Do we have more empathy for friends than for relatives? Yes, says a new study that looks into our motives for helping those we know.
Empathy is that rare capacity to identify oneself with the problems of the sufferer so completely that he or she experiences similar feelings and states of mind, including a sense of sadness, personal loss or betrayal.
The emotional response can prompt altruistic behaviour, like helping someone in dire straits to mitigate the rigours of his or her hardships and adversities.
The new study has found that when we succour a friend, we do so out of empathy, but we help relatives because of expectations of reciprocity, ScienceDaily reported.
This result is surprising, because it was always assumed that empathy was primarily a characteristic of family relationships.
"But it is logical when you think about it," said Lidewij Niezink of the University of Groningen, who researched the subject. "We tend to take family for granted. For when you move house, it's always your brother who comes to help."
"You can usually rely on family. We do not choose our families, but we do choose our friends. We feel a greater sense of connection with friends, so feelings of empathy are more important," she said.
Niezink is surprised about the fact that altruism is undervalued in our society.
"We are pack animals. We cannot exist in isolation, so it is no scandal if we are willing to help each other. I'm not saying we must, but we can."
Niezink researched the subject by telling participants about a young woman who finds herself in a wheelchair after a serious accident. They were required to answer a series of questions designed to show the way they responded.
According to Niezink, when people compare themselves with someone in a worse position, they often experience negative emotions such as tension, agitation, anxiety and irritation.
Niezink discovered that these negative emotions are actually an expression of empathy. These people feel involved with the person in need, and identify with him or her. The negative emotions are a way of expressing this.
Niezink also studied the role of empathetic feelings in relationships with friends and family members. She discovered that we help friends for different reasons than family members.
"People help friends out of feelings of empathy, but they help family members because they have expectations about reciprocation.'