As a child, many of us are taught that it’s important to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to feel what they’re feeling. “How would you like it if Joey took your toy and smashed it?” This is an attempt to understand that our behaviors can have a negative impact on another person’s life — that our actions can hurt others.
So it’s no surprise that as we age, we tend to believe that it’s important to keep empathy in our lives when thinking about other groups of people — such as the poor or disadvantaged.
But what if everything we think we knew about the value of empathy is wrong? What if empathy hurts us more than it helps?
Empathy can be hard to understand (especially if you’re lacking in it). But for this article, we’re talking about putting yourself in another person’s shoes in order to feel what they’re feeling. The idea is that by experiencing another person’s pain, it will help us better understand their situation. In many cases, this is done as a prompt to action.
Earlier this year, Yale University researcher Paul Bloom (2017) decided to delve into an analysis of empathy. He acknowledges that empathy helps motivate good actions, such as donating money to a worthy cause. It is an invaluable trait of positive relationships and friendships.
Empathy’s Dark Side: One Over the Many
Empathy, however, pushes our emotional buttons. And in doing so, it can sweep aside logic — and even morality — to drive us to make biased, poor choices. Empathy is a poor tool to use when making policy or other kinds of decisions (especially when scarce resources are available).
One sure way to invoke empathy in most people is to tell a story about a single person. In the article, Bloom cites the story used in a classic experiment about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers. She has a fatal disease and is low on a waiting list for a treatment that will help relieve her pain.
Subjects were then given the option of moving her to the front of the list, although this would mean that another child, perhaps more deserving, would not get the treatment. The majority said no. However, if they were first asked to feel what Sheri Summers felt – an empathy prompt – their answers shifted and a majority chose to move her up (Batson et al., 1995). Empathy clashed with fairness, leading to a decision that most of us would see as immoral.
Numbers don’t move the needle in empathy — a single story does. And it helps if that story is about someone who’s a part of your “ingroup” — a group that shares traits you identify strongly with. Tell Americans tens of thousands of people died in the genocide in Darfur (nearly half a million to date), and they merely shrug and say, “Where is Darfur and why should I care?” Tell Americans that an 18-year-old Caucasian American went missing while on vacation in Aruba, and you’ll get non-stop media coverage and people talking about it every day for weeks on end.1
Empathy makes for lousy policy, because it puts the story of the victim above the value of data and research. That’s why policymakers love to trot out stories of individuals whenever they are looking to generate a vote or change in policy. Data (you know, actual facts) puts people to sleep, while a good story — and the empathic response it triggers in most people — gets them motivated.
Wielding Empathy as a Tool for Good — and Bad
There’s little doubt empathy can be used as a motivating force for change. That’s why so many people employ it in non-profit marketing. But just as it can be wielded to do good, it can also be wielded for causes of dubious value. As Bloom points out, “empathic pleas lead people to give billions of dollars to charitable causes that have few positive benefits, and sometimes make the world worse.”
Empathy can also be exploited to motivate people to harm others. In one study that illustrates this point, subjects were told about a financially needy student who was entering a competition for a cash prize (Buffone & Poulin, 2014). When motivated to feel empathy for the student, subjects were more prone to administer a greater dose of hot sauce to her competitor, although this person did nothing wrong.
As Bloom further notes, empathy was used to justify lynchings in the American South because lies were spread about white women being raped by African American men. These types of empathic appeals remain popular in politics today, too. “When contemporary politicians want to evoke hatred towards immigrants, they often tell moving stories about the innocent victims of crimes that individual immigrants have committed.”
Alternatives to Empathy
Empathy remains an invaluable emotional tool to employ, especially in your interpersonal relationships with others. It lets you better understand what your partner, family, and friends are going through, especially when beset by an injustice, difficult times, or harm.
But in adults, Bloom argues — somewhat convincingly — that compassion may be a more useful and less biased emotion. Outside of our personal relationships, trying to feel what others feel leads us to make biased, poorer decisions that could actually harm others. Empathy causes us to focus on unimportant things — like the fate of a single American — while ignoring larger moral concerns (like genocide!).
Compassion — feeling positive and warm thoughts toward another person without actually needing to experience their suffering — may be more beneficial. Research that Bloom points to suggests that when people employ compassion (rather than empathy), it results in less biased decision-making. It also seems that it may result in less burnout from “empathetic distress.” Mindfulness meditation promotes our compassion response. This may help explain why people who regularly engage in mindfulness are “kinder to others and more willing to help (Lim et al., 2015; Condon et al., 2013).”
We don’t need to get rid of our empathy for others. We just need to use it in more appropriate situations, where its strong, biased emotional response doesn’t cause us to make decisions that are logically — and morally — questionable.
Batson, C.D. et al. (1995) Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: when compassion and justice conflict. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 68, 1042
Bloom, P. (2017). Empathy and Its Discontents. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21, 24-31.
Buffone, A.E. and Poulin, M.J. (2014) Empathy, target distress, and neurohormone genes interact to predict aggression for others – even without provocation. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 40, 1406–1422
Condon, P. et al. (2013) Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychol. Sci. 24, 2125–2127.
Lim, D. et al. (2015) Mindfulness and compassion: an examination of mechanism and scalability. PLoS One 10, e0118221
Special thanks to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, which allowed me to research this topic. It’s a great tool for anyone who needs access to academic research (outside of academia).
- Which really happened with the case of Natalee Holloway in May, 2005. [↩]