Friday, November 15, 2019

The Trouble with Empathy

If you are moderately tuned into cultural memes, you have heard, over and over again, ad nauseam, that we can cure our political divisions by developing our capacity for empathy. It’s as though the ability to feel the same feelings as other people will naturally make us more kind and caring.

Your humble blogger has long since warned against this simple-minded approach to healing human divisions. Empathy is oversold and overrated. Yale Professor Paul Bloom has written cogently about the problem in his book Against Empathy. I recommend it highly.

For his part Bloom, following the venerable Adam Smith, argued that if we see someone getting beaten up or berated and we empathize with him, we are likely to feel his vengeful feelings. We are likely to want to retaliate for the slight. And we might be inclined to do so against someone we encounter in our daily lives. To imagine that empathy produces virtuous actions is absurd. The point is well worth repeating.

We recall it upon reading Robert Wright’s essay on a new study by political science researchers. They have discovered, not only that empathy does not reduce animosity, but that, at times, it aggravates it.

Wright explains:

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The more empathy you have the more likely you are to want to shut down speakers you do not like. Hmmm. Evidently, if you believe that a speaker is a bigot or that he utters hurtful speech, you will want to shut him down, even if you do not belong to the targeted group. You will feel the feelings of those who will take offense and will show empathetic solidarity by shutting down the speaker.

Wright explains:

Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: According to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.

As noted above, Wright explains that this view of empathy has not yet made it into public consciousness:

As the authors note, their findings are in many ways consistent with conclusions reached by other scholars in recent years. But the view of empathy that’s emerging from this growing body of work hasn’t much trickled down to the public. And public understanding of it may be critical to shifting America’s political polarization into reverse somewhere between here and the abyss.

It’s not just about the feelings involved. If you identify as a group member on the basis of shared feelings, of shared victim feelings, you will be more likely to disparage someone from another group, for not sharing your feelings. If you live your life within a narrative of oppression you will define your experience in terms of the ongoing struggle against oppression. You might identify with the oppressed group. You might even identify with the oppressor group... and want to do penance for your and everyone else's sins.

You might gussy it up in terms of supposedly virtuous emotions, but it is important to understand that your behavior and your emotions are dictated by your identity as a member of a cult or faction. As long as we are inclined to define ourselves in terms of a faction and not in terms of our loyalty to the nation, this will persist. 


UbuMaccabee said...

What’s empathy? Isn’t that why men get married, so we can delegate that task to our wives? Empathy is that talk couples have in bed at night where she explains ‘feelings’ while he half-listens, trying to decide which WW2 documentary he should watch on YouTube.

n.n said...

Appeals to empathy (e.g. political congruence, sex chauvinism, diversity), including the Pro-Choice quasi-religion ("ethics"), are highly relativistic and exclusive.

Anonymous said...

Empathy (even in its more conventional perception) is useful in small dosages but destructive in larger ones. It is a statistical fact that there will always be plenty of people in pain in the world, attempting to to bear all that will destroy a person psychologically (which is why we tend to be selective, empathetic to kin and close associates)

Too much empathy can keep us from doing what must be done (how can a surgeon help if he is too concerned about causing pain?)

Anonymous said...

Skewed did they determine who has empathy? Advertise for those who think they have it, or some kind of test, where people can virtue-signal on it? Sounds like they ended up with a bunch of college girls. We know it's skewed because it contradicts itself. As soon as the people laughed, they showed that, no matter how they were screened, they obviously are LACKING in empathy.