If you have a hard time understanding the actions of others, you may be suffering from the hot-cold empathy gap.

Psychologists are constantly trying to understand human behavior. However, it can be almost impossible to predict how an individual will act in a given situation. We can even struggle to rationalize our own behavior upon retrospect. We may look at the behavior of others and find it impossible to understand.

Crimes of passion and heat of the moment decisions are prime examples of this. The psychological phenomenon which describes this is the hot-cold empathy gap. It states that we tend to underestimate the power of emotional drivers on our own behavior.

We have all had the ‘I’m not staying out late’ or ‘I’m not drinking that much’ thought when going out with friends. Then, as the night goes on and we continue to find ourselves having a great time, we seem to have forgotten all about the promises we made ourselves.

Similarly, when we see the behaviors of others, we might find ourselves wondering how they could possibly come to a particular decision. We might find ourselves thinking ‘that could never be me’. Yet, you have no knowledge of the personal factors which went into those behaviors. They could have had a particularly bad day or received some terrible news.

What is the hot-cold empathy gap?

One 2014 study found that when individuals are happy, we find it easier to empathize with other happy individuals. On the other hand, we find it difficult to empathize with unhappy individuals.

Essentially, the hot-cold empathy gap suggests that when we are highly emotional (hot), our emotions have a strong sway over our decisions. When we are calm and collected (cold), we act more rationally and plan our actions. However, when we are in a cold state, we cannot understand the thought process of a hot action.

Moreover, when we are in a hot state, we cannot understand or accept the thought process of a cold action. This is what gives the phenomenon the hot-cold empathy gap. It boils down to a lack of understanding of the other side when we are in a particular emotional state.

How does the hot-cold empathy gap affect us?

Due to the underestimating of factors going into a decision, the hot-cold empathy gap can affect us in a number of ways.

Poor decision making

When we are in a hot state, we don’t tend to have the ability to think through a decision. We may even end up saying or doing something we later regret. When we are in a hot emotional state, we cannot begin to consider what we would do if we weren’t as emotional. This leads us to allow our emotions to take control and we can make some very poor decisions.

To counter this, be wary of your feelings. Try to consider the things which are affecting your behavior and how they are doing so. If you are particularly upset, try to take yourself out of the situation and allow yourself to cool off. By calming down before you act, you will come back into a space where you can consider the best course of action going forward.

Misunderstanding of others

When we are in a cold state, we may look at the emotional actions of another person and think, ‘why did you do that?’ It can be confusing to see someone act so irrationally, especially when we are calm. This can lead us to misunderstand or misinterpret their views and motivations.

Try to talk to others about what made them act in the way they did. They may be having some issues you don’t know about which leaves them less patient than they may normally be.

Judgment of others

If we don’t know someone well and we see them acting in an irrational way, we may judge them wrongly. We may view them as a negative or aggressive person when really they are just having a hard time.

Give others the opportunity to explain themselves. If you don’t know each other that well, take some time to get to know the person. Don’t let first impressions hold and lead you to believe they are not the person they truly are. The old saying that you don’t know a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes holds true here. You can’t understand a person’s actions if you don’t understand the person making them.

Emotions are a powerful force in guiding and influencing our actions. There are many reasons we may act out of anger and fear. What is important is that we don’t let this be who we are.

The hot-cold empathy gap makes empathizing and understanding others harder, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Understanding that you are calm when others are worked up, or even when you are the one worked up is key to building stronger interpersonal relationships.

Human beings are complex, and though we may not understand what led a person to a certain action at one point, we can’t say that we would definitely not act in the same way if we were in the same situation.


  1. https://journals.plos.org

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