How Being Socially Connected May Sap Your Empathy

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Feeling socially connected is good for you, both physically and mentally, but in a paradox, it may also make you less empathetic to the plight of others.

Numerous studies have established that having lots of social support is associated with longevity and better psychological health, but past studies have also hinted that there’s something about the chemistry of connection that inclines people toward unkindness — particularly toward stigmatized groups like those with disabilities or addictions.

The researchers of the new study wanted to explore this issue further by looking at how people who had a strong sense of social support would behave toward those outside their circle. Specifically, the researchers sought to examine whether feelings of connectedness led to increased tendencies to dehumanize others.

“By ‘dehumanization,’ we mean the failure to consider another person as having a mind,” says lead author Adam Waytz, assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, explaining that the idea of “mind” includes the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, as well as to plan and intend.

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In one experiment, the researchers randomly assigned 38 participants to write essays: some were asked to write about a time they felt supported by a loved one; others were instructed to write about a person whom they see in daily life but don’t interact with, like someone they see in the hall at school or work.

Afterward, the volunteers were asked to evaluate their perceptions of four different groups: rich people, middle class people, those with drug addictions and disabled people. The evaluations had to do with different aspects of mind that they were asked to attribute to the average group member, such as how capable the person would be of “engaging in a great deal of thought” or “doing things on purpose.”

The participants who had written about feeling supported were more likely to dehumanize the addicted and disabled people, lowering their rankings of various aspects of mind by about one point on a 7-point scale.

In another experiment, 59 participants were given photos of people they were told were terrorists responsible for planning the attacks of 9/11. Some of the volunteers looked through the pictures with a friend, while others did so with a stranger who was also participating in the research.

Afterward, when questioned, people who perused the photos with a friend were more likely to support the use of waterboarding and the use of greater levels of electric shock on the suspects. On a 450-volt scale, those who’d been with their friends said that 170.6 volts would be acceptable to use on average, while those working with a stranger were only willing to go up to 136.

“We think there are two reasons,” says Waytz. “One is that experience of social connection draws a circle around you that defines who is in and who is out. It very clearly delineates who is ‘us versus them’ and when it is ‘us versus them,’ people outside appear to be less human.

“The more interesting reason is that social connection is sort of like eating. When you are hungry, you seek out food. When you are lonely, you seek social connection. When the experience of social connection is elevated, we feel socially ‘full’ and have less desire to seek out other people and see them in a way that treats them as essentially human.”

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A similar psychology may affect our everyday interactions. “People talk about being overextended, having too many dinner dates, coffee dates, meetings. They feel depleted,” says Waytz. “We think this plays into our findings. Even though you are extremely socially connected, at some point, it comes at the expense of the ability to consider the full humanity of those around you.”

While Waytz doesn’t suggest people should limit their feelings of genuine connectedness, he does think there are bounds to our ability to be truly present for others. “Empathy is a fixed resource and when we are spending it on those close to us, we simply have less to spend on others whom we feel less close to,” he says.

But that doesn’t preclude us from rationally recognizing the tendency to dehumanize outsiders, he says, and relying on our moral principles to avoid behaving dishonorably. “I think expanding the circle of empathy has been good for humankind,” he says. “But that’s only part of the story. Another part is [using moral guidelines] like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Waytz’ research also suggests that we might reconsider the way we characterize people with addictions. Although the notion of addiction as brain disease may absolve addicts of some of the blame for their affliction, it also suggests that they are not operating under free will. Since dehumanization itself involves seeing people as having “less mind” and a reduced ability to plan or control behavior, that view may increase the stigma of the condition, not reduce it.

The paradoxes of human nature make these issues much more complicated than they initially seem.

The research [PDF] was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.