Psychology of Social Connection

Pand(empathy): Processing the Emotions of a Pandemic

February 27th, 2021 · 5 Comments


Less than a week after being kicked out of my college dorm and moving back home, there I stood in the middle of my childhood room—a disheveled, half-painted (both the walls and, due to my frantic painting style, myself) mess as I tried to prepare my personal space for what seemed to be a stay-at-home order with an undetermined end. As I took a needed break from painting some time past midnight, I grabbed my phone to look at the most recent news of a disease still new to me. The New York Times had reported an estimated 4,043 new cases of the Coronavirus and 50 new deaths on that day, March 19th (New York Times). I fell onto my bed in the middle of my room and began reading the stories of those families who lost their loved ones so unexpectedly. As I read, I began to feel the pain of their stories, the fear of the workers who sacrificed their own health to try to save them, and the hopelessness of all the others like me who were reading that the “darkest days of the disease are ahead.” Needless to say, I felt utterly defeated beyond myself.

Nearly a year later and the United States has seen over half a million total deaths and days where the number of daily new cases have reached well above 300,000. However, as the updates came with skyrocketing numbers and increasing rates, I no longer felt defeated the same way that I had in mid-March. The numbers became normal, and I began to wonder—how could I, along with everyone else digesting new tragedy in a constantly changing pandemic, have had such a dramatic change in heart? 

The collapse of compassion is the decrease in empathetic response that we experience as the number of people suffering increases. Some studies have supported the hypothesis that this decrease in affect plateaus as the number of individuals increases, creating a “psychological numbing” effect (Fetherstonhaugh, Sandlovic, Johnson, and Friedrich, 1997), while others have argued that the decrease in affect continues to decrease as the number of suffering individuals increases. In the case of the pandemic, it seems the latter is more aligned with my personal experience—a “dehumanization” possibly due to the costliness of mentally-draining empathy in a pandemic that has now persisted for a year (Cameron, Harris, & Payne, 2015).

The sources of compassion collapse, however, are debated. Theory about the conceptual representation of groups tends to support a “tragedy versus statistic” mentality; individuals require more attention put into perspective taking and therefore more effectively trigger an affective response compared to groups (Hamilton and Sherman, 1996). However, in a study conducted by Cameron and Payne (2011), experiments found initial evidence supporting an alternative theory that compassion collapse is driven by motivated emotion regulation, such as a motive to prevent the experience of overwhelming levels of emotion.

A shared theme between these hypotheses seems to be that the costliness of empathy—whether it be in the processing of perspectives or in the emotion-sharing capacity it requires—moderates our ability to empathize with large numbers of people. Recognizing our own collapse of compassion in a pandemic makes us, ironically, recognize the emotionally incomprehensible amount of suffering our society has undergone. Recognition of our limitations to empathize may in turn provide forgiveness for ourselves in navigating the collective long-term effects of an emotionally draining and traumatic year.



I used to watch the news obsessively in March and April and feel terribly for the people who were getting infected and dying from COVID-19 and for the healthcare workers who were risking their lives taking care of them. It was heartbreaking to hear the updates, but I felt like it was the only possible response. How could I be happy in a time like this? As the months went on, I got numb to the news and felt exhausted just thinking about COVID. Since then, I have been experiencing what many people call pandemic fatigue. Empathy involves both the ability to understand another’s thoughts, feelings and perspective as well as sharing in the emotions of others (de Waal, 2008). One of the many reasons for fatigue is the difficulty of sharing in the feelings of another person let alone the over 500,000 people we have lost and so many more who have suffered in ways both big and small. 

Although empathy can be overwhelming, it can lead to prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and altruism (de Waal, 2008). As we have all witnessed over the past year, cooperation is an essential component of getting through an infectious pandemic. Cooperation is needed to follow the health guidelines that keep everyone safe. Cooperation is needed to form mutual aid groups to assist people struggling. It makes sense, then, that empathy might impact the way a group of people or an entire country responds to a pandemic. We have also seen over the past year that different countries have responded differently in the face of this pandemic. Could differences in empathy play a role in explaining the differences in people’s willingness to cooperate for the greater good?

Aival-Naveh, Rothschild-Yakar, and Kurman (2019) did a review of literature that analyzes empathy differences across cultures. The studies divided cultures into either collectivistic, more concerned with others than the self, or individualistic, more concerned with the self than others. By pure definition, it seems that collectivistic cultures would be more empathetic, but the results were more complicated than that. Several brain imaging studies where participants were exposed to the physical and social pain of others supported the finding that collectivistic cultures have higher empathy (Aival-Naveh, Rothschild-Yakar, and Kurman, 2019). Additionally, studies that looked at cognitive empathy or perspective taking consistently found that participants from collectivistic countries were better able to consider another’s perspective than participants from individualistic countries (Aival-Naveh, Rothschild-Yakar, and Kurman, 2019).

One study conducted across 63 countries supported these findings and found that countries with higher empathy also had higher levels of collectivism (Chopik, O’Brien, and Konrath, 2017). However, these data were self-reported, which calls into question the reliability of the empathy rating. It’s possible that people from collectivistic countries see themselves as more empathetic and thus rate themselves as more empathetic. Furthermore, other self-reported surveys found the opposite: that people from individualistic countries had higher empathy than people from collectivist countries (Aival-Naveh, Rothschild-Yakar, and Kurman, 2019). The results are far from definitive but intriguing nonetheless. Future research might directly compare individual countries’ pandemic numbers with their ability to empathize.

Even with its limitations considered, empathy can be an incredibly powerful tool for navigating the pandemic. Understanding our ability to empathize with a group is an integral part of a pandemic that has affected everyone, and acknowledging our limits can help us know not to give up even when the costs of empathy become overwhelming.



Aival-Naveh E., Rothschild‐ Yakar L., Kurman J. (2019). Keeping culture in mind: A systematic review and initial conceptualization of mentalizing from a cross‐cultural perspective. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 26(4), 1-25. https://doi. org/10.1111/cpsp.12300

Cameron, C. D., & Payne, B. K. (2011). Escaping affect: How motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 1–15.

Chopik, W. J., O’Brien, E., Konrath, S. H. (2017). Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(1), 23-28.

Coronavirus in the US: Latest Map and Case Count. The New York Times.

De Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279-300.

Fetherstonhaugh, D., Slovic, P., Johnson, S. M., & Friedrich, J. (1997). Insensitivity to the value of human life: A study of psychophysical numbing. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14, 283-300.

Hamilton, D. L., and Sherman, S. J. (1996). Perceiving persons and groups. Psychological Review, 103, 336-355.


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5 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // Feb 27th 2021 at 4:03 pm

    Kara, your description of the compassion collapse really follows along very well from when I described how Germany and the world in general lost most of our empathy for how the US handled the pandemic. After I saw videos and read the stories of certain areas and states ignoring the public health measures (and had to watch the president make a fool of himself!), it was extremely difficult for me to forget those horrible sights of no masks or distance and feel for those that were hooked to ventilators and suffering after they had carelessly endangered themselves and others. I totally relate to and am constantly scared by how normalized those images and stories have become and how little emotion it evokes in me now. But, like you said Tyler, we have also reached new ‘group high scores’ in cooperation (at least in some countries haha). It makes a lot of sense that I would experience a collapse of compassion, as I would describe Germany as a highly individualistic country, so I would agree with the results of Chopik, O’Brien, and Konrath despite their work being based on self-report (2017). Let’s hope that this pandemic brings out the long-term empath for future situations in everyone! -Lara

  • Arianna Romero // Feb 28th 2021 at 4:51 pm

    Kara, I can definitely relate to the hopeless feeling and the slow decrease in empathy as the pandemic dragged on. The drain from the high levels of empathy in the beginning was so real and I wasn’t anywhere near the front lines of the fight. I often wonder how the frontline workers managed to cope day after day. News channels often covered stories of frontline workers. Their message was always a variation of “please stay at home and make our jobs easier. Stop the suffering”. The long-term effects of the pandemic on the medical workers would be extremely interesting to investigate as they are constantly exposed to difficult situations, and not just in a pandemic. Tyler, to your points about increased prosocial acts with more empathy, I wonder if there have been any shifts in cooperating and altruism specifically in regards to medical personnel dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic. The differences in culture in medical workers may also be illuminating. Each country has varying levels of collectivism and levels of action taken to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. This may change how frontlines workers approach empathy and the pandemic.

  • Anonymous // Mar 1st 2021 at 6:26 pm

    Kara– I felt such a similar set of emotions throughout the pandemic that you put into words so well. I felt like at the start, I was feeling so much more for what was happening around me, but it quickly became overwhelming and I felt less and less as the numbers got higher. I was also wondering the same as Ari– since front line workers are so close to all of the tragedy, is it harder for them to turn on their empathy and will it have lasting effects?
    Tyler– this idea of different cultures and different empathy was so interesting to read about!! It was also something I’ve been thinking about since we talked about it in class, and I was so curious to see if there were studies. I’m wondering if post-pandemic there will be more studies done about the pandemic response in different cultures and how it relates to empathy.

  • Anonymous // Mar 1st 2021 at 7:56 pm

    Kara, I can resonate with the point that individuals require more attention put into perspective taking and therefore more effectively trigger an affective response compared to groups. Sometimes I feel individual is emotional entity, but group is a kind of phenomenon. Thus, when I find news or stories regarding individuals who suffering, I can easily put myself into perspective taking because each of them is unique and requires specific efforts to understand their very situations. However, when the number of individuals reach a certain degree, it becomes a group, or a mixture of different individuals which is neither unique or specific. Accordingly, it is impossible to relate deeply with them because they are more general or abstract, like the fact that you can never talk to a group of people the same way as you talk to a specific person.
    Tyler, I wonder what is the most critical factors resulting in the differences across more collectivistic or individualistic countries. Maybe it stems from the value the country praises highly, which subconsciously determine how much we put into empathy. But there may be some other variables. For examples, although more individualistic countries attach more importance on self, the understanding of the importance of self may become the basis of understanding others. On contrary, more collectivistic countries attach more importance on others, but as Kara mentions, the ‘psychological numbing may eventually decrease our willingness of understanding others’ situations.

  • Ellie Harvie // Mar 1st 2021 at 8:08 pm

    Kara and Tyler – I really appreciated reading your blog post this week about empathy and the pandemic. Many of the emotions you discussed I have struggled with myself, and honestly am still struggling with now. Kara – your intro really took me back to last March as one of my first instincts in quarantine was to rid my bedroom of the BRIGHT lime green walls that eleven-year-old me thought was truly #fashion. More than that, I’m feeling slightly validated by your description of compassion collapse and all of our discussions in class, reassuring me that I’m not a bad person for having different emotional responses than I did a year ago. Tyler – I found your research really interesting, and it made me think about how different the responses have been within the U.S. as well. Coming to Boston this January from the small, rural town in Virginia where I spent most of 2020 showed me first hand just how differently people have reacted to the pandemic. Taking this in tandem with your discussion on empathy differences across cultures gives me a new perspective, and maybe rationale, for thinking about why and how the responses of my two homes were so different. – Ellie

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