Too much experience: a desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014 Feb;106(2):272-85. doi: 10.1037/a0035148.


People often use their own feelings as a basis to predict others' feelings. For example, when trying to gauge how much someone else enjoys a television show, people might think "How much do I enjoy it?" and use this answer as basis for estimating others' reactions. Although personal experience (such as actually watching the show oneself) often improves empathic accuracy, we found that gaining too much experience can impair it. Five experiments highlight a desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking, with consequences for social prediction, social judgment, and social behavior. Participants who viewed thrilling or shocking images many times predicted first-time viewers would react less intensely (Experiments 1 and 2); participants who heard the same funny joke or annoying noise many times estimated less intense reactions of first-time listeners (Experiments 3 and 4); and further, participants were less likely to actually share good jokes and felt less bad about blasting others with annoying noise after they themselves became desensitized to those events (Experiments 3-5). These effects were mediated by participants' own attenuated reactions. Moreover, observers failed to anticipate this bias, believing that overexposed participants (i.e., repeatedly exposed participants who became desensitized) would make better decisions on their behalf (Experiment 5). Taken together, these findings reveal a novel paradox in emotional perspective taking: If people experience an evocative event many times, they may not become wiser companions but worse, unable to disentangle self-change from other-oriented thinking. Just as lacking exposure to others' experiences can create gaps in empathy and understanding, so may gaining too much.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Social Behavior*