Sorry, I don’t feel your pain—the dangers of empathy

Sharing in other people's woe might seem the right thing to do, but it can lead us to make bad decisions
February 16, 2017
Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom (Bodley Head, £18.99)

Buy this book on Amazon The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society by Peter Bazalgette (John Murray, £16.99)

Buy this book on Amazon

“Being against empathy is like being against kittens,” writes the psychologist Paul Bloom. Let’s at least agree that nobody can object to kittens. Even the new Twitter-obsessed occupant of the White House—a man who demonstrated his empathetic skills during his election campaign by publicly mocking a disabled reporter—briefly followed a Twitter account devoted to photos of cute felines.

The trepidation many Americans feel about the future (especially women, African-Americans, immigrants and Mexicans) makes the arrival of two new books about empathy especially timely. Superficially, the books share much in common. They’re chatty, pacy and readable. They cover similar territory; they even draw on the same quotations, including this from US President Barack Obama: “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit”; and, from a radically different perspective, Joseph Stalin’s famous line: “When one man dies it’s a tragedy, but when a million die it’s a statistic.”

Yet the books come to very different conclusions. Bazalgette takes the more common role of kitten-enthusiast, while Bloom adopts the more original and provocative stance of kitten-slayer. The latter’s book is a sustained polemic against empathy.

Philosophically speaking, both authors are followers of the 18th-century Scotsman David Hume, but Bloom prods us in the direction of Hume’s German contemporary, Immanuel Kant. Kant wanted to ground morality in reason. Hume insisted that reason was the slave of passion: reason alone gives no cause to act unless we are also moved by sentiment.

But what kind of sentiment? Hume deployed the term “sympathy.” The word “empathy” did not yet exist, but it’s the modern concept closest to his meaning. There are lively disputes about how best to analyse the notion of empathy. If Hume is right, though, and some version of empathy is required as the foundation for morality, then this would explain—and justify—the incredible range of books on the subject.

One recent development has been the rapidly expanding science of empathy. We hear from both authors about the pioneering work of Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti. In his laboratory in Parma, Rizzolatti spotted something remarkable. When a macaque monkey performs an action—say reaching for a raisin—the same brain neurons fire as when the monkey sees the same action performed by a fellow monkey. These so-called “mirror neurons” provide some insight into how human empathy operates. When I see you accidentally hit your head, I flinch automatically. Mirror neurons seem to account for how I sense your suffering so immediately, offering a biological explanation for instinctive fellow-feeling.

Various studies in the same field have been undertaken by the American social psychologist C Daniel Batson. In one study, quoted by Bloom, Batson exposed subjects to a story of a brave and bright 10-year-old girl called Sheri Summers. Sheri has a fatal disease and is on a list awaiting treatment. But others are ahead of her because they have a higher medical priority. Batson offered his subjects the chance to move Sheri to the front of the queue. One set of subjects was told to take an objective perspective, while the other was told to imagine the situation from Sheri’s point of view. Many more people who were asked to be empathetic wanted Sheri to be given priority, even though this would mean needier children having their care delayed. Empathy, in this case, has been profoundly unhelpful.

This hints at why Bloom is an empathy sceptic. To appreciate his position, it helps to know exactly what he means. The empathy that interests him is what he calls “emotional empathy.” This is narrowly defined as thinking about the world as you believe someone else does. When President Bill Clinton told an Aids activist who was heckling him that “I feel your pain,” he was showing empathy in Bloom’s sense—claiming to literally feel the man’s suffering. I remember going to A&E when my eldest son had a high fever, and finding his pain almost overwhelmingly distressing.

Bloom wants us to be wary of such emotional empathy. It’s dangerous, he believes, for several reasons. One is that it operates in what he calls a “spotlight” fashion. It feels the pain of one person we can see, but ignores that of anyone outside that spotlight. Empathy directs us to value the health of little Sheri Summers above the weightier interests of other children. A related problem is that we can only realistically empathise with a small number of people: hence Stalin’s claim that to him a million deaths were a mere statistic.

You might recall how in 2010 the world was gripped by the plight of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days. Around 100 times as many people are killed in traffic accidents each day around the world. Yet almost all these deaths go unreported. The Chilean miners were easy to empathise with—for one thing, we became familiar with their back-stories, their names, the names of their wives. But knowing these facts can distort how we fairly distribute resources and attention.

My favourite study from the Bloom book is relevant here. It involved two groups being given $10 and then offered the chance to donate as much of this amount as they wished to someone else, who had nothing. The donation would be anonymous and the subjects knew nothing about the potential recipient, other than a randomly chosen number. One group drew the number first, and then determined how much they would give; the other decided how much to give and only then drew the beneficiary’s number. Those who drew the number first donated 60 per cent more than those who donated first. Apparently, just having a number was enough to make the other person less abstract, so triggering enhanced empathy—and more charity.

Bloom doesn’t question the notion that empathy can prompt generous thoughts and actions. His objection is that, more often than not, it triggers improper thoughts and actions. A turning point in George HW Bush’s election campaign in 1988 was the story about murderer Willie Horton. Horton was released on furlough in Massachusetts, the state of the Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis. He went on to rape a woman. The programme under which Horton was freed was shown to have saved lives overall (by reducing recidivism). But it was impossible to empathise with the unknown beneficiaries, and natural to empathise with Horton’s victim.

More objectionable than empathy’s irrationality, claims Bloom, is its moral bias. The evidence is overwhelming that you are more likely to feel empathy for other people like you. Manchester United supporters are more likely to feel empathy for other United supporters than for fans of Manchester City. British people are more likely to feel empathy for Brits than foreigners. White people are more likely to feel more empathy for other white people.

Of course, the extent to which it is acceptable—indeed desirable—to favour some people over others raises profound philosophical issues. Bloom thinks it neither plausible nor admirable to be entirely impartial. But while he believes that some partiality is justified—he doesn’t understand why anyone would send their child to a bad state school if they could afford a good private education—in general empathy bamboozles us. It occasionally generates right actions, but usually leads us astray. His solution, crudely put, is “more reason, less feeling.”

Not that we should try to create a world stripped of sympathy. Far from it. But to the extent that our actions are motivated by sentiment, that sentiment should be compassion. We should care about others but not necessarily share in their suffering. Compassion allows us to take a more bird’s-eye view.

These ideas mesh with those that inspired the Oxford-based Effective Altruism movement, whose most prominent supporter is the philosopher Peter Singer. The movement encourages the use of evidence and reason to dictate how best to allocate charitable donations. It urges us not to be fooled by those photos of doe-eyed children that grace the covers of charitable leaflets: instead, crunch the numbers. Head not heart. How would your £20 be put to best use; how could it do the maximum good?

It’s not just charity. Good parenting also requires compassion rather than empathy. If we cared too much about the short-term mood of our children, we would not impose the discipline that is in their long-term interests. To be a decent parent involves sometimes saying “no” to that demand for a first, or second, lollipop. We want doctors, likewise, to have compassion for their patients, but not to share their pain. For that would interfere with their ability to make rational judgements. (Book critics who felt too keenly the reaction of an author to a bad review could not properly do their job.)

Bazalgette’s pro-empathy book is less assured than Bloom’s, and more hastily compiled. The reader’s confidence is undermined by his description of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. In this experiment, subjects were divided into prisoners and prison guards and over a period of time many of the guards began to behave appallingly. The man who led the experiment was Philip Zimbardo, whom Bazalgette refers to five times (as well as in the index) as Lombardo. Even the most empathetic reader will be annoyed at such a howler. Other descriptions of studies appear to have been culled from newspaper cuttings, but again small errors have crept in.

Bloom has been an academic psychologist all his professional life and so his fascination with empathy is hardly surprising. More puzzling is why empathy engrosses Peter Bazalgette, famous for bringing to our screens Big Brother—hardly a model of compassionate television—and more latterly Chair of the Arts Council (he is now Chair of ITV). The answer appears to be a mission to defend the arts.

“The power of arts and culture to cultivate empathy,” he writes, “means they should be a fundamental part of education and training for people of all ages.” Bazalgette offers many examples of artistic endeavours that have made us more empathetic. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe persuaded many Americans that slavery was an abomination, he says. More far-fetched, he asserts that Big Brother helped its audience empathise with housemates who were gay or transsexual.

We live in a utilitarian age, where regrettably it is not enough for the arts to be valued in and of themselves; they must also justify themselves through their consequences. Perhaps they boost the economy. Or perhaps, as Bazalgette would have us believe, they boost our levels of empathy. Almost “all of us have the capacity for empathy but we need to learn to exercise it. The arts help us do this.”
"Don't be fooled by those photos of doe-eyed children on charity leaflets: instead, crunch the numbers. Head not heart"
Of course not everyone down the ages has agreed that art makes us better people in real life. Rousseau disliked the theatre because he thought the audience watching the play basked in its tender sensitivity, and then ignored injustices in the world outside. Coleridge, in a 1795 lecture, chastised those who cried over novels but were indifferent to slavery.

Should we, as Bazalgette advocates, exercise our empathy muscles? Or should we, as Bloom submits, allow them to atrophy? Using identical pieces of evidence, the authors reach conflicting conclusions. They’re rather like Brexiteers and Remainers, who contrive to present the same piece of information as evidence to bolster their respective cases.

But there is a third way to think about empathy that drives a middle path between these two approaches. The contention of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is that the brain has two systems: one is fast and emotional; the other slower and more cognitive. For the most part, the fast system serves us well, especially as we do not always have time to think. But it occasionally leads us into blunders, which the slower system is useful in correcting.

It is hard to believe that we would be better off without empathy. But empathy on automatic pilot is morally unreliable. What surely is required is a co-pilot: reason. This is a slower, manual system: one that can step in when empathy has pushed us in the wrong direction—and steer us back on course.