Empathy: Overrated?

Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."

Bad idea, say the cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom and the neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson. At their Aspen Ideas Festival talk on Thursday, Bloom allowed that a the word “empathy” as it’s sometimes colloquially used—to mean kindness, goodness, morality, and love—is unobjectionable. But in the Obama-esque sense of feeling another’s feelings, empathy, they contend, it mostly hurts the world. “To the extent that I’m an empathetic person,” Bloom said, “I’m a worse person.”

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."

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Davidson has studied the brains of Buddhist monks and explored the ways that compassion is neurologically distinct from empathy. He even believes it to be an intrinsic trait like linguistic ability—something that must be fostered at a young age to be implemented throughout life, and something that can be strengthened through practice. To that end, he and his colleagues developed a “kindness curriculum” for preschoolers.

But what about personal relationships—don’t they rely on empathy? Bloom and Davidson said it’s possible but not yet scientifically proven that some amount of empathy is indeed required in order to practice compassion. But they contend that even the closest relationships need not be dominated by the sharing of emotions. 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.”