Reporter's Notebook

Is Empathy Actually a Bad Thing?
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Readers tackle the argument against empathy put forth by psychologist Paul Bloom. Submit your own thoughts via hello@theatlantic.com.

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In a previous note, readers debated whether empathy was a necessary trait for political leaders. But how necessary is empathy to get through everyday life? One reader believes it’s essential:

Empathy is what allows us to navigate day by day. A human without empathy is a sociopath or a robot. The way empathy is discussed in the video is so flawed by mixing it with altruism, which is very different than empathy but is more closely aligned to the charity model discussed. And do not kid yourself: Altruism is a “what’s in it for me,” while empathy drives connections towards others.

Readers previously debated empathy versus altruism. But is the above reader right? Does not having empathy really make you a sociopath? To get at an answer, a reader flags a Psychology Today piece that details the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy:

Our video team’s short piece highlighting psychologist Paul Bloom’s argument against empathy (embedded above and previously discussed here) has continued to draw responses from around the Web. In a post on Medium, Joe Evans ties the video to philosopher Peter Singer’s two altruist character types:

The warm-glow altruist donates a small amount to a number of organisations with each act of charity providing a small rush, concluding that the donations are simply a self-congratulatory “buzz”, while the effective altruist analyses “what the world needs, how they could use their money to best end and how they could volunteer and act to make things better”. In the video, Bloom implies empathy as the cause of warm-glow altruism and the absence of it as the improvement in behaviour of the effective altruist.

Another public advocate of effective altruism is Rachel Elizabeth Maley, who writes in The Huffington Post:

The problem with warm glow giving is not an excess of empathy, but a lack of reason, and that is a very important distinction.

Our video team created a short piece on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom:

A reader weighs in:

Interesting proposition. I only agree partially. Empathy has great value in enabling us to connect to and understand other people. Understanding is a good thing (the alternative is insensitivity, even intolerance). I suggest to the author that the problem does not rest with empathy, but rather with the critical analysis, intent, and decisions made by the empath. To lose sight of optimal outcomes, in order to attain selfish, short-sighted gratification, is always a bad idea. Empathy can be very good; poor choices and decisions are bad.

The New York Times’s John Tierney reported yesterday on Dr. Bloom’s research, asking, “Is empathy an essential virtue for a presidential candidate?”

In his current research, Dr. Bloom and a colleague are finding that the more empathic people feel toward victims of terrorism in the Middle East, the more they favor taking military action.