The Limits of Empathy

Good piece from David Brooks in today’s New York Times at

which I will contest in a separate posting. I think he is mixing up empathy and sympathy but still worth a read. The comments are also an interesting case study in people talking past each other unempathetically.

We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy.
Josh Haner/The New York Times

David Brooks

The intellectual, cultural and scientific findings that land on the columnist’s desk nearly every day.

As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.

There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.

The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.

In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.

Some influences, which we think of as trivial, are much stronger — such as a temporary burst of positive emotion. In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime. Empathy doesn’t produce anything like this kind of effect.

Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Limits of Empathy

  1. Very interesting article, thanks. Neurological structures and processes such as the firing of mirror neurons creates automatic empathy, which proves that we are hard-wired to appreciate the experience of others, however, the major issue is not what happens automatically but what we do mindfully.
    Automatic empathy versus real empathy is like sentimentality versus real emotion – a pale, self-centred version of a wonderful, constructive emergent process. The sentimentalist thinks, “I find it so hard to look at that child suffering so it means I am clearly a kind and thoughtful person and I should either turn away or find something that will make me feel better.” The emotionally aware person thinks, “I find it so hard to look at that child suffering and yet her suffering is even greater than mine – so what can I do to help her.”
    Nice blog – good luck with it!

  2. This is such a great comment I have posted it on my blog as a posting in its own right.

    And commented on it as it very much reflects my own thinking that the automatic empathy is not enough. I am also doing research with UCLA to map what happens in this area to allow building appropriate ways to make the empathy mindful and a real broad spectrum theory of mind of other people.

    I have also added your great site to my blog role so people who come to my site can link to yours.

  3. Thank you for your kind words and posting my comment and thank you also for adding my blog to your blog roll – I am glad you agreed but, truthfully, more than that, I am very taken with your generosity of spirit! Naturally I am returning the compliment.

    How fantastic to be researching such an interesting and important area with UCLA – I look forward to reading the results of your research. Best of luck with it.

    • Trisha I can’t tell you how good it is to find someone else who understands this angle. I teach my approach and people sort of get it. But while I am not a Buddhist, I have been taught a lot about mindfulness by a Jewish/Buddhist friend, and it fits right into the approach you suggest.

      It will be some time before the UCLA research bears fruit. We are looking for large scale funding at present. I am not an academic, but a life long conflict practitioner from the corporate sector, in search of better theory, and empathy/theory of mind and mirror neurons hold out much promise. But only if we use the insights to build in the way you suggest. Cross examine the empathy?

      My conflict theory by the way is about what I call ‘induced autism’: how the circumstances, the framing of conflict, personal, political, racial whatever, causes us to lose any theory of mind of the other side in conflict. I dialogue with experts in autism to increase my understanding of how what happens in conflict matches the development disorder amongst children on the autism spectrum, whose serious problems are hard wired and which I am very respectful of. Let me know if you would like to hear more. Best wishes.

  4. I would be extremely interested to hear more about your conflict theory – the idea of ‘induced autism’ sounds fascinating to me – my head is full of guesses as to what it might be about so it’d be really great to actually find out!
    So anything you have – links, material etc – please feel free to send it to me as I would genuinely love to read it.
    All the best
    BTW – I thought you might be interested in this blog as well –

  5. jjhiii24 says:

    It seems to me that the existence of empathy to begin with is a result of it being selected during the process of human evolution as a trait which enhanced the survival of our species, and while, as you pointed out, it is “insufficient,” with regard to taking action in our 21st century world, possessing empathy appears now to be an essential trait that WAS the basis for actions by our ancient ancestors. Retaining empathy as a fundamental trait has become the foundation for COMPASSION, which is more directly the cause for action today.

    There also appears to be a mechanism within our cognitive apparatus, shared by each one of us, which supports the continued presence of empathy as an essential trait. In a recent study by neurobiologists Jean Decety and Perrine Ruby of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, PET brain scans of volunteers who were focusing on “somebody else” performing the same task” as themselves “excited the parietal cortex in the right hemisphere,” suggesting that “we understand another’s behavior by imagining (them) carrying out an action and then mentally projecting ourselves into that situation.” (Discover Magazine, September 2001)

    In his landmark book, “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle describes compassion as “…the awareness of a deep bond between yourself and all creatures…we share our human nature with every other human and our mortality with every living being…the joy of Being beyond form, the joy of eternal life, combined with empathy is true compassion.”

    I agree with “creatingreciprocity” that real empathy is a mindful act, and regardless of what mental characteristics we may possess as a result of our evolution, our current experience of our consciousness now gives us the opportunity to expand our abilities in “building appropriate ways to make the empathy mindful.”

    Thanks for listening…..John H.

    • John and Trisha too, fyi I am working with Marco Iacoboni at UCLA and his book ‘Mirroring People’ is very good on the implications of motor neurons called mirror neurons in the brain. These are motor neurons which fire when we watch others doing things and create shared mind space. A later stage of my work will be to figure the neural basis and variables for to quote you: ‘building appropriate ways to make the empathy mindful’. To me that will be to allow the empathy to build a full spectrum understanding of the other side in a conflict: (which is the application of empathy that is my focus): their feelings, their world view, their beliefs, their interests, their perspective. We can build better win-win outcomes to conflict if we do this, provided of course we do the same for ourselves. I suspect the only true compassion for others has a component foundation in compassion for ourselves, understanding of our feelings, world view, beliefs, interests and perspectives. That our take on the world is not the world: the map is not the territory as Bateson put it.

      Thanks for your comments which I will think about some more.

  6. Kaylee says:

    I really like your writing style, great info, thank you for putting up :D. “Your central self is totally untouched By grief, confusion, desperation.” by Vernon Howard.

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