It often seems like these processes—sharing someone's emotions, thinking about their emotions, and wanting to improve their emotional state—should always go together, but they split apart in all sorts of interesting ways. For instance, people with psychopathy are often able to understand what you feel, but feel no concern for your emotions, and thus can leverage their understanding to manipulate and even harm you.
I spent several years early in my career thinking about these empathic processes and how they interact with each other, but in the last couple of years, I've zoomed out. I've stopped thinking as much about the "pieces" that make up empathy and started thinking about why and when people empathize in the first place. This is where the puzzle comes in, because there are two different narratives that you might hear about how empathy works. They're both compelling and very well supported, and they're pretty much entirely contradictory with each other, at least at first blush.
The first narrative is that empathy is automatic. This goes all the way back to Adam Smith, who, to me, generated the first modern account of empathy in his beautiful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith described what he called the "fellow-feeling," through which people take on each other's states—very similar to what I would call experience sharing.
His most famous example of this is a crowd watching a tightrope walker. Smith said that the crowd would become nervous watching this person wobble over a precipice. Their palms would start to sweat, they'd balance and move their own bodies as though they were trying to survive the tightrope even though they were on relatively solid ground. Smith was adamant that this was something that people could not control, it just happened to them.
That view dominates current theory about empathy, and not without reason. It certainly jibes with our intuition that we can't control our feeling of empathy. If I were to ask you to imagine watching someone suffer a horrendous sports injury, you probably wouldn’t think, "Well, I'd figure out how much empathy I want to feel in this moment." You'd probably predict that a wave of discomfort and empathy would just wash over you. There is lots of evidence that is what happens. People take on each other's facial expressions within a fraction of a second of seeing someone else pose an expression, even if they're not aware that they're doing it. This type of imitation happens quite early in the development. Babies, in the first weeks of their lives, will cry when they hear another infant crying. This type of sharing is probably evolutionarily old as well. Mice, who don't have the same cognitive firepower that we do, appear to take on each other's states.
My lab has been interested in another signature of empathy, which is what we call neural resonance. This is something you can capture using techniques like fMRI: When I see you experience some state—make a movement, feel pain, or exhibit some emotion—my brain generates a pattern of activity consistent with what you're experiencing, not with what I'm experiencing. It's as though my brain rehearses your experience for me so that I can understand it implicitly. We, and lots of other folks, have demonstrated that this happens, even absent any instruction to empathize and even when you distract people. This suggests that even this neural signature empathy might be occurring outside of our awareness or control.
That's one narrative, that empathy is automatic, and again, it’s compelling—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. 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. People who are divided by a war, or a political issue, or even a sports rivalry, often experience a collapse of their empathy. In many cases, these folks feel apathy for others on the other side of a group boundary. They fail to share, or think about, or feel concern for those other people's emotions.
In other cases, it gets even worse: people feel overt antipathy towards others, for instance, taking pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone on the other side of a group boundary. What's interesting to me is that this occurs not only for group boundaries that are meaningful, like ethnicity or religion, but totally arbitrary groups. If I were to divide us into a red and blue team, without that taking on any more significance, you would be more likely to experience empathy for fellow red team members than for me (apparently I'm on team blue today).
Another interesting feature of this group-boundedness of empathy is that it doesn't just affect the amount of empathy we feel, it also affects whether we feel empathy automatically or not. Scientists have used EEG, for instance, to demonstrate that folks exhibit less neural resonance for the pain of outgroup as compared to ingroup members, and that difference appears within 200 milliseconds. It's not that you experience automatic empathy and tamp it down if you're in an intergroup setting; it seems like in those contexts empathy doesn't occur at all.
You've got these two narratives. On the one hand, empathy appears automatic. On the other hand, it diminishes and expands with features of your situation. How can we square these two accounts? That's what I've been asking myself a lot these days, and I feel as though I've arrived, at least preliminarily, at an answer: we can resolve the tension between those narratives by letting go of some assumptions about how empathy works. In particular, the idea that empathy is out of our control.
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.
Let me try to unpack this. Let's say that you're watching TV and you learn that the next thing coming on the station you're watching is a telethon meant to raise awareness of leukemia, and this will include kids who are suffering from leukemia telling their story. I bet you would predict, rightly, that watching this telethon would cause lots of empathy to bubble up within you. Do you stick to the channel and watch it, or do you turn away?
There are lots of motives you might have for watching. For one, you might be curious about the plight of folks living with leukemia. You might even feel that it's your moral responsibility to find out more about this group. You might also imagine that you'll be inspired to donate money to this cause, and that would make you feel good, as though you're living in accordance with your virtues and principles.
There might also be reasons that you don't want to watch this telethon. For one, it might hurt. It would probably be heart wrenching to hear these stories. It might also make you experience guilt, especially if after watching this you choose not to donate. If you're strapped for cash, you might feel as though empathy will place you in a double bind, where you have to choose between your wallet on the one hand and your conscience on the other.
Those might be situations you want to avoid, 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. For instance, when it comes to avoiding empathy, we can go to the example I just mentioned. You might be worried that empathy will cause you to feel guilty or morally obliged to part with some of your money. It might be a costly emotion.
It turns out that Dan Batson, about twenty years ago, ran a beautiful study in which he demonstrated this in a simple experiment. He told some people that they'd have a chance to donate to a homeless person, and he told other people that they'd have no such opportunity. He then asked people which of two appeals they wanted to hear: one objective story about this person's life, and another that was emotionally evocative. It turns out that people who thought they'd have a chance to donate tended to choose the emotionally neutral version of the story, consistent with the idea that they want to avoid experiencing 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.
In war, soldiers are explicitly encouraged to dehumanize their enemy, to make it less guilt inducing when they have to harm those people. This is what my colleague Al Bandura would call a moral disengagement. Al and his colleagues a few years ago demonstrated this in a very interesting and, to me, troubling way. They found that prison guards, especially executioners, tended to downplay the suffering of death row inmates consistent with their motive to do so and avoid guilt at their own actions. You see this all the time in modern warfare. Drone strikes, for instance, are a great way to avoid empathizing with the targets of an attack.
Like I said, people are not just motivated to avoid empathy. People approach empathy as well. One example of this is loneliness. People who are lonely feel a deep desire to connect with others, and in many cases they do so by ramping up their empathy and focusing more on other people's minds and experiences.
Jon Maner and Adam Waytz and others have demonstrated that if you induce someone to be lonely, they'll pay more attention to other people's minds, connect more with their emotions. They'll even pay attention to minds that are not there. For instance, anthropomorphizing objects like robots. We see this to an extreme degree in the movie Cast Away, where Tom Hanks is so lonely that he anthropomorphizes and empathizes with a volleyball, Wilson, and thinks a lot about a mind that he imagines to be there but is actually not.
Another reason you might want to empathize is when it's socially desirable to do so. If you learn that people around you value empathy, you might be encouraged to experience empathy yourself. One of my favorite studies on this works over the concept of gender roles in empathy. Thomas and Maio, seven or eight years ago, ran a study in which they started out by demonstrating that on a standard empathy test heterosexual men fared a little bit worse than women. This of course plays into the stereotype that women are more empathic than men, but the reason I like this study so much is because Thomas and Maio demonstrated that this is not a constitutional difference in the abilities of men, but probably instead represents a difference in their motivation. In a second study, these scientists convinced men that women find sensitive guys attractive, and it turns out that this motivation eliminated the gender gap in empathy performance. Straight man who believed that being empathic would make them attractive became more empathic, consistent with this motivated account under which people choose to approach or avoid empathy depending on their goals in a given situation.
What is empathy, and where does it come from in our intellectual landscape? The term, empathy, [was] generated by German aesthetic philosophers. The term in German is Einfühlung, which is when you "feel yourself into" an art object. The term originates from Theodor Lipps, following Robert Vischer, another aesthetic philosopher. They both believed that the way we make contact with art is not by assessing its qualities in an objective sense, but by feeling into it, by projecting ourselves emotionally into a work. That was translated into English 106 years ago by Titchener, into the word empathy.
It's funny, if you use Google "engram," to examine the popularity of the term empathy, it looks like it's got a hydraulic relationship with another word: sympathy. Sympathy used to be much more popular. It has declined in popularity, and empathy has risen in popularity at the same time. It's a meaningful distinction between these two things. To my mind, sympathy is a more detached form of pity that you might have for someone suffering, whereas empathy requires a lot more emotional investment.
Empathy is expensive, psychologically. It costs a lot to empathize with someone, and there are many cases in which you might not want to do so. Scarcity is one thing that drives empathy down, stress is another. This is why they say that virtues are easier to abide on a full stomach. Empathy is, as well. If you are worried about survival and the well-being of yourself and your closest kin—your family—it's much harder to extend the "diameter" of your empathy to larger social groups. Steve Pinker talks about this in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Peter Singer also talks about this in The Expanding Circle, the idea that maybe we can again expand the diameter of our concern for others, and maybe we have over the last decades. Even within one person's life, within a moment in time, there are many factors that might drive you to feel empathy or not.
The costs of empathy include when it's painful, but also the responsibility that it places on people. If you empathize with someone, it's hard to compete with them. If you empathize with nonhuman animals, it's difficult to consume them. There is a moral responsibility that comes with an experience of empathy, especially if you want to continue being an emotionally authentic person.
It does seem as though the social norms surrounding empathy have shifted. That's important, because if you view empathy not as a fixed quality of who we are—something that just happens automatically—but instead view it as something that we choose, then cultural landscapes should shape our individual emotional landscapes. We live in a more empathy-positive time than the past. People value warmth towards others and care for others as part of what it means to be a good person, now more than ever. That can make big changes in the way that people experience empathy.
Erik Nook and I along with our colleagues, ran a study recently where we saw whether conformity can generate empathy in people. If you believe that others around you value empathy, are you more likely to value it yourself? We found that people were. If we convinced folks that their peers experience lots of empathy, then our participants themselves reported more empathy and acted more kindly towards strangers, even if those strangers belonged to stigmatized outgroups. We think that a changing tide in our culture can change the way that people choose to engage with empathy.
Obama is probably the most empathy-focused President—or at least the President who uses the term the most—I’ve seen in my lifetime. He often talks about there being an empathy deficit, and says that one of the ways that we need to improve our society and the fabric of our society, is by increasing our empathy. I bet there are a lot of people who would disagree with that as a policy for running a state. You saw this when Obama appointed Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice and said this is a woman who has great empathy for the plight of many people. Well, that statement was vilified. He was pilloried for saying that, and people felt as though empathy is one of the worst features that you could select for when thinking about policy, when thinking about law, when thinking about government, because empathy is an emotion subject to all sorts of irrational biases. Justice should be blind, and presumably emotionally neutral.
You see this a lot in a movement that's taken hold recently. Paul Bloom and a set of other psychologists have made what I think is a great and very interesting case that empathy is overrated, especially as a moral compass. Their view is that empathy generates kind and moral behaviors, but in fundamentally skewed ways, for instance, only towards members of your own group and not in ways that maximize well-being across the largest number of people. On this account, empathy is an inflexible emotional engine for driving moral behavior and 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.
Empathy has a long tradition in lots of different fields. In philosophy, you've got Edith Stein, for instance, a nun who wrote beautifully about empathy. Also, Martin Buber—I and Thou is a beautiful book about how people connect with each other and share each other's experience.
Within psychology, the study of empathy has an equally long history, and one that's got a lot of players in it. For my money, the most powerful research on empathy in the 20th century comes from Dan Batson, who's for decades demonstrated the power of emotional connection to drive people to helping each other—thinking about empathy as an engine for promoting cooperation and altruism.
The APA recently discovered that a set of psychologists had aided and abetted in a program of enhanced interrogation, hugely controversial and enormously problematic. It's so horrific to think about psychology being used in this way, but you can imagine how that works.
I mentioned earlier that individuals with psychopathy can understand what people feel, but they use that understanding not to improve other people's states, but sometimes to worsen their states. In a perverse way, the torturer needs to engage with at least some forms of empathy in order to do their job effectively. They need to know how to push someone's buttons, how to generate as much distress as they can. This is the dark side of empathy.
There is a dark side of empathy, especially when you experience one piece of empathy without the others. Understanding someone, having emotional intelligence, might just make you a better manipulator, if you're so inclined.
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. It is more powerful than that, because it can also help us address what Mina Cikara and I have called empathic failures, cases in which people don't empathize, and that generates some problems down the line.
I mentioned this already with respect to intergroup conflicts, but empathic failures happen in lots of other settings. For instance, when adolescents bully each other, or when physicians fail to understand the suffering of their patients, those are empathic failures. There are lots of interventionists doing hard and important work to try to mitigate the effects of empathic failures. This type of intervention tends to take on one of two flavors: either teaching people empathic skills, like how to recognize other people's emotions, or giving them opportunities to empathize, for instance, taking groups of people who are in conflict and having them spend time together.
This is a great approach, but viewing empathy as a motivated phenomenon encourages us to take another approach as well, not just teaching people how to empathize, but getting them to want to empathize in the first place. Not just training skills, but also building motives.
That is what my lab has been up to for the last couple of years; we've been generating and testing social psychological “nudges” that might encourage people to want to empathize. We're excited to bring this into a bunch of spheres, including testing whether we can reduce bullying in adolescents and help physicians be more effective in treating their patients.
There are huge disparities in how people feel about empathy and what they think it is, depending on where they fall on political and social landscapes. Both more conservative and more liberal people can be extremely empathic or very un-empathic. The question is, empathy for whom? Folks on the right end of the political spectrum tend to be more empathic with members of their group; they're oriented towards tradition, and towards establishing connections with people who are part of those traditions.
At least the cultural mores progressives tend to be more indiscriminate and to value, in some egalitarian way, the emotions of everybody. There are shifting cultural norms surrounding who should be empathic and who should not be empathic. Men and women, for instance, are stereotyped into roles that drive them towards being more and less empathic, respectively. That is almost certainly a holdover from previous generations.
To my mind, these constructions of empathy, as a Republican or a Democratic thing or a male or a female thing, are historical more than they are embedded in the structure of who we are. One of the things that's curious to me is how empathy changes over time. A very famous and quite controversial study that came out a few years ago by Sara Konrath and her colleagues at Michigan, found that college students report being much less empathic now than they did thirty years ago. There's a drop-off in empathy that's pretty steady across that thirty-year period, but especially pronounced in the last ten years. People have jumped on the idea that this has to do with electronic forms of communication, people losing out on face-to-face contact in favor of contact that's mediated by some an electronic device.
That's an interesting assertion. To my mind, it's an easy conclusion to draw. I would be just as likely to believe that people are not necessarily more or less empathic, but rather, they feel that empathy is something different, and they might not be as drawn to empathy as a construct. They might not feel that it's as desirable as it was thirty years ago. This, of course, is interesting because thirty years ago is the middle of the '80s, which people probably don't consider the most empathic decade on record. Nonetheless, when we see changes in peoples' empathic experience across cultural lines, across time, across gender, it might reflect not only who people are, but who they want to be.
My hope for our ongoing work and this line of thinking is that it can teach people about empathy, but also teach people how to work with their own empathy. This is one of those cases where education and intervention overlap. If you believe that you can harness empathy and make choices about when to experience it versus when not to, it adds a layer of responsibility to how you engage with other people. If you feel like you're powerless to control your empathy, you might be satisfied with whatever biases and limits you have on it. You might be okay with not caring about someone just because they're different from you. I want people to not feel safe empathizing in the way that they always have. I want them to understand that they're doing something deliberate when they connect with someone, and I want them to own that responsibility.
It's easy to overdose on empathy, and empathy can be dangerous thing for an individual's well-being. It can cause you to burn out. There's something known as compassion fatigue, for hospice nurses and physicians working in hospices. These are people who overload themselves on other people's suffering to the point that they can't take care of themselves anymore.
The idea that you can control empathy is not just meant so that everyone can turn their empathy up to eleven all the time. It's just as important to know when to turn down one's empathy, especially if you need to engage in self-care. If you need to take care of yourself, sometimes it's important to not empathize.
My wife is a clinical psychologist, and she says that the last thing that any of her patients need if they're depressed, is for her to be depressed as well. She needs to modulate her empathy on line in order to be able to guide those people towards something that will help them, not just showing them that she feels the same thing as them, but being a source of comfort for them. That requires knowing not just how to turn up empathy, but also how to turn it down sometimes.
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.