Most people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good. If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right? Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation. And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is
to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.
Empathy, however, is a complex emotion and, if frequently employed, it can lead to emotional fatigue. Simon Baron-Cohen, draws upon psychology and neuroscience in his 2011 book The Science of Evil to argue that the concept of evil should be replaced with “empathy erosion”. He posits that individuals differ in their disposition to feel empathy along an “empathy curve” that runs from Level 6, in which an individual is “continually focused on other people’s feelings” to Level 0, where there is no empathy at all.
At level 6, individuals experience problems having to do with emotional empathy— feeling another’s pain— that leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. These individuals go beyond compassion, concern, and the desire to help their loved ones to actually mirroring another’s anguish. Consequently, they experience huge swings in emotion depending on who they encounter. This can be very destructive of the individual in the long run.
This distinction between compassion and true empathy has some scientific support in a series of tests, published in the Oxford Journal of Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, that show that the brain reacts differently to feelings of empathy and compassion. The researchers divided test participants into two groups: one that was given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, and another that was given compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training increased brain activity in regions associated with empathy for pain as well as negative affect. In contrast, compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect and enhanced self-reports of positive affect
This is noteworthy because it means that empathetic distress isn’t necessary for individuals to take action. A compassionate person, for example, might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to make a charitable donation.
At the other extreme, what Baron-Cohen would describe as empathy Level 0, we naturally think about psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial/psychopathic personality. But are more aggressive people really less empathetic? A review summarizing data from studies on the relationship between empathy and aggression reports that only 1 percent of the variation in aggression they studied could be accounted for by a lack of empathy. This means that a lack of empathy is not the key ingredient to aggressive behavior.
Empathy can lead to revenge
Moreover, the opposite may be true: empathy might actually lead to aggression. Anger and empathy have a lot in common: both emerge in early childhood and exist in every human culture, and both are social. Anger is often a response to perceived unfairness, cruelty, and immorality. Many of us who witness a crime or injustice will feel compassion, love, and empathy— not for the perpetrators of crime, but for their victims. This, in turn, leads us to seek revenge or justice in the name of the victims.
In research published in 2014 by psychologists Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin, test participants were divided into two groups. The first half read an essay in which a student described herself as being in distress: “I’ve never been this low on funds and it really scares me”. The other half read an essay in which the student was calm: “I’ve never been this low on funds, but it doesn’t really bother me”. The participants were then told that the student they read about was taking part in a competition with another student in another lab room and they could choose how much hot sauce the student’s competitor would have to consume. The participants chose to give more hot sauce to the competitor when the student was described as distressed. Their empathy drove aggression, even when it made no moral sense. After all, the competitor had nothing to do with the student’s anxiety about money.
Buffone and Poulin also gave all of the participants a test that scans for specific genes that make people more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy. Not surprisingly, there was a greater connection between empathy and aggression in those participants who had those genes. More naturally empathic people were more aggressive when exposed to the suffering of strangers.
The policy connection
Thus, while most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification, this is a mistake. Empathy can lead to burn out in those that exercise it too frequently and aggression in those that want to protect innocents and avenge criminals.
Empathy is also biased. People are more empathic for attractive people and for those who look like them or who share their ethnic or national background. In 2006, Brown and colleagues found that, when viewing pictures of faces, people showed more empathetic responses for members of the same ethnic group. Similarly, Stürmer et al. (2005) found that empathy leads to helping only in cases when the person in need is a member of the same in-group. Clearly, these features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy.
Finally, empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, but is insensitive to statistical data. This is one reason why communications professionals tell stories and distill grand lessons through the life of a particular individual. As fellow blogger David Evans put it, linking statistics to “names and histories and aspirations, may be crucial to securing the engagement and the resources to move” toward a goal. Studies have shown that we really do care more about the one than about the masses, so long as we have personal information about the one.
Politicians are comfortable exploiting this dark side of empathy, using horrific stories of individual suffering to make issues real to the voting public. Pundits call this the ‘politics of fear’ because these individual stories stoke our feelings for innocent victims and motivate our support for harsh policies against supposed criminals. Our reaction to these stories can even cloud our judgment in favor of war. The benefits of war—including avenging those who have suffered—are made vivid, while the costs of war remain abstract and statistical.
In light of this, public discourse might be fairer and more moral if we surrender empathy. Policies could be improved if we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, and if we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country who looks much different from ourselves is worth as much as the lives of our family members. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of responding to issues like human rights violations that require reasoned reactions, and we can rethink humanitarian aid and national systems of criminal justice, choosing a rational analysis of moral duty and likely consequences.
So, while it may seem counter-intuitive, if we want to be the change we wish to see in the world, then empathy may be a poor guide.
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Portrait of children, Guatemala by © Curt Carnemark / World Bank