New research has uncovered a surprising link between empathy and our health. The study suggests that while empathy is highly valued in our society, it may come at a biological cost for some individuals. The findings have been published in the journal Biological Psychology.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is often seen as a noble trait associated with compassion and kindness. Prior research has shown that empathic individuals tend to engage in more altruistic acts, report lower levels of loneliness, and enjoy higher-quality relationships. However, Erika M. Manczak, the author of the study, wanted to delve deeper into the physiological consequences of empathy.
“I’m interested in how our social experiences can ‘get under the skin’ to influence our health,” explained Manczak, an assistant professor at the University of Denver and director of the Biology, Environments & Mood Studies Lab. “As a society, we tend to highly value empathy as a personal trait and yet I have conducted some previous research that found that parents who were high in empathy also had higher levels of markers of chronic inflammation, suggesting that empathy may come at a biological cost.”
“In this study, I used data from a much larger, nationally representative study to look at whether these associations may be true for all individuals, not just parents. Inflammation plays a key role in many chronic diseases (such as heart disease and asthma), so understanding what personal factors can predict inflammation is important for determining who might be at risk for worse health.”
Manczak analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (known as ‘Add Health’). This ongoing study has been tracking a representative sample of adolescents since the 1994–1995 school year. In this particular study, data collected when participants were between 24 and 32 years old were used, along with data collected 8 years later when participants were between 32 and 40 years old.
Importantly, the study obtained data regarding three key factors: affective empathy (participants were asked how much they agreed with statements about feeling others’ emotions), depressive symptoms (participants reported their feelings of depression over the past week), and c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation in the body).
Higher levels of empathy were linked to higher levels of c-reactive protein in the blood but only among individuals with low levels of depressive symptoms. This means that for people without significant depressive symptoms, empathy appeared to contribute to higher inflammation.
“In this study, I found that reporting higher levels of empathy was associated with higher levels of c-reactive protein, a marker of chronic inflammation, eight years later, even after taking into account participants’ levels of inflammation at baseline,” Manczak told PsyPost. “However, this pattern was only true for individuals who did not have high levels of depressive symptoms; for individuals experiencing more depressive symptoms, inflammation was high regardless of their levels of empathy.”
These could findings have significant implications for our physical health. Elevated c-reactive protein levels are commonly associated with conditions like heart disease, stroke, and inflammatory bowel disease. Individual differences in c-reactive protein levels can become more pronounced as individuals age, particularly in early midlife.
But the study has some limitations, such as the use of a single-item measure of empathy and self-reported assessments of depressive symptoms. “Empathy is something that can be tricky to measure in research and in this study, we relied on participants’ responding to a question about how much they typically feel other people’s emotions,” Manczak explained. “It would be great to look at other ways of measuring empathy and see if similar results emerge.”
“An important remaining question is: what are the pathways through which empathy relates to inflammation? For example, is it due to more empathic people feeling more stressed because of the emotions of people around them? Is it because of other intermediary biological processes that increase inflammation?”
The study, “Is there a cost to caring? Dispositional affective empathy interacts with depressive symptoms to predict higher C-reactive protein 8 years later“, was published on May 5, 2023.