The Dangers of Empathy

Photograph: Samantha Stock

Paul Bloom makes a persuasive argument in the Boston Review about the dangers of empathy as a guide for making moral decisions. He begins definitionally: there is a difference between what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy,” the capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, and “emotional empathy,” the capacity to feel what others feel. He’s referring to emotional empathy.

Everyone seems to think empathy is an unabashedly good thing. Bloom says no.

First, “Strong inclination toward empathy comes with [individual] costs.”

Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

Moreover, an individual who’s less empathetic may be a better professional in certain contexts. Bloom writes that in one-on-one interactions with doctors, we seek them to be cool, calm, and collected — not necessarily empathetic.

More broadly, empathy distorts wise policy making and philanthropy. Some think apathy makes us better altruists:

“the empathy-altruism hypothesis” is when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.”

And yet:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

The best way to think about empathy, says Bloom, is how we think about anger: we don’t want none of it (anger protects us and can spur positive moral action) but we don’t want too much of it (we want anger to be subservient to our rational mind). He says: “If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world. That is how we should think about empathy too.”

There are various responses to the essay by people like Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and others, at the same link above.

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

6 comments on “The Dangers of Empathy
  • The problem is never empathy. We are not exactly drowning in it in any case, according to the many writers and cultural critics who keep trumpeting the rise of narcissism in our culture. (Narcissism, just to refresh, is characterized by a total lack of empathy.)

    The problem is an absence of the elements that contain and mitigate empathy. Mostly: healthy boundaries. You can only be truly compassionate — willing to suffer with others — when you know where you end and they begin, what you are responsible for (not least your own health and wellbeing) and what does not concern you at all. That whole “the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I can’t, the wisdom to know the difference” thing. Strong, healthy boundaries = a strong sense of self + the wisdom to know. You know when to walk away and restore and recharge. We think of empathetic people as soft and easily manipulated, but the most compassionate individuals (Mother Teresa) are also tough as nails. It’s their personal strength that allows them to be empathetic in the first place, because it is a choice and not a compulsion or obligation. They choose when to open up to people, and when to close the world out to protect themselves or serve their own needs. That is why they are so effective: they *use* their ability to understand people, to feel their way into another person’s perspective, to *help* them get things done, not to hinder it.

    Boundaries tend to get passed down from parents to kids; if your parents had unhealthy boundaries (either too porous or too concrete, so that you melt into the world or live in an isolated fortress of yourself) then chances are you do too.

    Gender also plays a part. Men are conditioned as boys to shut down vulnerability because it’s perceived as weakness — and yet we can only connect to other people through vulnerability. Women are conditioned as girls to cater to the needs of others and deny their own, to be a ‘nice’ girl to the point of a crippling perfectionism and the compulsion to please. Call a man ‘selfish’ and chances are he’ll shrug it off; call a woman ‘selfish’ and chances are she’ll be wounded to the quick. If men struggle with vulnerability, relationship and intimacy, women struggle with identity and asserting themselves in the world, taking up space without feeling guilty or obnoxious or afraid of offending. Both genders struggle with boundary issues.

    Design thinking revolves around empathy, as does storytelling, branding, anything that wants emotional resonance. The more empathy, the better — so long as the individual in question has a sense of self that is equal to containing it. Don’t diminish or discourage empathy. Cultivate a healthy sense of self instead.

  • I struggle with the distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy. In my experience, empathy crosses back and forth between the two boundaries Bloom establishes.

    I guess I can support the idea that an extreme at either end of the cognitive to emotional empathy spectrum is less desirable (that seems to be the bulk of his argument – although limited to the end of the emotional empathy spectrum) but in my experience I’m able to apply both types of empathy simultaneously, so I view the distinction, and the assertions drawn from it, as specious.

    I know that when I’m behaving more on the emotional end of the spectrum, I have a harder time making rational decisions as a result of the inputs I’m getting. When I find myself in this situation, I often shift my view toward the other end of the spectrum. The signal for me on this front is that I get inappropriately anxious as I absorb the other person’s empathy.

    I’m worried that the generalization here – and the split between the spectrum – is misleading around the broader construct of empathy, especially in a business context.

  • There is a reason there are two distinct words in the English language: empathy and sympathy.
    In German, one valid translation for empathy is: Einfühlungsvermögen meaning “in feeling capacity”

    Sympathy is Mitgefuhl meaning “feeling with.”

    Sympathy and compassion – in English – are virtually synonymous. The first is a bit more Greek in origin and the second a bit more Latinate-French.

    If I have never owned a pet and you tell me your dog just died, I can still experience empathy. If I had a dog until it died last week and you tell me your dog just died, I will probably experience both empathy and sympathy. And even more sympathy if your dog and my dog were friends and I liked your dog…

  • If you’ve ever had the experience of easily feeling other people’s emotional states, and are able to feel subtle spiritual or emotional energy, then the chances are that you are an Empath, or Highly Sensitive Person. In 3 eBooks and 8 hours of audio instruction, you will explore techniques and methods based on over 15 years of serious study in energy psychology, natural healing, shamanism, and metaphysics.

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