Why are we aggressive towards certain people

Aggressive out of empathy

Not many people think of the word empathy in the same breath as aggression. After all, empathy is considered an extremely positive ability - something that generates compassion and warmth. However, US researchers are now showing that empathy can very well trigger aggression. Because sometimes aggressive behavior seems like the best way to protect someone in need.

Empathy is the ability and willingness to empathize with other people's situations. It is usually said to draw warmth and compassion out of us and to motivate us to do good to other people. But empathy can also trigger aggression in us, as a psychological study now shows. A research team led by Anneke Buffone from the State University of New York in Buffalo has investigated whether empathic feelings can lead to situation-related aggression. More precisely: aggression that is acted out in the interests of another person.
Anyone who empathizes with someone who is badly off will intuitively feel the urge to help this person: The suffering counterpart should be better off. Sometimes, the researchers hypothesized, aggression is the response that seems best suited to helping the other. The team tried to prove this with two different experiments.

Compassion in conflict

For the first attempt, study participants were asked to recall a situation in the past twelve months in which they witnessed a close relative or friend being physically or emotionally injured by a third person. They then had to answer several questions about this situation. For example, it was necessary to evaluate the extent to which they were moved or worried or sympathized with their friend at that moment. In addition, the participants were asked to provide information about their own behavior: Did they actively interfere in the conflict? Did you confront the person who attacked your friend verbally or even with physical violence? The evaluation of these questionnaires makes it clear: those who were classified as particularly empathic based on their answers also stated significantly more often that they had shown themselves to be aggressive in the conflict situation.
In the second experiment, the test subjects were then confronted with the following fictitious situations: A person has financial problems. That person is either very worried or not worried about it. In addition, that person will take a math test against another candidate and have the opportunity to win money in the process.

"More hot sauce!"

The test participants were given the opportunity to manipulate this fictitious competition by assigning the opponent of the person described something to drink, which the researchers defined as “hot sauce”. "We explained" hot sauce "as a substance that causes very great pain and extremely restricts performance," study director Buffone is quoted in a statement from the university. “The more“ hot sauce ”the test subjects gave, the worse the opponent would do - and the more likely the person with the financial difficulties would win.” For the experiment, the scientists also divided the participants into two groups: They gave one group Advice to imagine exactly how the person described feels when reading the scenario. The other, however, should only pay attention to the facts.

Empathic impulse

The results show that participants who had shown empathy in the first attempt also stood up for the person in need in the second attempt - but only if they had been described as worried and desperate. Test subjects who were asked to put themselves in the person's shoes while reading the scenario acted more aggressively as a result, that is to say they gave more “hot sauce”. Again, this effect only occurred when the person was described as concerned.
The researchers conclude that there is a direct link between empathy and aggression. According to their own statements, the scientists were largely able to rule out the influence of other variables, such as aggressive character traits. "Many believe that aggressive behavior is mainly caused by impulsiveness or an aggressive character," the team writes. "However, we show that anyone can act aggressively out of an empathic impulse - regardless of their personality."

Original work by the researchers:

© Wissenschaft.de - Daniela Albat
September 26, 2014