It is difficult for humans to predict how they will behave in the future. A hot-cold empathy gap occurs when people underestimate the influence of visceral states (e.g. being angry, in pain, or hungry) on their behavior or preferences (Loewenstein, 2005). In medical decision making, for example, a hot-to-cold empathy gap may lead to undesirable treatment choices when cancer patients are asked to choose between treatment options right after being told about their diagnosis.

In a study on the reverse, a cold-to-hot empathy gap, smokers were assigned to different experimental conditions (Sayette et al., 2008). Some smokers in a hot (craving) state were asked to make predictions about a high-craving state in a second session. Others made the same prediction while they were in a cold state. In contrast to those in the hot group, smokers in the cold group underpredicted how much they would value smoking during the second session. This empathy gap can explain poor decisions among smokers attempting to quit that place them in high-risk situations (e.g. socializing over a drink) and why people underestimate their risk of becoming addicted in the first place.


Loewenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision-making. Health Psychology, 24(Suppl. 4), S49-S56.

Sayette, M. A., Loewenstein, G., Griffin, K. M., & Black, J. J. (2008). Exploring the cold-to-hot empathy gap in smokers. Psychological Science, 19(9), 926-932.