Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another's shoes, is generally seen as a virtue. It motivates us to help others. Yet even when feeling empathy doesn't cost us anything financially, many people will still avoid it because of the mental effort it requires, a study by researchers at Penn State and the University of Toronto finds.

“There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity, ” said lead researcher, C. Daryl Cameron, in a statement. “But we found that people primarily just don't want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.”

People who were led to believe they were good at empathizing were more likely to feel that empathy required less mental effort.

The study unfolded over 11 experiments with more than 1,200 participants. Researchers used two decks of cards that each featured grim photos of child refugees. For one deck, participants were told just to describe physical characteristics of the person on the card. For the other deck, they were told to try to feel empathy for the person in the photo and think about what that person was feeling. Participants were told to choose freely from either deck in each trial. This was the “Empathy Selection Task” and it was used to see if mental effort made people less likely to feel empathy.

People in the study showed a strong preference for the deck that didn't require empathy — they chose the empathy deck only 35 percent of the time. It couldn't have been the time or money involved because no one was asked to donate time or money to support child refugees or anyone else featured in the photos.

It was, as participants reported, that empathy placed demands on them — being empathetic often made people feel insecure, irritated or distressed. It was more mentally demanding.

Choosing the empathy deck required more effort, it was simpler to describe the physical characteristics of other people; they felt less sure of their abilities when it came to offering empathy.

That idea was supported by two other experiments. In one, half of the participants were informed that their responses on the empathy deck were better than those of 95 percent of others and 50 percent better on the objective physical characteristics deck. The other group heard the opposite. People who were led to believe they were good at empathizing were more likely to select cards from the empathy deck and report that empathy required less mental effort.

There are school programs that teach empathy to children. But another way to increase empathy may be to encourage people that they can do it well, Cameron believes. “If we can shift people's motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole. It could encourage people to reach out to groups who need help, such as immigrants, refugees and the victims of natural disasters.”

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.