“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them…”
During a meeting last month, one of my friends quoted President Obama, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.” None of us disagreed or questioned him. After all, with every horrifying situation in the world how could anyone doubt what we need is more empathy? What is the first question asked of victims of disasters like hurricanes and fires, losing a child, or escaping a mass shooting in a school? “How did you feel?” The reporter is working hard to get to the human side of the story that is thought to be the hook that keeps us tuned in. The news is not so much about what has happened as it is about how people feel about what has happened. So, I would have said the same about our need for more empathy until I read Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.
What do we mean by empathy?
Empathy is not the same as sympathy or even understanding. To feel empathy for someone is to share their pain or joy so completely that you feel what they feel. Bloom writes, “Empathy was difficult and unpleasant – it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal…empathy is a moral train wreck.”
Really? That sounds harsh but when we read further it begins to make sense.
Impossible to Scale
First, empathy is biased. Bloom writes, “Some of these biases are superficial, based on considerations like ethnicity and affiliation.” We feel more empathy for people who have something in common with us and less for people who are strangers or live far away. While we might feel pity for the young girl facing certain death in Tehran, we cannot begin to imagine what she feels. How can we experience the horror of a husband learning his wife was raped and slaughtered in Israel or the anxiety of a mother digging through the rubble in Gaza looking for her child? We cannot. In fact, there is strong evidence that our response is to ignore painful situations altogether. Bloom refers to an example from the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, “For many years a charity called Save the Children ran magazine ads with a heartbreaking photograph of a destitute child and the caption ‘You can save Juan Ramos for five cents a day. Or you can turn the page.’ Most people turned the page.”
Second, empathy is like a spotlight. To be triggered, it must narrow its focus to a single individual; it cannot handle groups or large numbers of people. Bloom continues, “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…Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual – the so-called ‘identifiable victim’ effect – but its natural limits make it ineffective and impossible to scale.” Every time the camera pulls away from an individual face to show us the thousands of people affected by whatever has happened our empathy is diluted and reduced by the scope of the misfortune.
Third, empathy shuts down if we believe someone is responsible for their own suffering. For example, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that people felt less empathy toward AIDS patients infected through intravenous drug use than from a needed blood transfusion. What was the question of the disciples when they saw the man born blind? “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In some way someone had done something for him to deserve his being blind.
For me, the greater value of Bloom’s writing is not his case against empathy but his positive argument for something even better: compassion: “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.”
Deep empathy consumes so much energy and focus that those who register high in empathy have more difficulty actually acting to help. They are overwhelmed by it. Compassion leads to warmer feelings and kinder behavior toward others, and even better, those with high quotients of compassion are strongly motivated to take action. It is love that scales.
Jesus never meant for us to be cold and distant. On the other hand, I’m sure he never meant for us to become so absorbed by feeling what others feel that we are consumed and paralyzed. Instead, just as his heart overflowed with compassion and kindness directed toward those he met, ours can as well.
Art by Val Valta