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What Are the Downsides of Empathy?

What are the downsides of empathy? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science, author of Against Empathy, on Quora.

What are the downsides of empathy? A lot of questions revolve around this issue, so I'll give this a long answer. If you want an even longer answer, check out my book.

First, people use the term "empathy" in different ways and so I should be clear about my own usage, I'm referring to empathy in the sense of experiencing the feelings of others, particularly others' suffering. And so when we say "I feel your pain", we're talking about empathy in the sense I'm worried about.

Fans of empathy will point out that at its best, empathy can work like a spotlight, focusing on certain people in the here and now, making their suffering salient to you. And this really does make you kinder to the person you are empathizing with. This is backed by laboratory research, by everyday experience, and by common sense. So if the world were a simple place, where the only dilemmas one had to deal with involved a single person in some sort of immediate distress, and where helping that person had positive effects, the case for empathy would be solid.

But the world is not a simple place, and the spotlight focus of empathy leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with.

Part of the problem is that empathy is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. (A spotlight has a narrow focus, after all). In one classic series of studies, psychologists asked some subjects how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked others how much they would give to save eight children. People would give roughly the same in both cases. But when a third group of subjects were told the child's name and shown her picture, the donations shot up--now there were greater donations to the one than to the eight.

All of these laboratory effects can be seen as manifestations of what's been called "the identifiable victim effect."--our emotions resonate to people, not statistics. And in the real world, this sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.

To get a sense of this, imagine reading that two hundred people just died in an earthquake in a remote country. How do you feel? Now imagine that you just discovered that the actual number of deaths was two thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? Do you feel any worse? I doubt it. Indeed, one individual can matter more than a hundred because a single individual can evoke feelings in a way that a multitude cannot. Stalin has been quoted as saying, "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." And Mother Teresa once said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." To the extent that we can recognize that the numbers are significant when it comes to moral decisions, it's because of reason, not sentiments.

Another problem with spotlights is that they only light up what you point them at. They are vulnerable to bias. The neuroscience research provides many illustrations of how empathy picks favorites. Brain areas that correspond to the experience of empathy are sensitive to whether someone is a friend or a foe, part of one's group or part of an opposing group. In general, we care most about people who are similar to us--in attitude, in language, in appearance--and for those who are pleasing to look at, like children and certain animals.

These facts about empathy render it a poor guide to moral decision-making in the real world. We are gripped by vivid images--such as the picture of the drowned Syrian child washed ashore in Turkey--and these serve to motivate actions, sometimes helpful, as when people give more to charity, and sometimes violent, as when such images are used to generate support for war. But the importance we give to such cases doesn't reflect a rational assessment of the extent of suffering, of their global importance, or of the extent to which it's possible for us to help. Rather, it reflects our natural biases in who to care about.

This is just part of the argument I make in "Against Empathy". I have other complaints about empathy as well. I argue that it can motivate aggression and cruelty, can be exhausting, and is often corrosive in personal relationships. But I've already gone on for too long.

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