I listened to a great podcast this week.

It gave a name to a phenomenon we’ve all experienced: The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap (HCEG).

[Giving an idea a name makes it real.  It establishes parameters.  The name allows the idea to be neatly stored (and retrieved).  A name also makes it a lot more efficient to discuss with other people.]

The Theory

We have trouble relating to situations that involve emotions or feelings that we aren’t currently experiencing.

When we’re not in pain or cold or experiencing a powerful emotion like anger or fear, it’s very difficult to imagine ourselves in that situation.

This HCEG makes it very hard to relate to what other people are experiencing (or what we might experience in the future).

An Experiment 

College students were given a chance to get paid for performing a painful task (holding their hand in ice water for a minute).

The price they set varied wildly and was driven by their prior experience.


  • Students who had just experienced the effects of ice-water immersion demanded the most money for doing it again.
  • Students who had experienced the pain before, but not recently, asked for less monetary compensation.
  • Students who had never experienced the pain demanded the least amount of money of all.


We project how we are feeling now onto other people.  That means both our future selves and strangers.

No One is Immune

Studies show that hospital patients—even terminal cancer patients and children—are routinely under-medicated for pain.  Why?  Because providers who are not in pain themselves simply have a hard time relating.

Impact on Personal Injury Cases

The ice-water experiment connects loss with money.  The same way we do in personal injury.

[A lot of people think about money being paid for what happened to someone.  I think of it being paid to compensate a person for what they lost because of what happened.  The students weren’t setting the price for putting their hands in water, they were setting a price for their loss of comfort or living for X number of seconds without pain.]

And it shows that people who have not and/or who are not experiencing something like pain have a hard time empathizing with people who are in pain.


What do you think attorneys should be allowed to tell the jury about the HCEG so it’s at least aware of the phenomenon and its effect on decision making?

How long can you hold your hand in ice water?  I’m about to try it now and will share my time in the next newsletter.

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