Empathy, that is the capacity to feel, relate, and understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, is natural to humans (1)“Empathy present and future” J. A. Hall and R. Schwartz. The Journal of Social Psychology 2019 Vol. 159 Issue 3 Pages 225-243 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2018.147744 https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2018.1477442. In fact, being empathic is seen as the mark of a moral and good person. Who could possibly be against empathy? What harm is there in identifying with the thoughts and feelings of others?
Empathy has too good of a reputation in contemporary society. So-called non-empathetic people are viewed as cold-hearted and callous. The issue is that moral reasoning based on empathy is flawed. In many cases it does not promote our social goals in the optimal way. What feels right and empathic short term, may have dangerous long-term consequences. However, being empathic feels good, and therefore you do more of said empathic, yet sub-optimal behaviour.
Judged by Empathy
Naively one might think that more empathy means more caring for other people, and therefore more help to the folks who need it. Ironically, empathy can have the opposite effect.
First off, empathy can influence our decisions about what kind of person is deserving of help, which can have terrible long term consequences for the people deemed unworthy. Let’s imagine two people who are addicted to drugs. One became addicted from recreational use, the other became addicted after getting prescribed drugs from their doctor. From a rational moral standpoint it should not matter where the drugs came from. They are both in pain and need help.
What might be worse, is that once you feel someone’s pain and reach out, empathy can make you help in the wrong way. If you feel a persons pain deeply, you might inadvertently enable addiction or helplessness. (2)American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. (2018, December 10). Why feeling empathy could lead former drug users to relapse: Empathy and addiction. ScienceDaily. Hentet 9. mai 2022 fra www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181210072543.htm Sometimes tough love is the way to go.
When you help someone because you feel their pain, you are – in a real sense, helping yourself as much as you are helping the other person. While motivated by empathy, you are concerned with how you feel in relation to the problem, instead of doing what’s best in the long term. For example: enabling addiction, because seeing a loved one in withdrawal causes you pain, or going out of your way to help personally by volunteering at an orphanage, instead of simply going to work and donating your paycheck.
Empathy narrows attention
The power of empathy can make it easy to empathize with a person on the news. Imagine a single heart wrenching account of a tragic life story. The emotional weight of the situation might spring you to the point of action, where you take a stand, or even make it a goal to change the world for the better. Think about the recent wars going on, and you might feel empowered to rid the world of injustice and cruelty. This is the positive side of empathy, it springs us to action. As with the two drug addicts, the issue is that we are biased in who we feel for.
For example we feel more empathy for individuals that look like us, or share our cultural background. What about the people the pain of people who don’t look like us, are we right in not helping because we don’t feel as much for them? Obviously not. Furthermore, studies have shown that we are more likely to help, when there is an identifiable victim (3)Jenni, K., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the Identifiable Victim Effect. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14(3), 235-257. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007740225484. Feeling the pain of the individual, our empathic brain reacts and pushes for action. Sadly, this call to action is most often activated when presented with the tragic fate of an individual, than the suffering of millions.
“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”
This quote is often attributed to Joseph Stalin. It illustrates how one might disregard human life if it is seen as a number. In reality the loss of a million lives, is exactly a million times worse than the loss of one life. Our irrational and emotional empathy based reasoning, makes us unable to see this fact.
From Stalin to Mother Teresa, who stated that: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” (4)https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1354045-if-i-look-at-the-mass-i-will-never-act I doubt she would agree with Stalin on many things, however they both seem to have noticed the power of the individual tragedy. To understand and relate to more than one person is challenging. It requires the ability to divide our attention, which humans – according to findings from cognitive psychology, are notoriously bad at (5)Elisabeth Norman “Affekt og kognisjon (Affect and cognition)” (2019), Universitetsforlaget.
Paul Bloom a professor of psychology at Yale University argues along these lines in his book Against Empathy; The case for rational compassion. He says: “(…) this is a hard thing to write, I usually get more upset of my Internet connection becomes slow and uncertain than when I read about some tragedy in a country I haven’t heard of.» (6)Paul Bloom “Against empathy; The case for rational compassion” (2016), Publiced: ECCO, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00224545.2018.1477442. A bold and shocking statement. How can someone say such a cruel and callous thing? Before we judge, perhaps we must face the hard truth about empathy. It doesn’t work in complex situations with thousands of people. We can simply not do it.
Paul Blooms alternative is rational compassion: “Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings.”. According to Bloom, this approach is better suited for actually helping people: “If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better.”
Taking a step back
Clearly, letting empathy guide us is often a massive mistake, we can’t feel the pain of a million refugees like we empathize with a single starving child. Luckily, our reason gives power to information. Use the guide of your rational compassion for others and yourself.
For any healthcare professional, this process might sound familiar, with respect to how draining it can be to feel a patients emotions while caring for their well-being. Rational compassion is the harder, yet better way to go.