears that sexual assault may arouse a unique constellation of emotions and has a higher likelihood of triggering empathic shame.
It would be good if we could reduce the negative consequences of empathic shame for rape survivors in the real world by limiting people’s exposure to shame. Anti-sexual assault campaigns that draw attention to the shame or humiliation experienced by rape victims may do more harm than good. For instance, depicting survivors in poses of shame (such as with a hand over their face or looking away from the camera) might lead viewers to feel shame themselves and subsequently unintentionally react in a negative manner. To promote more compassionate treatment of survivors, societal movements such as the #MeToo movement may be particularly effective. The #MeToo movement may serve to lessen the shame surrounding sexual assault by visibly demonstrating that many women have survived such attacks and providing judgment-free solidarity for those who have.
Overall, having empathy for rape victims is only as beneficial as the emotion aroused and the actions one takes. A better understanding of how empathy might lead us to hurt rape survivors via empathic shame can hopefully help us to prevent these reactions in the future.
For Further Reading
Martingano, A. J. (2020). Helpful and hurtful empathy: How the interplay of empathy, shame, and anger predicts responses to hypothetical rape disclosures. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520922345
Alison Jane Martingano is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health. Her research interests include empathy, communication, and the impact of emerging technologies on health.