Is empathy more divisive than we think?

Is empathy more divisive than we think?

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.

Building understanding

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.

Why diverse opinions are vital in a tribal world


  1. Steven McDaniel 1 year ago

    Really interesting thoughts here, Angela. I believe that my natural empathy enables me to for example be a good teacher, and to socially interact with people that are very different to each other, but I’m also aware how those traits lead me into problems when a more detached view is needed. You are onto something here!

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 1 year ago

      Thanks for your comment, Steven. It sounds as though your empathy stands you in good stead in many situations. I like your insight about sometimes needing to be detached, though. I think both things are important, and maybe in the field of teaching it’s good to be able to take that step back when needed. Good to hear your thoughts.

  2. Leo Searle-Hawkins 1 year ago

    Very interesting Angela. What comes to me is to acknowledge that I’ve never felt completely comfortable with people who describe themselves as “empaths”. I’ve ignored those uncomfortable feelings as it didn’t seem to be a conscious response to be anything but empathic.

    Your post highlight what I feel is the reality, which is that compassion and understanding are the most conscious response to pretty much every life situation. Whereas empathy does relate only to the personal.

    Thank you, Most enlightening,

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 1 year ago

      Thanks for those thoughts, Leo. Yes, I think compassion and understanding are often in short supply at a global level, and yet we really need more of them. I like the ‘active’ nature of those two things, too. The more we can be compassionate and actively seek to understand, the better things can be. Empathy is, for me, still important – but perhaps not in the way we often think. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Daniel 1 year ago

    Brilliant article Angela! Thank you for writing this and challenging me to look at empathy from a different perspective. I think you are right about the possibility that empathy may strengthen our bias, thus leading to more division and the lack of empathy for “other people”.

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 1 year ago

      Thanks for your kind words, Daniel. The bias that can exist in empathy is interesting, isn’t it – and it’s something I’ve only really thought about recently. Here’s to more compassion and understanding in the world. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Keiron Sparrowhawk 1 year ago

    Hi Angela, thanks for sharing. This is a complex area. I don’t think empathy per se is the problem. I think it’s people who believe they have empathy, but actually don’t. In that way it’s not dissimilar to people who believe that they are compassionate, but aren’t.
    These things are beliefs and when it comes to beliefs we can wrong as often as we are right. They are still very important, but we have to be careful how we interpret them. It’s one of the reasons I got into cognition, which is based on our behaviour, not our beliefs. Because it’s behaviour based, it’s a more accurate measure of ourselves.
    But a fascinating subject, thank you. BTW see what Simon Sinek thinks of empathy. I don’t fully agree with him, either.

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 1 year ago

      Thanks for that insight, Keiron. It is indeed complex. Behaviour and beliefs – really interesting – and, as you say, in many ways I guess it doesn’t matter so much what we believe but what we actually do. Good point – thanks. I’ll check out the Simon Sinek link. 🙂

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