The hot-cold empathy gap: Why we underestimate our own feelings, and the feelings of others

© 2009 – 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
father and young son sitting back to back, in conflict, by idal / istock

Call it an “empathy gap,” or call it a failure of imagination: People have trouble relating to feelings they themselves aren’t currently experiencing.

For example, if you’re feeling calm and collected right now, your mental processes might be running too “cold” for you to remember the power of intense emotions, passions, or pain. And if — by contrast — you happen to be the grip of a strong drive, you probably don’t realize how much this “hot” state is influencing your perceptions and choices.

It’s a problem that applies to all sorts of feelings, including visceral drives, like hunger and thirst. And it can lead to classic errors, including failures to recognize how much another person is suffering.

But to really grasp the power of the empathy gap, first consider how it influences decisions we make about our own, future selves.

For instance, suppose someone offers to pay you money to visit a laboratory next week and perform a painful task — say, immersing your hand in ice cold water. How much would you charge for this little sacrifice?

That’s the question that psychologists David Read and George Loewenstein (1989) posed to some university undergraduates.

You might think the students would be pretty good at pricing their own pain. But their answers depended on prior experience.

  • People who had just experienced the effects of ice-water immersion demanded the most money for doing it again.
  • People who had experienced the pain before, but not recently, asked for less monetary compensation.
  • People who had never experienced the pain demanded the least amount of money of all.

Researchers have documented similar effects for addiction and social fear.

One study asked recovering heroin addicts to put a price on buprenorphine, or BUP, a methadone-like maintenance drug. Researchers told the addicts that–five days hence–they would be able to choose between a cash gift and an extra dose of BUP.

How much money would they require to reject the extra drug dose? Patients asked for more money if they were currently experiencing a strong drug craving (Giordano at al 2004).

Another study addressed the effects of the empathy gap on social fear. College students were offered a future acting gig — $2 compensation to mime in front of their classmates one week later. Among the students who predicted their willingness to mime, many changed their minds when the date of their scheduled performance arrived (Van Boven et al 2004, summarized in Loewenstein 2005).


Interestingly, these students also overestimated their classmates’ willingness to perform as mimes.

Brain scans suggests that our brains just don’t fire up the same way when we make decisions that seem hypothetical or far from the here-and-now. When we’re faced with a “hot” choice, the brain’s reward centers — and the amygala — become more active (Kang and Camerer 2013).

Perspective-taking and the empathy gap

If people have difficulty predicting their own desires and actions, how do they handle the feelings of other people?

As the miming study suggests, the hot-cold empathy gap is linked with perspective-taking: We seem to project what we are feeling onto other people.

Leaf Van Boven and George Loewenstein tested this idea at a university gymnasium (Van Boven and Loewenstein 2003).

The study involved two groups of people–those who hadn’t started exercising yet, and those who had just finished a vigorous, 20-minute cardiovascular workout.

People in both groups were asked to read a story about hikers who got lost in the woods without food or water.

Then they were asked to imagine how the hikers felt. “Which would be more unpleasant, hunger or thirst?”

The participants’ answers depended on how thirsty they were at the time.

Compared to people who hadn’t begun exercising, the people who had just finished exercising–and who were hotter and thirstier as a result–were more likely to rate thirst as more unpleasant than hunger (Van Boven and Loewenstein 2003).

Implications: Minding the gap

In many ways, these studies confirm our everyday experience. Things feel very different in the heat of the moment. We already knew that, right?

But that’s the rub. People don’t act like they know it.

If they did, they would be more consistent in their judgments. They’d consider how their current state might be affecting their perceptions and make adjustments for it. They’d do a better job avoiding “hot” situations that provoke them to behave rashly.

They might become better caretakers, too. Studies show that hospital patients — even terminal cancer patients and children — are routinely under-medicated for pain (Twycross 2006; Van Hulle Vincent 2005).

And how well do parents really understand their children’s feelings?

Evidence that parents tend to project their own emotions onto their kids

When Kristin Lagattuta and colleagues (2012) asked parents to gauge their children’s emotional lives, they found evidence of a mismatch between what parents believed and what children reported about themselves.

Parents who reported feeling lots of negative emotions were more likely to overestimate their children’s distress. But most parents underestimated their children’s anxieties and worries, and the effect was related to parental optimism. If parents felt good, they tended to assume that their kids felt good, too. A subsequent study replicated these findings (López-Pérez and Wilson 2015).

So I think we can take a lesson from this research. We can’t assume that our natural reactions are reliable. We need to deliberately remind ourselves of the empathy gap and take steps to compensate.

For parents, this is particularly relevant. Kids often experience the world in ways that adults don’t, and we need to remember that. Some examples:

  • Babies, helpless and dependent, may need more reassurance. They may also experience considerable frustration.
  • Kids get frightened of things that don’t faze adults.
  • Teenagers may be more self-conscious and more overwhelmed by sexual feelings.

I’m sure you can think of more. Although I can find no research on the subject, I’d wager that parents who deliberately reflect on the “empathy gap” have more success recognizing and sympathizing with their children’s problems.

And we can help our kids by teaching them about the hot-cold empathy gap.

Tips for teaching kids to make better choices

Kids sometimes behave in ways that seem fickle, insensitive, or weak-willed. As parents, we can explain to our kids why these behaviors are undesirable.

But we can do more. By teaching them about the hot-cold empathy gap, we might help kids learn practical skills to improve. For example, we can try these tactics:

  • Explain how the hot-cold empathy gap works. Even adults have trouble bridging the gap between “hot” and “cold” states. Talk to your child about situations where you have miscalculated, and how your affective state played a role.
  • Use your child’s errors as opportunities for discussion and reflection. How was she influenced by her affective state? Encourage your child to take a problem-solving approach. If she’s ever in the same situation, what can she do to avoid making the same mistake?
  • Encourage kids to “cool off” before they make important decisions.
  • Help kids identify—and avoid—situations where they may face powerful temptations.
  • Help kids prepare for the inevitable. Is your child going to visit the dentist? Or perform at a recital? Or ensure a long car trip? Talk with your child ahead of time about what to expect.

References: The empathy gap

Kang MJ and Camerer CF. 2013. fMRI evidence of a hot-cold empathy gap in hypothetical and real aversive choices. Front Neurosci. 7:104.

Lagattuta KH, Sayfan L, Bamford C. 2012. Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. J Exp Child Psychol. 113(2):211-32.

Loewenstein G. 2005. Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology 24(4) Suppl. S49-S56.

López-Pérez B and Wilson EL. 2015. Parent-child discrepancies in the assessment of children’s and adolescents’ happiness. J Exp Child Psychol. 139:249-55

Read D and Loewenstein G. 1999. Enduring pain for money: Decisions based on the perception and memory of pain. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 12: 1-17.

Twycross A. 2007. Children’s nurses’ post-operative pain management practices: an observational study. Int J Nurs Stud. 44(6):869-81.

Van Boven L and Loewenstein G. 2003. Social projection of transient drives. 29(9): 1159-1168.

Van Boven L, Kiewenstein G, Welch N and Dunning D. 2004. The illusion of courage: Underestimating the impact of fear of embarrassment on the self. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Van Hulle Vincent C. 2005. Nurses’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices: regarding children’s pain. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs. 30(3):177-83.

Content last modified 10/17