I came across an article in The Atlantic recently that expressed the opinion that empathy might be overrated. You’ll note that the way the headline is written: “Empathy: Overrated?” should already tell us that the answer is no (via Betteridge’s law of headlines). While from the outset, I’m already noticing my bias against the idea of empathy being overrated, I did my best to read the piece with an open mind and I’m glad I did because there are a few passages that I think are important to highlight from the “con” side of empathy:
The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.
Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles,” Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.
Bloom raises some really good points here, but I don’t know if it’s fair to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of empathy. There’s been an extremely strong misinformation movement that I’d “blame” before I’d blame empathy.
The point about empathy exacerbating social inequalities is also a bit curious to me. While we may be more inclined be to empathetic to people who look like us, that doesn’t preclude us from being empathetic to people who don’t look like us and to that end, wouldn’t being at least marginally more empathetic to people who don’t look like us be better than not being empathetic to them at all (if we’re to look at it from a cold, calculated, and objective standpoint)?
Lastly, and most importantly, I’m worried about this point that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to want to impose harsh punishments on people. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the study that Bloom is referring to in this article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, so I won’t attempt to critique the study’s methodology, but I will say this: isn’t campaigning for less empathy taking us a step back? If we’re looking at the progression of humans, I think it’s probably fair to say that empathy is something that we’ve developed along the way. It’s growth. It’s positive (I mean that it’s an addition to our species, rather than when positive is meant to indicate a judgment). Wouldn’t it be better for us — as a species — to incorporate this new phenomenon of empathy as we continue to grow?
This idea reminds me of Ken Wilber and his work. In particular, the idea that we start with x, move to y, and then find a way to integrate our understanding of x and y to move to a third stage, let’s call it xy. It seems to me that we’ve learned about this thing called empathy (stage x), and now we’re learning about how it can sometimes have a negative effect on us. As a result, there’s this backlash or movement against empathy (stage y). So now, we’ve got to move to place where we can integrate the two (stage xy).
Finally, I wanted to talk about one more thing that Bloom said:
At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?
“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”
I like Paul Bloom and I’ve even written about him before, but I wonder if this is a misunderstanding of empathy. Or maybe more accurately, the way that the study defines empathy is different from the way that others may define empathy. The way that I remember empathy is that understanding is a component of empathy. I wrote a post about this a little while back and included a helpful short from the RSA: