Empathy is a documented psychological phenomenon: If you see someone else poked in the hand, Bloom said, your own pain centers in the brain will light up. And scientists have demonstrated that you’re more likely to help someone whose pain you feel. 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.
Empathy doesn’t even necessarily make day-to-day life more pleasant, they contend, citing research that shows a person’s empathy level has little or no correlation with kindness or giving to charity. And in the professions centered around helping others, empathy can be a burden, leading to burnout and incompetence caused by emotional contagion. “When I go to my therapist, I want her to understand me and I want her to make me better,” Bloom said. “But if I’m going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’ I don’t want her going, ‘I’m anxious and depressed!’”
So what should empathy be replaced with? Bloom and Davidson proposed two things. One is “rather cold-blooded, rational cost-benefit analysis,” Bloom said. “Go after not what gives you buzz, but what really helps other people." For example: Instead of giving to a child beggar in India, and thereby reward the criminal organization that likely put that child there, donate to Oxfam. The recommendation dovetails with the rising “effective altruism” movement, which The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently described as “munificence matched with math.”
Of course, this sounds a lot less emotionally fulfilling than helping someone you have a connection with. That’s where the second potential empathy replacement comes in: compassion. To do good, Bloom said, “we need an emotional push. But the push need not come from empathy. It can come from love, from caring, from compassion, from more distant emotions that don't come from being swallowed up in the suffering of others."