Tag Archives: Sympathy

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy

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).

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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:

Stop Asking: “Are You OK?”

A few weeks ago, I levelled a criticism at parents who attempt to dissuade their children from feeling their feelings in the moment. That is, as soon as they begin to cry, parents usually try to quash the children’s feeling by saying, “You’re OK,” or “You’re fine.” I think that this same attitude carries on when parents (or people) are dealing with older children (or other people) and something happens.

Consider a couple of teenagers who are playing soccer. One of them falls down and ceases playing for a couple of seconds. Almost always, the teenager who hasn’t fallen will immediately say to the other, “Are you OK?” I’m sure we’ve all been the teenager who’s fallen and scraped our knee and I’m sure we’ve all been the teenager who asks our friend if they’re OK, but this is an extension of the problem that begins when we’re toddlers — we’re not allowing the person the space to feel the feelings that they’re feeling.

By quickly jumping in and asking, “Are you OK?” one probably thinks that they’re being a good friend. My friend has just hurt themselves, so I should ask and see if they’re okay. Certainly, that’s the right spirit. However, by jumping in so quickly, it’s actually demonstrating to your friend that you’re uncomfortable with their pain/feelings. Let’s say that your friend starts to cry. Forgot that, let’s say that you have just begun to cry. When you’re crying, do you really want someone to ask how you’re doing? Well, if you’ve been asked that you’re whole life, you probably do, but if you stop and think about it for a second, when you’re crying (or when you’re upset), the best thing for you is space.

I’m not saying you (or your friend) should walk away when you (or your friend) begins to cry, no. Instead, you (or your friend) should sit there with you and allow you the space to feel the feelings — let you cry. After an acceptable amount of time (this varies), then it might be appropriate to break the silence, but if it were me, I’d actually wait until the person who’s crying begins saying something. By simply being there with your friend in their time of need, you’re holding a safe space that allows them to process their emotions/feelings. And if/when you do that, you’ll be giving your friend a gift they probably haven’t had the chance to experience.

Parents: Stop Saying “You’re OK!”

I’ve been a parent for more than a year. There’s so much I could talk about, but today, I want to make a plea to parents (and anyone who interacts with children, for that matter): STOP SAYING YOU’RE OKAY or YOU’RE FINE!

Now that the weather’s turned, most of the parents and little ones that have been inside protecting against the harsh winter (at least in Ottawa, that is), are out and about at playgrounds and parks. Naturally, as there are more ‘dangerous’ new things for children to interact with, they’re bound to hurt themselves in some way. When little Jonny bangs his head on the stairs of the play structure — before he starts to cry — mom (it’s usually mom, but when dad is on Jonny-duty, dad does it, too), will say “You’re ok, you’re fine,” in what’s meant to pacify little Jonny. Mom thinks that she’s helping Jonny by telling him that he’s okay, but what she doesn’t realize is she’s stunting Jonny’s growth.

Let’s go back to the moment that Jonny bumps his head. If mom doesn’t say anything, maybe Jonny doesn’t even notice that he’s hurt himself (that is, maybe he didn’t hurt himself enough that he noticed — do you cry every time you bang a limb on a doorway, cabinet, or wall?) and Jonny continues on playing. Or maybe Jonny does start to cry because he’s hurt himself. Is that a problem? Do you expect little Jonny to go through his entire life without hurting himself? That is, do you really think that you thwarting his moment of pain by interrupting him and telling him he’s okay is really helping? Let me tell you — it’s not. It’s actually harmful. By intervening, mom is unintentionally telling Jonny that it’s not okay to feel pain. Mom is telling Jonny that feeling pain is bad.

When Jonny hurts himself and he’s upset — he’s upset. Let him be upset. Allow him the space to be upset that he’s hurt himself and experiencing pain. He’s allowed to feel pain. Most times, Jonny will cry for mere seconds and then he’s right back to running around the playground as if nothing happened. If mom intervenes and tells him, “You’re OK,” mom is signifying to Jonny that this ‘event’ of hurting one’s self is important and needs more attention. It doesn’t.

When Jonny hurts himself on the playground and mom intervenes telling him that he’s okay, what’s really going on? Mom is uncomfortable and when she’s telling Jonny, “You’re OK,” she’s actually saying that to comfort herself.

So, the next time Jonny hurts himself on the playground, I’d encourage parents (or caregivers) out there to, before you tell him that he’s okay, think about why it is that you’re telling Jonny he’s okay. Is it for him or is it for you?

What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 12.48.00 PMWhen you search for empathy on Google, you get almost 10,000,000 results. When you search for sympathy on Google, you get almost 25,000,000 results. I bet if we could look at historical search results in Google, I bet that we’d see a big trend where the number of search results for empathy has been increasing. The closest thing we can do to this is a search of all the books that contain the word empathy (at least the ones that have been digitized by Google). How? Using Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The chart above shows the mentions of empathy and sympathy starting in 1800 and ending in 2008. As we can see, empathy was hardly mentioned at all when compared to sympathy until the 1920s. That makes me wonder if there might have been some writings about empathy around the time of the Great Depression. What’s noteworthy though, is the steady increase in mentions of empathy. Granted, it’s still in only a fraction (0.0005%) of books, but it’s still progress.

Sympathy, on the other hand, we can see has steadily declined since the early 1900s. However, there’s been a small blip in sympathy since the mid-2000s. I would guess that this may have to do with the title question of this post: the difference between sympathy and empathy.

There’ve probably been several books written about the differences between empathy and sympathy in the last 5 or 10 years. So, do you know the difference between the two? I have to admit, even as an undergraduate in psychology, I’d often find myself googling the difference between the two terms. About a month ago, I came across a great video from the RSA that quickly explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. Of course, there’s a slight bias towards empathy in the video, but I think you’ll agree — empathetic is far better than sympathetic.

In case you’re inspired to be a champion of empathy or want some more information about programs that are helping to increase the level of empathy, I’d suggest checking out Ashoka: Empathy.

And if you want a bit more information about how empathy has shaped our society and continues to shape it, then I highly recommend checking out the RSA Animate video of Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization:

Cutting Salary to Show Solidarity: This Isn’t Empathy

A couple of days ago, there was news indicating that President Obama was going to return 5% of his salary, which amounts to about $17,000, as a sign of solidarity with those federal workers who’ve been furloughed. In case you’re not familiar with this situation, I’ll explain a little first.

In 2011, there was the debt-ceiling debacle. One of the things that came of that was the sequester. The sequester was supposed to be such drastic cuts to the federal budget meant as an incentive to make some sort of deal before the deadline. It wasn’t ever meant to happen, (at least that’s what politicians said publicly), and the date set for the deadline to make a deal (and begin the implementation of the sequester if there weren’t a deal) was January 2, 2013. As part of the New Year’s Eve tax deal, Congress pushed the start of the sequester to March 1, 2013, which is when it began.

As the sequester has a great deal of spending cuts, this has greatly affected some of the workers in the federal government. For instance, some workers have had to take furloughs — temporary unpaid leave. Companies (or the government) don’t usually use this unless there’s a need because of the budget situation. As an aside: on Chris Hayes’ new show (All In with Chris Hayes), he went into detail with one particular worker who has had to take furloughs and had a brief panel discussion about it. That brings us back to President Obama.

A couple of days ago, President Obama stated that he was going to return a portion of his salary to show solidarity with those workers who are having to take these temporary unpaid leaves. The President may have started it, but he’s certainly not finishing it. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano are all showing similar signs of solidarity. So is freshman Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. But this is not limited to Democrats. Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Mike Lee have both indicated that they will return some of their salary. I think all of this is well and good, but the one thing that irked me was how Lindsey Graham wrote about his decision on Twitter. (I should note, I don’t know if any of the other politicians have said made similar claims, as I just saw someone retweet Lindsey Graham’s commentary.)

After I saw this tweet, I went on a bit of a rant on Twitter that I’ll include below:

 

Let’s first start with the issue of empathy. People often confuse empathy and sympathy. I’ve written about empathy before:

Empathy is at the heart of the beginning of the solution to many of the world’s problems. When we empathize, we are able to recognize the emotions that another is feeling. At the root of compassion is empathy. [Note: sympathy is quite different from empathy. Sympathy is simply a concern for another’s well-being, where empathy usually refers to one sharing the same emotional state.]

I should note that the “note” in that quote actually comes from the post. So, now that we know what empathy means, let’s return to Senator Graham’s comment. He said he was cutting 20% of his pay to empathize with those furloughed. In order for Senator Graham’s actions to demonstrate empathy, it’d actually have to affect his life in the way that those furloughed are affected. For an example of this, scroll up in this post and watch the video I linked to with Chris Hayes talking to someone who is being furloughed. Senator Graham’s current salary for FY2013 is $174,000. If we take 20% away, that leaves him with about $140,000. Something else that’s important to this conversation is Graham’s net worth, which is now pegged at $1.5 million. I understand that politicians have to keep up two offices (one in DC and one in their district/state), but does anyone think that Senator Graham’s going to have as hard a go as thing with a $140K salary as the military serviceman who had to get a second job delivering pizzas?

This is not empathy.

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As an addendum to this conversation, I wanted to include data about the current Congress’s net worth, but there doesn’t seem to be a list out there. However, I was able to find a list for all members of Congress in 2010. Some things of note: of 100 Senators, only 7 had a net worth of less than $100,000 and 24 had a net worth of more than $10,000,000. Of the 435 member of Congress, 81 had a net worth of less than $100,000 and 42 had a net worth of more than $10,000,000.