A study finds that changes in alertness may undermine an individual’s ability to empathize.


Summary: A recent study has provided strong evidence that lower alertness, resulting from insufficient sleep, is a predictor of reduced empathic responses. The findings, to be presented at SLEEP 2024, indicate that both cognitive and affective empathy are affected by alertness levels. The study involved over 800 college students and demonstrated that slower response times and attention lapses are associated with lower empathy.

Key Takeaways:

  • Lower alertness, indicated by slower response times, is linked to reduced levels of empathic concern and accuracy.
  • Participants who exhibited attention lapses had poorer cognitive empathy, highlighting the importance of sustained attention for understanding others’ emotions.
  • The study explored the effects of caffeine, finding that it may influence empathic responses by enhancing alertness.

A new study found “robust evidence” that implicates lower alertness, a key outcome of insufficient sleep, as a predictor of muted empathic responding, which suggests alertness may support both cognitive and affective empathy.

Results, to be presented at the SLEEP 2024 annual meeting, show that slower response times on objective alertness tests were significantly associated with lower levels of empathic concern, and that lapses and false starts on these tests were significantly associated with poorer empathic accuracy. Additionally, those who were more objectively alert reported significantly higher affective empathy than the control group.

Understanding Empathy and Alertness

“Affective empathy is the ability to feel emotions in concordance with another, and cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what another is feeling,” says lead author Breanna Curran, a psychology graduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, in a release. “Slightly less alert individuals exhibited muted affective empathy, while only individuals who exhibited attention lapses exhibited poorer cognitive empathy.”

Sufficient, healthy sleep is associated with better health outcomes, including improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health, according to a release from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Study Design and Findings

The researchers collected data from over 800 college students across three studies. In all three studies, participants first reported on their subjective alertness using the Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, and their objective alertness was measured using the Psychomotor Vigilance Test. 

Participants then completed the Multifaceted Empathy Test to measure cognitive and affective empathy. Study 2 replicated Study 1 using more diverse stimuli, and in Study 3 participants were randomly assigned to ingest 300 mg of caffeine or a placebo before completing the tasks. 

All participants then completed an additional affective empathy test.

Implications for Understanding Empathy

Curran noted that the relationship between alertness and both an individual’s empathic accuracy and concern helps us to better understand the driving mechanism behind why sleep disruption harms an individual’s ability to empathize.

“In an applied setting, this novel finding can aid understanding of an individual’s lack of empathy and can inform recommendations for those whose empathy is essential to their occupation,” Curran says in a release.

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