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Empathy: have we taken it too far?

02 Apr Empathy: have we taken it too far?

Distorted and short-sighted or the solution for our lives and our planet?

First, I recommend that you read both of these masterful books before you judge.

Paul Bloom has put the cat amongst the pigeons with one book that stands against a wave of 1,500 plus books on empathy. We have gorged on empathy. We advocate it for families, schools, businesses, leadership, politics, war and finding a partner.

Bloom asks the question: “Does empathy actually deliver positive results?”

In short, he concludes that it does not. Empathy is ‘a distorted and short-sighted force’ by ‘focusing on certain people in the here and now’, leaving us ‘insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism’.

As Bloom works through the literature, it becomes clear that empathy studies generally show little or no positive benefits. As the timeline and scale of situations increases, decisions based on empathy mostly have disastrous outcomes.

But wait, how does Bloom define empathy?

Here is the issue that undermines a brilliant and timely book. While he explores a few definitions, leading with “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does”, or as Adam Smith called sympathy being “place ourselves in (his) situation” and settling on “feel what you feel”.

Few authors define empathy clearly. Bloom wanders hopelessly into the traps of sloppy understanding. Our team has wrestled with this. Here are some suggestions to avoid the traps.

Empathy is Passive

Define the difference between understanding and taking action. Empathy is understanding – it is passive. Taking action to benefit a situation, which may or may not involve commonly understood elements of empathy, is altruism – it is active (as defined by Ricard). This is as fundamental as discerning the serve from return of serve in tennis.

There is no doubt that neural circuits allow us to map, respond to and understand others. This can be vital information. Our body detects and responds to physical signals from others. This is common in posture, hyperventilation, yawning and facial expressions. Biologists call this contagion.

We also detect and feel the emotions of others through the “mirror neurons”, anterior cingulate and anterior insula areas of the brain. Through this we actually come to experience (feel with) the feeling that another has. This is also called emotional empathy.

Finally, cognitive empathy or perspective-taking allows us to understand how another is thinking. We effectively stand in their shoes. It remains passive.

Altruism is Active

Altruism as the active component is what we do in response. It is possible to close the empathy portal (see De Waal, On Empathy, 2009) in the brain, and deny the need of the crippled child. Just cross the road staring into your device. The truth is that you have experienced a child’s suffering and chosen to walk away. Many studies suggest that this is far better than rewarding the child with money or food.

Do we feed the child to relieve the distress we feel or do we step back and wonder what system we end up supporting and consider better ways to uplift a community?

Empathic Distress is the Problem

Here, Bloom and others are clear. The distress you feel upon the suffering of the child leads you to fumble for money and food and enjoy the feeling of sainthood for an instant. If our perceptions and understanding of another make us feel bad, we may act out of sympathy to relieve our empathic distress. De Waal calls this consolation. It is rarely skilful and leads to long term problems in parenting, social work, aid programmes and healthcare. This is where the spotlight of empathy becomes biased and dangerous.

Restraint and Reason are Solutions

What many writers fail to grasp is that this “foolish kindness” to relieve our own distress, is actually impulse control. Just as we should not react rashly out of our own anger, nor should we react to the sadness or grief we feel for another.

Skilful altruism requires us to be fully aware of another’s physical, emotional and cognitive states AND then to step back, resist the impulse, and use reason to select the right action.

Bloom is right on the need for cool reason but wrong to be against empathy.

Skilful, targeted and long-term altruism is exactly what we need to solve many challenges of our time. However, we absolutely have to open our hearts and minds to the plight of others and our children’s children.

If we find Against Empathy we will simply sink back into our devices and consumption.

Against Empathy, Paul Bloom, Penguin Random House, 2016. P8.