Why Having Empathy Can Make You More Aggressive

Behaving aggressively is not always about anger or feeling personally threatened.

Sometimes certain circumstances, empathy or compassion can predict aggressive behavior, according to new research.


Two neuro-hormones seem be one of the mechanisms in this counterintuitive reaction. Neuro-hormones are chemicals that act as hormones in the blood stream and as neurotransmitters in the brain.

“Both oxytocin and vasopressin seem to serve a function leading to increased ‘approach behaviors,’” says psychology professor Michael J. Poulin. “People are motivated by social approach or getting closer to others.”

People approach one another for many different reasons, including aggression.

Therefore, it makes sense that if compassion is linked to the action of these hormones and these hormones are linked to social approach behaviors, then they might help account for the link between compassion and aggression.

The research team conducted a two-part study which included a survey and an experiment.

“The results of both indicate that the feelings we broadly call empathic concern, or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” says Poulin.

In the survey, people were asked to report on someone close to them and explain how that person was threatened by a third-party. Then, participants described their emotions and reaction to the situation.

People aggressing on behalf of others has been widely researched, but Poulin and grad student Anneke E.K. Buffone, say “the idea that empathy can drive aggression absent of provocation or injustice is quite novel.”

The Hot Sauce Test

Study participants gave a saliva sample to measure neurohormone levels. They then heard a compassion-evoking story about someone they never met, a fictional participant who was supposedly in another room with a second fictional participant.

The actual participants were informed that the pair in the other room, strangers to each other, who were to take a math test, would be exposed to a painful but harmless stimulus, hot sauce, in order to measure the effects of physical pain on performance.

During the test, the real subject had a choice on how much of a painful stimulus they would provide to the third party who was competing with the person they had compassion toward.

“The results of both the survey and the experiment indicate that the feelings we have when other people are in need, what we broadly call empathic concern or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” says Poulin. “In situations where we care about someone very much, as humans, we were motivated to benefit them, but if there is someone else in the way, we may do things to harm that third party.”

That reaction is not because the third party has done anything wrong.

Think of parents who in order to help their child in a competition might do something destructive to another challenger, Poulin says, or soldiers who in battle think more of protecting a comrade than fighting against a broader national threat.

That reaction is because of love or compassion for people close.


Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others–Even Without Provocation
Anneke E. K. Buffone, Michael J. Poulin
Pers Soc Psychol Bull November 2014 vol. 40 no. 11 1406-1422

The neurogenetics of nice: receptor genes for oxytocin and vasopressin interact with threat to predict prosocial behavior.
Poulin MJ, Holman EA, Buffone A.
Psychol Sci. 2012 May 1;23(5):446-52. doi: 10.1177/0956797611428471. Epub 2012 Mar 28.