Happy People Aren’t Always Great at Empathy

By
Image

Perpetually happy individuals are wonderful to have around, until you experience something worth complaining about. Recent research in PLOS ONE suggests that people who are generally cheerful are not so great at reading other people’s negative emotions, though what’s especially interesting is that they think they’re very good at it. 

Researchers asked the participants both how happy they tended to be from day to day and how empathetic they considered themselves. The cheerier volunteers tended to tell the researchers that they were more empathetic, too, when compared to their not-quite-so-happy study subject counterparts. Alex Fradera, in a post at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, describes what happened next:

The researchers next studied videos of people giving a monologue about an autobiographical event. For each of the videos (two positive events, two negative events), participants rated, second-by-second, the level of negative or positive emotion they thought the speaker was currently feeling. 

Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent. 

So, in a way, this research provides more evidence that Debbie Downer types tend to get the details right, even when it comes to reading emotions.