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The Limits of Empathy

Most people agree that there is a distinction between empathy in the form of listening, and trying to understand someone’s experience — what many researchers call “empathic concern” — and empathy that takes the form of actually trying to take that experience on yourself — something called “personal distress.” No surprise here, but most researchers agree that empathic concern is good, and personal distress is bad. “When people think about others from a third person perspective, they experience empathy, empathic concern, and they want to help people. And that’s the goal,” says Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Where people actually take on the pain of another person, that doesn’t lead to helping, it leads to disengagement, it’s this ‘ouch’ experience.” And this second thing, this personal distress, is often what empathetic VR experiences aim to achieve.

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