I Don’t Feel Your Pain
“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?
I would have said the same until I read Paul Bloom’s new 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.
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 Aleppo, we cannot begin to imagine what she feels. 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.”
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.
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. Compassion leads to better feelings and kinder behavior toward others, and even better, those with high quotients of compassion are strongly motivated to take action.
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. Instead, just as his heart overflowed with compassion and kindness directed toward those he met, ours can as well.