Could empathy be the cause of our problems?
A lot has been written lately about the world needing more empathy. I’ve been writing about it myself too.
Empathy surely helps bring people together and gives us a chance to solve our biggest problems. More empathy would reduce the divisions between people.
Or would it?
Could empathy actually be part of the problem? Could it be more divisive than we think?
Who do we empathise with?
By empathy I mean the ability to identify psychologically with and/or emotionally with how another person feels – or how they think and how they view the world.
When we empathise, we share someone else’s feelings, because we’ve had similar feelings and experiences ourselves. For example, someone who’s been in a car crash can empathise with another person who’s had that same experience.
But if empathy is about identifying with people who share our own experience, then empathy is, by its very nature, biased.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know that my own empathy is often based on my own beliefs and experiences – and also on my judgements (whether conscious or unconscious).
I am likely to be more empathetic towards people I have something in common with.
For example, I can empathise with someone who has lost a loved one, or who has taken the plunge into self-employment, or fallen in love, or had some wild adventures in this world – and more.
I know what those things can be like psychologically and emotionally. It gives me an instant connection with others who have experienced similar things.
Conversely, I’m less able to empathise with someone when I have little experience of the events of their life. I can sympathise, certainly – but not empathise. I can send a ‘sympathy’ card to someone experiencing loss, even if I can’t empathise directly with their loss.
Does empathy deepen our existing bias?
In a political debate we tend to ‘side’ with people we can relate to. We can empathise with them because we have a shared motivation in supporting one side or another. We join a ‘tribe’ we can relate to and where there are people who share our views.
And when the stakes are high, such as in a national election, we can’t necessarily risk opening our minds to the other side. Even the thought of doing that can feel abhorrent.
Friendships have been won and lost over political divides. The lack of empathy over the political issue destroys any empathy there may have been in other areas of a friendship. Many people also find it hard to empathise with someone who doesn’t empathise in return.
Can empathy be a negative force?
The action of a drug user injecting heroin may make little sense to someone who has never used drugs. The non-user cannot empathise. However the non-user can have an appreciation for – and an understanding of – the powerful force of addiction and can therefore take action to help.
Understanding the drug user’s situation doesn’t mean we have to – or even can – empathise. In fact, if we did empathise in this particular situation, we could potentially be less resolute in helping the user get off the drugs.
A billionaire head of state who empathises most with other billionaires may act in ways that protect only the most wealthy. That head of state may have little ability to empathise – or understand – millions of people who are struggling financially.
Switching off our empathy for the greater good
In aircraft safety announcements we’re taught to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping anyone else.
A father may be travelling with his child on a plane, and both can empathise with each other over the desire for survival and the need to be able to breathe.
But in an emergency the father must temporarily put aside that empathy with his child. He must instead make sure his own mask is securely attached and working first, before he helps the child. Failure to do this would be to risk both of their lives.
Can we empathise without agreeing?
Humans have a wonderful ability to cooperate – and to do that across divides that seemingly cannot be crossed.
In World War One, opposing troops laid down their weapons for a Christmas truce, empathising with each other over the need for some respite from the fighting. Politically they were poles apart, and any empathy from one individual towards another on the opposing side from a political point of view would have had dire consequences.
They were however, still able to empathise as human beings. They could empathise with each other, not because of the root causes of the war, but because of the resulting feelings they shared.
Christmas Truce of 1914, World War I – For Sharing, For Peace – this is actually an advertisement for a UK supermarket, but it makes the point well.
I have no idea what it’s like to be bombed out of my home and have to flee my country as a refugee, and yet I can have compassion for refugees. I can imagine what it might be like, even if only to a very small extent. My humanity allows me to at least try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, even if I can’t possibly know what it’s really like.
I can be moved by someone else’s sorrow and by knowing their story.
Helping a stranger in need does not require empathy per se. It requires an acknowledgement that we are all connected, and that our human connection, when nurtured, can blossom.
Do we need empathy – or do we need compassion?
Can we be compassionate without empathy? I would argue yes – if we have our humanity radar set in that direction.
I’m of the view that, yes, empathy is a valuable thing, but what is perhaps even more powerful is compassion and understanding. It is those things that enable us to cooperate and to build tolerance. It is those things that can direct us towards action for the greater good, regardless of who we do or don’t empathise with.
We need to understand other people’s situations in ways that allow us to help if and when appropriate, rather than empathising only with those we can personally relate to.
This empowers us to make active choices, rather than relying on empathy, which is something we may not have.