In a conversation at The Edge, Jamil Zaki traces the two narratives about empathy through culture. He says:
1.“one narrative is that empathy is automatic” — it's a compelling hypothesis, backed by lots of evidence
But if you believe that empathy always occurs automatically, you run into a freight train of evidence to the contrary.
2. which is that empathy “diminishes and expands with features of your situation”
As many of us know, there are lots of instances in which people could feel empathy, but don't. The prototype case here is intergroup settings.
“How can we square these two accounts?” We can do it by abandoning some of the underlying assumptions. Zaki says:
Lately, I've begun thinking about empathy not as something that happens to us, but rather as a choice that we make, even if we're not aware we're making it. We often make an implicit or explicit decision as to whether we want to engage with someone's emotions or not, based on the motives we might have for doing so.
Some examples of how this plays out include physical avoidance, holding back from regarding what is going on with someone else -- say for example not going to visit someone for a while in the first case, or using automated forms to reject applications in the second. The degree of indifference starts here and culminates in actively trying to harm someone.
by avoiding empathy in the first place. I use the terms empathic approach motives and empathic avoidance motives to describe drives that push people towards and away from other people's emotions. People carry those motives out in lots of different ways.
For instance, if I don't want to empathize with you, one strategy is I can just avoid you altogether. People often avoid situations that they think will inspire empathy in them. I can also simply not pay attention to your emotions, or decide through some appraisal process that your emotions are not important, or at least less important than my own.
Over the last couple of years, I've gathered evidence in support of a motivated view of empathy.
Another reason you might not want to experience empathy is if you're in the position where you have to harm somebody. Let's say that you're a linebacker, for instance, and you have to deliver a vicious tackle to a running back. It probably would behoove you to not feel everything that that person is feeling and think a lot about their emotions or the pain you're causing them. This happens in much darker contexts, of course.
“Empathy is expensive,” says Zaki. It's not just the economic cost, but the moral implications of where our responsibilities are. Context plays a role in how acceptable it is to show or demonstrate empathy. Some psychologists believe that:
if you want to do the right thing, you should focus on more objective principles to guide your decision-making.
That's a great argument. It's not one that I agree with. It follows from somewhat of an incomplete view of what empathy is. If you believe that empathy is automatic and either just happens to you or doesn't, then sure, the biases that characterize empathy are inescapable and will always govern empathic decision-making. If you instead view empathy as something that people can control, then people can choose to align their empathy more with their values.
Zaki says, “Viewing empathy as a choice helps us understand the basic nature of empathy, why and when people empathize and why and when they don't.” He hopes to teach people about empathy. To relate with others, we want to learn how to modulate our own empathy:
There are cases in which people can use other people's empathy to take advantage of them or manipulate them. Advertisers do this all the time, and politicians. People try to narrativize their ideas and turn them into stories about people's suffering so that you will feel more connected to them. Any ad for Save The Children starts with an example of a child who's in dire straights and the only way that this child will survive is if you help them. This is explicitly meant to tug on people's heartstrings in a very particular way.
I don't think that empathy is necessarily always morally positive or negative, it's somewhat neutral and it's really in the way that you use it.
Watch the video of this conversation below.
What happens when we ask children about emotion and empathy?
[image via Nature.com]