“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
— Barack Obama
You don’t have to look hard to find quotes expounding the need for more empathy in society. As with Barack Obama’s quote above, we are encouraged to actively build empathy with others — especially those who are different from us. The implicit message in these pleas is that empathy will make us treat each other with more respect and caring and will help reduce violence. But is this true? Does empathy make us appreciate others, help us behave in moral ways, or help us make better decisions?
These are questions Paul Bloom tackles in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. As the title suggests, Bloom’s book makes a case against empathy as an inherent force for good and takes a closer look at what empathy is (and is not), how empathy works in our brains, how empathy can lead to immoral outcomes despite our best intentions, and how we can improve our ability to have a positive impact by strengthening our intelligence, compassion, self-control, and ability to reason.
To explore these questions, we first need to define what we’re talking about.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is an often-used word that can mean different things. Bloom quotes one team of empathy researchers who joke that “there are probably nearly as many definitions of empathy as people working on this topic.” For his part, Bloom defines empathy as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This type of empathy was explored by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Bloom writes:
As Adam Smith put it, we have the capacity to think about another person and “place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”
This is the definition and view of empathy that Bloom devotes most of the book to exploring. This is the “standing in another man’s shoes” type of empathy from Barack Obama’s quote above, which Bloom calls emotional empathy.
“I feel your pain” is more than a metaphor. It's literal.
With emotional empathy, you actually experience a weaker degree of what somebody else feels. Researchers in recent years have been able to show that empathic responses of pain occur in the same area of the brain where real pain is experienced.
So “I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.
To make the shoe metaphor literal, imagine that you see somebody drop something heavy on their foot — you flinch because you know what this feels like and the parts of your brain that experience pain (the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex) react. You don’t feel the same degree of pain, of course — you didn’t drop anything on your foot after all — but it is likely that you have an involuntary physical reaction like a flinch, a facial grimace, or an audible outburst. This is an emotionally empathic response.
But there is another form of empathy that Bloom wants us to be aware of and consider differently. It relates to our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others. Bloom refers to this form as cognitive empathy:
… if I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself, this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, or mentalizing. It's also sometimes described as a form of empathy—“cognitive empathy” as opposed to “emotional empathy.”
In this sense, cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others. In the case of pain, which is where a lot of empathy research is done, we’re not talking about feeling any degree of pain, as we might with emotional empathy, but instead, we simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it ourselves. Cognitive empathy goes beyond pain — our ability to understand what is going on in somebody else’s mind is an important part of being human and is necessary for us to relate to each other.
Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics.
The brain is, of course, very complicated, so it is plausible that these two types of empathy could take place in the same part of the brain. So far, though, the research seems to indicate that they are largely separate:
In a review article, Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner note that hundreds of studies now support a certain perspective on the mind, which they call “a tale of two systems.” One system involves sharing the experience of others, what we’ve called empathy; the other involves inferences about the mental states of others—mentalizing or mind reading. While they can both be active at once, and often are, they occupy different parts of the brain. For instance, the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is involved in mentalizing, while the anterior cingulate cortex, sitting right behind that, is involved in empathy.
The difference between cognitive and emotional empathy is important for understanding Bloom’s arguments. From Bloom’s perspective, cognitive empathy is “…a useful and necessary tool for anyone who wishes to be a good person—but it is morally neutral.” On the other hand, Bloom believes that emotional empathy is “morally corrosive,” and the bulk of his attack is directed at highlighting the pitfalls of relying on emotional empathy while making the case for cultivating and practicing “rational compassion” instead.
I believe that the capacity for emotional empathy, described as “sympathy” by philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, often simply known as “empathy” and defended by so many scholars, theologians, educators, and politicians, is actually morally corrosive. If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop. This empathic engagement might give you some satisfaction, but it’s not how to improve things and can lead to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Much better to use reason and cost-benefit analysis, drawing on a more distanced compassion and kindness.
Here again, the definition of the terms is important for understanding the argument. Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics. Bloom outlines the difference:
… compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say that they feel compassion for them.
Bloom references a review paper written by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki to help make the distinction clear. Singer and Klimecki write:
In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.
To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”
Emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”
Empathy and Morality
Many people believe that our ability to empathize is the basis for morality because it causes us to consider our actions from another’s perspective. “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is the basic morality lesson repeated thousands of times to children all over the world.
In this way, empathy can lead us to rely on our self-centered nature. If this is true, Bloom suggests that the argument in its simplest form would go like this:
Everyone is naturally interested in him- or herself; we care most about our own pleasure and pain. It requires nothing special to yank one’s hand away from a flame or to reach for a glass of water when thirsty. But empathy makes the experiences of others salient and important—your pain becomes my pain, your thirst becomes my thirst, and so I rescue you from the fire or give you something to drink. Empathy guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves and hence expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.
In this way, the willful exercise of empathy can motivate kindness that would never have otherwise occurred. Empathy can make us care about a slave, or a homeless person, or someone in solitary confinement. It can put us into the mind of a gay teenager bullied by his peers, or a victim of rape. We can empathize with a member of a despised minority or someone suffering from religious persecution in a faraway land. All these experiences are alien to me, but through the exercise of empathy, I can, in some limited way, experience them myself, and this makes me a better person.
When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.
When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.
In an interview, Steven Pinker hypothesizes that it was an increase in empathy, made possible by the technology of the printing press and the resulting increase in literacy, that led to the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment. The increase in empathy brought about by our ability to read accounts of violent punishments like disembowelment and mutilation caused us to reconsider the morality of treating other human beings in such ways.
So in certain instances, empathy can play a role in motivating us to take moral action. But is an empathic response required to do so?
To use a classic example from philosophy—first thought up by the Chinese philosopher Mencius—imagine that you are walking by a lake and see a young child struggling in shallow water. If you can easily wade into the water and save her, you should do it. It would be wrong to keep walking.
What motivates this good act? It is possible, I suppose, that you might imagine what it feels like to be drowning, or anticipate what it would be like to be the child’s mother or father hearing that she drowned. Such empathic feelings could then motivate you to act. But that is hardly necessary. You don’t need empathy to realize that it’s wrong to let a child drown. Any normal person would just wade in and scoop up the child, without bothering with any of this empathic hoo-ha.
And so there has to be more to morality than empathy. Our decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and our motivations to act, have many sources. One’s morality can be rooted in a religious worldview or a philosophical one. It can be motivated by a more diffuse concern for the fates of others—something often described as concern or compassion…
I hope most people reading this would agree that failing to attempt to save a drowning child or supporting or perpetrating violent punishments like disembowelment would be at the very least morally reprehensible, if not outright evil.
But what motivates people to be “evil”? For researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen, evil is defined as “empathy erosion” — truly evil people lack the capacity to empathize, and it is this lack of empathy that causes them to act in evil ways. Bloom looks at the question of what causes people to be evil from a slightly different angle:
Indeed, some argue that the myth of pure evil gets things backward. That is, it’s not that certain cruel actions are committed because the perpetrators are self-consciously and deliberatively evil. Rather it is because they think they are doing good. They are fueled by a strong moral sense.
When the perpetrators of violence or cruelty believe that their actions are morally justified, what motivates them? Bloom suggests that it can be empathy. Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with. We see this tendency play out in politics all the time.
Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with.
Politicians representing one side believe they are saving the world, while representatives on the other side believe that their adversaries are out to destroy civilization as we know it. If I believe that I am protecting a person or group of people whom I choose to empathize with, then I may be motivated to act in a way I believe is morally justified, even though others may believe that I have harmed them.
Steven Pinker weighed in on this issue when he wrote the following in The Better Angels of our Nature:
If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.
Bloom quotes Pinker and goes on to write:
Henry Adams put this in stronger terms, with regard to Robert E. Lee: “It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”
This might seem perverse. How can good lead to evil? One thing to keep in mind here is that we are interested in beliefs and motivations, not what’s good in some objective sense. So the idea isn’t that evil is good; rather, it’s that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.
So from a moral perspective, empathy can lead us astray. We may believe we are doing good or that our actions are justified but this may not necessarily be true for all involved. This is especially troublesome when we consider how we are affected by a growing list of cognitive biases.
Empathy and Biases
While empathy may not be required to motivate us to save a drowning child, it can still help us consider the differing experiences or suffering of another person thus motivating us to consider things from their perspective or thus act to relieve their suffering:
I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormenters, 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.
On the surface this seems like an excellent case for the positive power of empathy; it shines a “spotlight” on a person in need and motivates us to help them. But what happens when we dig a little deeper into this metaphor? Bloom writes
… 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.
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.
We are all predisposed to care more deeply for those we are close to. From a purely biological perspective, we will care for and protect our children and families before the children or families of strangers. Our decision making often falls victim to narrow framing, and our actions are affected by biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating and our tendency to discount the pain of people we don’t like:
We are constituted to favor our friends and family over strangers, to care more about members of our own group than people from different, perhaps opposing, groups. This fact about human nature is inevitable given our evolutionary history. Any creature that didn’t have special sentiments toward those that shared its genes and helped it in the past would get its ass kicked from a Darwinian perspective; it would falter relative to competitors with more parochial natures. This bias to favor those close to us is general—it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on.
There are many causes for human biases — empathy is only one — but taking a step back, we can see how the intuitive gut responses motivated by emotional empathy can negatively affect our ability to make rational decisions.
Empathy’s narrow focus, specificity, and innumeracy mean that it’s always going to be influenced by what captures our attention, by racial preferences, and so on. It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules and principles or a calculation of costs and benefits that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.
While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry. Our preferences for whom to help or which organizations to support are affected by our biases. If we’re not careful, empathy can affect our ability to see the potential impacts of our actions. However, considering these impacts takes much more than empathy and a desire to do good; it takes awareness of our biases and mental effort to combat their effects:
… doing actual good, instead of doing what feels good, requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation from competing, sometimes malicious and greedy, interests. To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not that one shouldn’t give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye toward consequences.
In addition to biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating, empathy can lead to biases related to the Representative Heuristic. Actions motivated by empathy often fail to take the broader picture into account; the spotlight doesn’t encourage us to consider base rates or sample size when we make our decisions. Instead, we are motivated by positive emotions for a specific individual or small group:
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.
Part of the challenge that exists with empathy is this innumeracy that Bloom describes. It is impossible for us to form genuine empathic connections with abstractions. Conversely, if we see the suffering of one, empathy can motivate us to help make it stop. As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This is what psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect.”
While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry.
Perhaps an example will help illustrate. On October 17, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Midland, Texas. Over the next 2 ½ days, fire, police, and volunteer rescuers worked around the clock to save her. Media coverage of the emergency was broadcast all over the world resulting in Jessica McClure becoming internationally known as “Baby Jessica” and prompting then-President Ronald Reagan to proclaim that “…everybody in America became the godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” The intense coverage and global awareness led to an influx of donations, resulting in an $800,000 trust being established in Jessica’s name.
What prompted this massive outpouring of concern and support? There are millions of children in need every day all over the world. How many of the people who sent donations to Baby Jessica had ever tried to help these faceless children? In the case of Baby Jessica, they had an identifiable victim, and empathy motivated many of them to help Jessica and her family. They could imagine what it might feel like for those poor parents and they felt genuine concern for the child’s future; all the other needy children around the world were statistical abstractions. This ability to identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family enables us to experience an empathic response with them, but the random children and their families remain empathically out of reach.
None of this is to say that rescuers should not have worked to save Jessica McClure — she was a real-world example of Mencius’s proverbial drowning child — but there are situations every day where we choose to help individuals at the cost of the continued suffering of others. Our actions often have diffuse and unknowable impacts.
If our concern is driven by thoughts of the suffering of specific individuals, then it sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.
Furthermore, not only are we more likely to empathize with the identifiable victim, our empathy has its limits in scale as well. If we hear that an individual in a faraway land is suffering, we may have an empathic response, but will that response be increased proportionally if we learned that thousands or millions of people suffered? Adam Smith got to the heart of this question in The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he wrote:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.
Empathy can inadvertently motivate us to act to save the one at the expense of the many. While the examples provided are by no means clear-cut issues, it is worth considering how the morality or goodness of our actions to help the few may have negative consequences for the many.
Charlie Munger has written and spoken about the Kantian Fairness Tendency, in which he suggests that for certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.
For certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.
Empathy and Reason
We are emotional creatures, then, but we are also rational beings, with the capacity for rational decision-making. We can override, deflect, and overrule our passions, and we often should do so. It’s not hard to see this for feelings like anger and hate—it’s clear that these can lead us astray, that we do better when they don’t rule us and when we are capable of circumventing them.
While we need kindness and compassion and we should strive to be good people making good decisions, we are not necessarily well served by empathy in this regard; emotional empathy’s negatives often outweigh its positives. Instead, we should rely on our capacity to reason and control our emotions. Empathy is not something that can be removed or ignored; it is a normal function of our brains after all, but we can and do combine reason with our natural instincts and intuitions:
The idea that human nature has two opposing facets—emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful, rational deliberation—is the oldest and most resilient psychological theory of all. It was there in Plato, and it is now the core of the textbook account of cognitive processes, which assumes a dichotomy between “hot” and “cold” mental processes, between an intuitive “System 1” and a deliberative “System 2.”
We know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow that these two systems are not inherently separate in practice. They are both functioning in our brains at the same time.
Some decisions are made faster due to heuristics and intuitions from experiences or our biology, while other decisions are made in a more deliberative and slow fashion using reason. Bloom writes:
We go through a mental process that is typically called “choice,” where we think about the consequences of our actions. There is nothing magical about this. The neural basis of mental life is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions.
We have an impulsive, emotional, and intuitive decision-making system in System 1 and a deliberative, reasoning, and (sometimes) rational decision-making system in System 2.
We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than leveraging our ability to empathize
We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than by leveraging our ability to empathize. One way to increase our ability to reason is to focus on improving our self-control:
Self-control can be seen as the purest embodiment of rationality in that it reflects the working of a brain system (embedded in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that lies behind the forehead) that restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires.
While Bloom is unabashedly against empathy as an inherent force for good in the world, he is also a firm supporter of being and doing good. He believes that the “feeling with” nature of emotional empathy leads us to make biased and bad decisions despite our best intentions and that we should instead foster and encourage the “caring for” nature of compassion while combining it with our intelligence, self-control, and ability to reason:
… none of this is to deny the importance of traits such as compassion and kindness. We want to nurture these traits in our children and work to establish a culture that prizes and rewards them. But they are not enough. To make the world a better place, we would also want to bless people with more smarts and more self-control. These are central to leading a successful and happy life—and a good and moral one.
[Editor's note: Where you see boldface in block quotes, emphasis has been added by Farnam Street.]