Balancing Your Empathy

If you want to be good and do good, and try to make the world a better place, empathy may not always be your best guide.

The word "empathy" refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. The term also encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their intentions, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called "cognitive," as opposed to "emotional," empathy: one emerges from the mind, the other from the heart.

Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone. The sight and sound of another's suffering is unpleasant for babies and, as soon as they are mobile enough, they try to help, patting and soothing others in distress. This is not uniquely human: the primatoligist Frans de Waal notes that chimps will often put their arms around the victim of an attack and pat her or groom her.

Empathy can occur automatically, even involuntarily. Eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smith describes how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.”

And, there is considerable support for the 'empathy-altruism hypothesis': when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background.

And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Joseph Stalin put it, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one. These are features of empathy that make it a poor guide to social policy.

But even if you accept this argument, there is a lot more to life than public policy. Consider our everyday interactions with our parents and children, with our partners and friends. Consider also certain special relationships, such as that between doctor and patient or therapist and client. Empathy might not scale up to the policy level, but it seems an unalloyed good when it comes to these intimate relationships—the more the better. This too, however, is not always a certainty.

In a series of empirical and theoretical articles, psychologists Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz have explored why women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Their results suggest that this divergence is explained in part by a sex difference in the propensity for “unmitigated communion,” defined as “an excessive concern with others and placing others’ needs before one’s own.” Helgeson and Fritz developed a simple nine-item questionnaire, which asks respondents to indicate whether they agree with statements such as, “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy,” “I can’t say no when someone asks me for help,” and “I often worry about others’ problems.” Women typically score higher than men on this scale.

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another's pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress.

We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus. Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, kindness and altruism are associated with all sorts of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including a boost in both short-term mood and long-term happiness. If you want to get happy, helping others is an excellent way to do so.

An excess of empathy might be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a Bodhisattva to live?

In Buddhists texts, a distinction is made between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the Bodhisattva,” while great compassion is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering.

To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

Putting aside the extremes, do more empathetic people make better friends and partners? Certainly we want our friends to understand us and to care about us. It would be unnerving if someone you love never flinched in the face of your suffering or lit up at your joy. But this is not because you want them to mirror your feelings; rather, it is because if they love you, they should worry about your misfortunes and be pleased when you do well. From a purely selfish standpoint, you might not want their empathetic resonance, particularly when you're feeling down. You would prefer that they greet your panic with calm and your sadness with good cheer. A real friend is bad in good times and good in bad times.

When we think about individuals on the other extreme, we naturally think about psychopaths or sociopaths. Psychopaths are identified in poplar culture as the embodiment of evil. The term describes everyone from predatory CEOs to callous politicians to cannibal-killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the fictional Hannibal Lecter.

There is a standard test for psychopathy developed by the psychologist Robert Hare. It is used to make legal decisions about criminal offenders, including whether they should be incarcerated for life, and used as well by experimental psychologists who give the test to undergraduates to explore how their scores relate to, for instance, attitudes toward sexual violence and their style of moral reasoning. If you like this sort of thing, you can take the test online, rating yourself on traits such as "glibness/superficial charm," "lack of remorse or guilt," and "promiscuous sexual behavior."

The most important item for many people is "callous/lack of empathy." Many popular treatments of psychopathy see a lack of empathy as the core deficit in psychopathy. It is here that cognitive and emotional empathy come apart, because many people diagnosed with psychopathy are excellent at reading others’ minds.

This is what enables them to be such masterful manipulators, con men, and seducers. But the emotional part is thought to be absent—they cannot feel other people’s pain—and this is why psychopaths are such terrible people.

This might be the popular picture, but the truth is more complicated. For one thing, psychopaths suffer from dulling of just about all emotional responses, not just empathy. This overall blunting of feeling—or 'shallow affect'—is one of the criteria on the checklist. It is unclear, then, whether an empathy deficit is at the core of psychopathy, or whether it is just one facet of a more general problem. In fact, you could remove the empathy question from the scale, and it would be about as good at picking out psychopaths.

One decisive test of the low-empathy-makes-bad-people theory would be to study a group of people who lack empathy but also lack the other traits associated with psychopathy. Such individuals do exist. People with Asperger syndrome and autism typically have low cognitive empathy—they struggle to understand the minds of others—and have low emotional empathy as well. (As with psychopaths, there is some controversy about whether they are incapable of empathy or choose not to deploy it.) Despite their empathy deficit, such people show no propensity for exploitation and violence. Indeed, they often have strong moral codes and are more likely to be victims of cruelty than perpetrators.

What about aggressive behavior more generally? Are more aggressive people less empathetic? One would imagine there is a substantive relationship between empathy and aggression, since presumably someone with a great deal of empathy would find it unpleasant to cause pain in others.

But a recent review using all available studies of the relationship between empathy and aggression reaches a different conclusion, reporting that only 1 percent of the variation in aggression is accounted for by empathy. This means that if you want to predict how aggressive a person is, and you have access to an enormous amount of information about that person, including psychiatric interviews, pen-and-paper tests, criminal records, and brain scans, the last thing you would bother to look at would be measures of the person’s empathy.

Is empathy therefore irrelevant, or even a corrosive influence on how we treat those around us? This would be too strong a conclusion. There is some evidence that being more empathetic influences how likely one is to help in certain circumstances. The relationship is often weak, and not all studies find it. Still, given laboratory findings showing that inducing empathy increases the likelihood of altruistic behaviors, it would be wrong to dismiss empathy’s role in our moral lives.

So how much empathy do we really want in ourselves, our children, our friends, and our society? You would wish that your child possess enough, but not too much of it. And you would want to add plenty of intelligence and self-control to ensure that empathy is shaped and directed by rational deliberation. Constituted in this way, if we could all put empathy in balance, ours would be a kinder and better world.

(Source: "Against Empathy" by Professor Paul Bloom)