London: People who empathise easily with others do not necessarily understand them well and, on the contrary, excessive empathy can lead to impairment in their understanding of others, finds a new study.
The findings showed that people who tend to be empathic do not necessarily understand other people well at a cognitive level. Hence, social skills seem to be based on multiple abilities that are rather independent of one another.
“Successful social interaction is based on our ability to feel with others and to understand their thoughts and intentions,” said Anne Bockler, junior professor and psychologist at the University of Wurzburg in Germany.
Also, the researchers found that the neuronal networks crucial for empathy and cognitive perspective taking interact with one another in the brain.
In highly emotional moments — for example when somebody talks about the death of a close person — activation of the insula, which forms part of the empathy-relevant network, can have an inhibiting effect in some people on brain areas important for taking someone else’s perspective.
And this, in turn, can cause excessive empathy to impair social understanding, the researchers explained.
For the study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, the team conducted a large-scale study with 200 participants.
The participants watched a number of video sequences in which the narrator was more or less emotional. Afterwards, they had to rate how they felt and how much compassion they felt for the person in the film.
Then they had to answer questions about the video — what the persons could have thought, known or intended.
Having thus identified persons with a high level of empathy, the psychologists looked at their portion among the test participants who had had good or poor results in the test about cognitive perspective-taking and vice versa.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists observed which areas of the brain where active at what time.