We humans

Is empathy overrated?

Mar 24, 2017 /

While it may result in tremendous good, empathy can also be narrow, biased and surprisingly insensitive, argues psychology professor Paul Bloom.

Does empathy make the world a better place? It certainly looks like it. After all, empathy drives people to treat others’ suffering as if it were their own, which then motivates action to make the suffering go away. I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormentors, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize — I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied — so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

But spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

Empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary. Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits. To see these weaknesses, consider this example: the murders of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Why did this give rise to such a powerful reaction? It was a mass shooting, and over the last thirty years in the US, these have caused hundreds of deaths. This is horrible, but the toll from these mass shootings equals about one-tenth of 1 percent of American homicides, a statistical nonevent. (That is, if you could wave a magic wand and end all mass shootings forever, nobody looking at the overall homicide rates would even notice.)

Actually, in the year of the Sandy Hook killings, more schoolchildren were murdered in one American city — Chicago — than were murdered in Newtown, and yet I’ve never thought about those murdered Chicago children before looking up that figure, and I’m not likely to think about them again . . . while my mind often drifts back to Newtown. Why? Part of the answer is that Sandy Hook was a single event. The murders in Chicago are more of a steady background noise. We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses. But it’s also in large part because it’s easy for people like me, a white professor and father from Connecticut, to empathize with the children and teachers and parents of Newtown. They’re so much like those I know and love.

What people did in response to the Newtown massacre also reflects the limitations of empathy. The town was inundated with so much charity that it added to their burden. Hundreds of volunteers had to be recruited to store the gifts and toys that got sent to the city, which kept arriving despite pleas from Newtown officials for people to stop. A vast warehouse was crammed with toys that the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. There was a dark comedy here, with people from far poorer communities sending their money to much richer people, guided by the persistent itch of empathic concern.

Empathy is a spotlight with a narrow focus; it shines brightly on those we love and gets dim for those who are different or strange.

Now one reasonable reaction to this is that empathy isn’t to blame for this sort of irrational and disproportionate response. The real problem is that we don’t have enough empathy for other people. We should empathize with the children and families of Newtown, but we should also empathize with the children and families in Chicago. While we’re at it, we should empathize with billions of other people around the world, in Bangladesh and Pyongyang and the Sudan. We should empathize with the elderly who don’t get enough food, the victims of religious persecution, the poor without adequate health care, the rich who suffer from existential angst, the victims of sexual assault, those falsely accused of sexual assault . . . But we can’t.

Intellectually, we can value the lives of all these individuals; we can give them weight when we make decisions. But what we can’t do is empathize with all of them. Indeed, you cannot empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it. Think about someone you know who’s going through a difficult time and try to feel what she or he is feeling. Feel that person’s pain. Now at the same time do this with someone else who’s in a difficult situation, with different feelings and experiences. Can you simultaneously empathize with two people? If so, good, congratulations. Now add a third person to the mix. Now try 10. And then 100, 1,000, 1,000,0000.

If God exists, maybe He can simultaneously feel the pain and pleasure of every sentient being. But for us mortals, empathy really is a spotlight. It’s a spotlight that has a narrow focus, one that shines most brightly on those we love and gets dim for those who are strange or different or frightening.

It would be bad enough if empathy were simply silent when faced with problems involving large numbers, but actually it’s worse. It can sway us toward the one over the many. This perverse moral mathematics is part of the reason why governments and individuals care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions or billions. It is why outrage at the suffering of a few individuals can lead to actions, such as going to war, that have terrible consequences for many more.

Empathy is particularly insensitive to consequences that apply statistically rather than to specific individuals. Imagine learning that a faulty vaccine has caused Rebecca Smith, an adorable eight-year-old, to get extremely sick. If you watch her suffering and listen to her and her family, the empathy will flow, and you’ll want to act. But suppose that stopping the vaccine program will cause, say, a dozen random children to die. Here your empathy is silent — how can you empathize with a statistical abstraction? To the extent that you can appreciate that it’s better for one specific child to die than for an unknown and imprecise larger number of children to die, you are using capacities other than empathy.

What really matters for kindness may be self-control, intelligence
and a more diffuse compassion.

Consider Willie Horton. In 1987, Horton, a convicted murderer, was released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Massachusetts and raped a woman after attacking and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis and was used against him by his opponents during his subsequent, and failed, run for president.

Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. A report at the time found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts had dropped in the 15 years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. On balance, then, the world was better — fewer murders and fewer rapes — when the program was in place. But we react empathically to the victims of Horton’s actions, while our empathy is silent when it comes to the individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted or killed as a result of the program.

The issues here go beyond policy — I’d argue what really matters for kindness in our everyday interactions is not empathy but capacities such as self-control and intelligence and a more diffuse compassion. Indeed, those who are high in empathy can be too caught up in the suffering of other people. If you absorb the suffering of others, then you’re less able to help them in the long run because achieving long-term goals often requires inflicting short-term pain. Any good parent, for instance, often has to make a child do something, or stop doing something, in a way that causes the child immediate unhappiness but is better for him or her in the future: Do your homework, eat your vegetables, go to bed at a reasonable hour, sit still for this vaccination, go to the dentist. Making children suffer temporarily for their own good is made possible by love, intelligence and compassion, but yet again, it can be impeded by empathy.

I worry that I’ve given the impression I’m against empathy. Well, I am — but only in the moral domain. And even here I don’t deny that it can sometimes have good results. It can motivate kindness in individuals that makes the world better. The concern about empathy is not that its consequences are always bad, then, it’s that its negatives outweigh its positives — and that there are better alternatives.

Excerpted from the new book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. © 2016 Paul Bloom.