Cold-Hot Empathy Gap: What It Is and How This Bias Affects Us

Do you know what the cold-hot empathy gap is? It is a cognitive bias by which we underestimate the influence of visceral (emotional) impulses on our own behaviors, preferences and attitudes. This bias was invented by George Loewenstein, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

In this article, we explain what this bias is, what types there are, and how it can influence our decision making.

    Cold-hot empathy gap

    The cold-hot empathy gap bias has to do with how we feel; thus, our understanding of things depends on the state in which we are immersed. In other words, if we are angry, it is difficult for us to imagine calm, but also if we are in love; in this case, it is difficult for us to imagine not being in the future.

    In other words, how we feel determines our understanding of things and prevents us from seeing them differently at that precise moment.

    In this line, the cold-hot empathy gap translates into a inability to predict how we will behave in a given emotional (or even passionate) state, even if we have already experienced it. This bias can lead us to make mistakes or make decisions that we will later regret.

    Lower directions

    On the other hand, the cold-hot empathy gap can take two directions. Let’s analyze each of them:

    1. From hot to cold

    It is said that people are in a “hot state” when they are influenced by an emotional state (ie when visceral factors come into play).

    In this state, they find it difficult to fully understand how their behavior is influenced by how they feel. Instead, they think what they really do in the short term is determined by what they want in the long term.

    2. From cold to hot

    In the opposite state, from cold to hot, people are in a “cold state”. But what does that mean? They show difficulty imagining themselves in “hot” (emotional) states.

    Thus, unlike what happens in the previous case, they underestimate the strength of their visceral impulses in their behavior or in their decision-making. What are the consequences? A lack of preparation when emotional impulses arise.


      The cold-hot empathy divide, on the other hand, can be classified according to two parameters: its “location” in time (past or future) and according to whether it is intrapersonal or interpersonal events.

      1. Intrapersonal perspective

      In this case, let’s talk about the difficulties we have in predicting our own future behavior, When we are in a different emotional state than we would be in the future.

      In other words, and with a simple example; if we are very sad now, it is difficult for us to imagine very happy in the future.

      2. Intrapersonal retrospective

      In this second type, retrospectively, the temporal localization is located in the past; so, this is the difficulty we have remembering (or understanding) certain behaviors we have had in the past, In a different state from the current state.

      In other words, if these behaviors occurred in an emotional state different from the current one, we may have difficulty remembering or even understanding them.

      3. Interpersonal

      Finally, the third case of cold-hot empathy gap, depending on the interpersonal parameter, would be the following: the attempts we make to assess both the behaviors and preferences of others, in a state different from our own. Well, based on this bias, we would be hard pressed to assess them.

      Visceral factors

      We’ve talked about visceral factors (or visceral impulses) to explain the cold-hot empathy gap. But what exactly are these factors?

      The word visceral comes from viscera, from the Latin “viscera”, which means “door”. It also refers to other meanings, such as “mother’s womb” (womb), “inner heart” or “instincts”. Visceral also means intense and irrational, and is frequently associated with primitive emotional states.

      Thus, visceral factors include different states, such as: sexual arousal, thirst, hunger and pain, strong emotions … When we make decisions, visceral factors influence us much more than we realize (This is why it is often better to stop, calm down and wait for this state to “happen”, to decide more calmly and more according to what we really want).

      When we are immersed in a visceral state, we are talking about being in a state of heat (as we have already mentioned); it is in such states that our minds tend to ignore many of the stimuli necessary to make wise decisions.

      We have to keep in mind that thermal states are also linked to hasty decision making, impulsiveness, and the possibility of losing control.

      How do you manage the cold-hot empathy gap?

      Anticipate, or rather, the hot or cold state in which we will find ourselves. Anticipating it will allow us to anticipate how we might behave in this situation., And even act before we plunge into this state.

      Sexuality in the youngest

      We find it interesting to answer this question, because this bias is of great importance on issues such as sexuality (Especially in adolescents and young people).

      Does the fact that we are about to have sex put us in a passionate state? And that many young people, faced with this state, “get carried away” and do not use a condom? This is why the solution is to always have it on hand, and to think that it must be used before reaching this visceral state.

      In a cold state (far from the sexual moment) we may think that we will act in a certain way in the hot state (at the time of sexual intercourse), but it is difficult to predict, and it is exactly what the cold gap- warm empathy.

      In short; we will never act the same from a cold state as from a hot state, And what we may think we will do in each of these states will always deviate from reality.

      final thought

      Ultimately, what denotes the cold-hot empathy gap, as the name suggests, is a lack of empathy in certain situations. So what this bias says is that in a “cold” state, we won’t anticipate too effectively how we would react in a “hot” situation, and vice versa. In that sense, it will be difficult for us to be right.

      Most of us have surely been confronted with this bias before, because make no mistake about it; it is not the same to hypothesize about something we are feeling right now as it is to hypothesize what we would do in a different state from the current state (for example, what would you do if you got pregnant at a very young age (abortion? Who knows … this bias can influence you).

      Bibliographical references:

      • Ariely, D. (2017). The traps of desire. Mexico: Booket
      • Loewenstein, George (2005). “Cold Heat Empathy Gaps and Medical Decision Making” (PDF). Health psychology. 24 (4, suppl.): S49 – S56.
      • Sculpted by Kohan, N. & Macbeth, G. (2006). Cognitive biases in decision making. Argentine Catholic University. Faculty of Psychology and Education. Department of Psychology, 2 (3).
      • Nordgren, Loran F .; Nes, Kasia; MacDonald, Geoff (2011). “Gaps in Empathy for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Evil of Social Pain”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100 (1): 120-128.
      • Van Boven, full; Loewenstein, George; Dunning, David; Nordgren, Loran F. (2013). “Changing Place: A Double Judgment Model of Empathy Gaps in Emotional Perspective-Taking” (PDF). In Zanna, Mark P .; Olson, James M. (ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology. 48. Academic Press p. 117-171.

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