A series of studies published in the Creativity Research Journal provides evidence that creativity and empathy are not isolated domains but rather interconnected facets of human cognition and emotion. These studies suggest that the process of creating a mental representation of someone else’s mind could be a crucial yet overlooked component that contributes significantly to the way we experience and engage in empathetic responses.
The traditional approach to empathy in psychology has focused on outcomes such as empathic accuracy, concern for others’ needs, and emotional contagion. However, the authors of the new research argue that this approach neglects the diverse paths people take when trying to understand the minds of others. They suggest that empathizing with others involves an open-ended and creative process of constructing their mental states and responses.
They propose the concept of “creative empathy,” which is defined as an appropriate and novel representation of another person’s mental state. Appropriateness refers to the relevance of the empathic response to the situation at hand, while novelty involves deviating from typical or conventional responses.
“As empathy researchers, we’re often interested in how people figure out what others are feeling,” said study author Stephen Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University. “There are clear benefits to this: it’s helpful to know if somebody is sad if you want to make them feel better, for example. But empathy is also very open-ended: we can never know for sure what’s happening inside another person’s head.”
“We thought this might mean that people sometimes take creative liberty and explore different novel possibilities when they imagine other minds. Our team also consists of experts in both empathy and creativity, so we were especially equipped to merge these topics to examine creative empathy.”
To investigate whether empathy can be a creative process, the researchers conducted a series of four studies, which included 1,074 participants in total.
In Study 1 and Study 2, the researchers aimed to explore the impact of creativity instructions on empathic responses using a forward flow task. This task involved participants freely generating a list of mental states for faces displaying positive or negative emotional states.
The researchers introduced three different instruction conditions: creative, accurate, and control. In the creative condition, participants were instructed to be imaginative and generate interesting or uncommon words. In the accurate condition, participants were instructed to be precise and relevant. In the control condition, participants were only asked to generate words that came to mind.
In both studies, the researchers found that participants who received creativity instructions produced more creative responses in the forward flow task compared to those in the accurate and control conditions. This indicated that creativity can be enhanced within an empathic context through specific instructions.
Interestingly, there was no significant relationship between participants’ self-reported creativity and their actual creative responses in the forward flow task, suggesting a potential disconnect between self-perceived creativity and demonstrated creative behavior.
In Study 3 and Study 4, the researchers aimed to explore creativity empathy using another measure, called the empathic divergent thinking task. The task involved presenting participants with various vignettes (brief written scenarios) that depicted negative experiences or situations. Participants were then instructed to generate responses that reflected the thoughts and feelings of the individuals in those scenarios.
In line with the previous studies, the researchers found that creativity instructions increased creativity scores. Empathy instructions also led to increased creativity scores. But these instructions did not affect empathy-related outcomes. Contrary to expectations, higher creativity scores were linked to lower empathic concern and helping intentions.
“When we asked people to rate how empathetic they felt for a specific person in need, people who thought about this person’s emotional state more creatively also reported feeling less empathy for this person,” Anderson told PsyPost.
“This might mean that people who are more empathetic tend to think about other minds more creatively, but when actively empathizing with a person, being creative makes people less empathetic (possibly because thinking creatively distracts people from what the other person needs at that moment). This also means that the connection between creativity and empathy is not completely straightforward: in some cases, empathy might foster creativity, while in others, they might detract from each other.”
The studies collectively indicate that creativity can indeed occur within empathic contexts and can be influenced by instructions to approach empathy tasks with creativity. This suggests that empathy and creativity are not mutually exclusive; instead, they can interact and potentially enhance each other. The findings also underscore the need to consider creative elements when studying empathy.
“Creativity might be an important part of how people think about and understand the minds of others. When imagining what another is feeling, people can take a variety of different pathways, some more simple and straightforward (e.g., ‘this person feels sad and depressed,’), and others more varied and creative (e.g., ‘this person feels bittersweet and nostalgic’),” Anderson told PsyPost.
“Our research provides a starting point for this idea by showing that people can and do think creatively about others’ mental states. We may see examples of this creative empathy when people create unique mental states of characters in fictional stories, and we might expect this to influence how people think about the mental lives of others in real-world, day-to-day interactions.”
Anderson further noted that, “while our studies show that people can think about other minds creatively, we don’t quite know what this leads to in the real-world. For example, people who enjoy thinking creatively might be more likely to show empathy if they view it as a potential creative outlet. It’s also possible that creative empathy can backfire: if I’m too focused on creatively exploring another’s emotions, am I less focused on figuring out what the person is actually feeling?”
“Our studies can’t speak to these possibilities: whether or not creative empathy leads to positive or negative outcomes–or some combination of both–is still an open question. There is some promising research being done in this area, however: for example, a recent study by Huo et al. (2023) found that creativity can reduce racial biases in empathy.”
The study, “Creative Empathy“, was authored by Stephen Anderson, C. Daryl Cameron, and Roger E. Beaty.