Post No.: 0271
Affective empathy (as in mirroring the emotions of another person) drives compassion because we’ll adopt another person’s perspective and interests. For example, if we see someone suffering, we’ll vicariously mirror that suffering too, so we’ll in turn feel compelled to care and help alleviate that person’s suffering, so that we can stop mirroring the feelings of that suffering too. So far, so good. Post No.: 0245 explored the importance of compassion.
But we don’t apply empathy evenly – we biasedly apply it more for kin, which may be morally acceptable, but we also apply it more for attractive or cute people/animals, people who merely share the same ethnic or geographic ingroup as us, or otherwise merely look like us! We’ll feel more empathy for a fluffy panda than a scaly snake. And we’ll tend to feel more empathy for a single identifiable victim than for thousands of anonymous victims we cannot see and don’t know the names of, which could skew our priorities in an irrational manner because we may end up putting more attention and resources into trying to save one person rather than thousands.
Not feeling part of a certain group will degrade our empathy for members of that group, and this could’ve been myopically self-inflicted (i.e. they ostracised people from their group but now expect those people to care about them) but in most cases it’s not by anyone’s choice (e.g. no one chooses their gender or skin colour).
There’s also the case that too much affective empathy around people who are suffering (i.e. feeling their suffering), and feeling a sense of hopelessness for not being able to help everyone, might also contribute to depression. One possible reason why women are more prone to depression is because they feel more empathy than men, on average. This is why paramedics and doctors, for instance, must be able to turn the mirroring of emotions down otherwise they’ll risk feeling emotionally overwhelmed at the wrong times, which will negatively affect their performance in their roles. Psychopaths therefore make effective surgeons if their interests are aligned with their patient’s.
If you start to feel overwhelmed by sad emotions, you may actually want to walk on to escape those feelings rather than compassionately help a person in need that you see on the street or wherever. It’s not about having no or too little empathy though (such a person might just walk on by anyway but in a cold-blooded manner!) – in these contexts, it’s more about having cognitive empathy (recognising another person’s feelings by taking their perspective) and ultimately having compassion (actually acting to help others). In a kind world, the goal is to ultimately help others more than necessarily feel what they feel. The rational goal is also to help as many people as possible hence a dispassionate calculation, rather than acting on emotions and instincts, is frequently required to make the most rationally compassionate and moral calls (e.g. to care about the hundreds of kidnapped children more than just one cute kidnapped kid, or to also care about bees and wasps and not just orangutans and polar bears).
Having cognitive empathy is arguably more advantageous compared to affective empathy in situations like hospital or rescue contexts. If we see a child in the water, we won’t intervene if she/he’s happily treading water but will if she/he’s panicking – yet it doesn’t mean we’ll have to panic too in order to save her/him! Having cognitive empathy is arguably enough here. We can love and care about someone or something without necessarily affectively understanding what they’re truly feeling too, such as a pet cat – meow. (I’m currently feeling what it feels like to be a unicorn munching on candyfloss made from rainbows formed from the tears of joy of angels and the light from a quasar-powered firefly… If you can affectively feel that too!)
Although it’s nice to have both affective and cognitive empathy, there are situations where you’d rather have a competent, calm and honest person than a person who’s merely mirroring your pains and fears, and who might also lie to make you feel better (and therefore themselves feel better) but not actually help solve the problem you face. Sometimes you want people to be strong for you rather than crumbling when you’re suffering from some hospitalising accident or other terrible predicament. And when people mirror your pain and it overwhelms them, it can often seem like they’re trying to seize the attention and make it seem like they’re the ones who are injured or in a pickle(!) A person might be in pain, but they might not really be that bothered about it – it shows on their face, but they’re not ultimately that stressed about it deep inside because they know they’ll get better soon. Such a situation doesn’t require another person panicking, nagging or complaining because this will just make the situation worse rather than any better for them!
We want people to multiply our joy but divide our grief. Since empathy and compassion aren’t the same things, a low empathy alone is not a sign of evil or unkindness. For instance, people with autism aren’t evil just because they might not be able to understand what others are feeling, in this case in a more cognitive rather than affective sense. Psychopaths for that matter too, in an affective sense. So ‘evilness’ requires something else. There’s more to psychopaths that make them potentially dangerous, even though a lack of empathy is a common step. Caring and empathy are often conflated, but they’re not exactly the same things – caring is closer to compassion, which concerns our actual deeds rather than our mere thoughts or feelings.
Anger can sometimes motivate change to correct an injustice more than mere empathy – besides, you often want to see your opponents lose rather than alleviate or avoid their sadness for losing(!) And it’s not to say that we must be soft touches on people just because we feel their suffering – in the same way that we don’t have to be soft touches on ourselves just because we’re directly suffering in the gym. Some short-term suffering, like exercise, is good for the long-term. We can have thick skin even if we feel a bit of pain in these situations.
I also don’t believe that anything should be too harrowing or gruesome to confront or learn about for the affective or cognitive empathy it generates when we think about the victims or situation – as if ignorance is bliss – because then we won’t learn from them if we bury our heads in the sand. The attitude of ‘I don’t want to think about it’ won’t generate justice or change.
Cognitive empathy can lead to errors too though. For example, when you’re on stage and about to perform, you might not feel as nervous as your family in the crowd but they’re mentally putting themselves in your shoes and so they’re inadvertently making you feel more nervous hence they’re not actually helping! Or you’re saddened for seeing someone sleep in the fields in what seems like rough conditions when this particular person on this particular day actually voluntarily chose or isn’t fussed about camping outside. You may prefer to start your weekends as soon as possible but others may actually prefer to work on and get all the loose ends tied up before leaving. A guest might assume that a generous host feels burdened when she/he finds hosting a pleasure, and a host might assume that a guest would enjoy being spoiled when she/he finds the excessive hospitality awkward. We can also assume people are harbouring complaints about their current position in life when they’re not. It’s faux or miscalibrated cognitive empathy when you’re feeling what you expect you’d feel if you were in another person’s shoes rather than feeling what they’re feeling in their shoes. It’s like it’s about giving others what they want in their situation, rather than what you would want if you were in their situation (e.g. don’t give a vegetarian a meat dish just because you’d want some meat if you were hungry!)
Compassion can also, in rare cases, be misdirected too. We want to help people who suffer from an injustice, but if we cannot do that then we might direct our actions towards harming the (alleged) perpetrators instead, and this might be expressed through violence rather than following a legal due process.
This all isn’t against empathy wholesale – please don’t take any of this post out of context! It’s just to point out some situations where it can be unnecessary or even a hindrance. And compassion is overall beneficial in our lives and in society too. Some argue that the answer is not less empathy or compassion but more and extended to everyone without an ingroup bias. However, sometimes a concentration of resources is better than spreading things out too thin. For instance, you cannot save a million people by spreading €25 around to try to save them all (where the response might become a dejected ‘why bother trying at all?’) but you might be able to save one or two people with that amount. It’s like making triage decisions, difficult though they might be. (An established charity would be able to aggregate your donation with others to spend it more efficiently so that as many people/animals/things as possible can be saved though.)
In conclusion, it’s not to say that empathy or emotions are bad. Having both affective and cognitive empathy will allow us to better assess whether someone is really in need of any help – affective empathy alone might assume they want help when they don’t (not everyone who’s grimacing is asking for help) or assume they don’t when they do (when they’re hiding their emotions well but are suffering from something in private); and cognitive empathy alone might assume they want help when they don’t too (not everyone in a tough situation is personally suffering) or assume they don’t when they do too (you might mentally imagine yourself in someone else’s situation, underestimate it and think you’d be fine but that person who is in that situation right now might not be). And being told to not show any empathy or emotions like fear is dangerous in some contexts because you’re essentially being told to behave more like a psychopath.
As a generality, when you want to help, such as if you see someone in a burning building, the best thing might be being able to initially feel how they’re feeling for a moment to mirror their emotions and to care to alleviate them if they’re negative, but then try to turn this affective empathy down because the message of ‘help’ has been received clearly now and doesn’t need repeating, and so that you can perform that help without being in a state of flappy panic, like possibly the person in the building. We’ve got to be able to think straight, such as not feeling overwhelmed with hopelessness nor being rash and putting more lives in danger. Cognitive empathy should stay attuned and sensitively adaptive throughout though to continually assess the situation.
Acts of compassion – in a practical sense to make a practical difference – require a heightened performance more than heightened feelings. We’ve ultimately got to take action, we want reasoned compassion and we want a good result (e.g. the most lives saved) – not merely good intentions. It’s difficult to tune down one’s emotions at will though, especially during a fight-or-flight situation, hence why it requires drills and practice – and that’s what the police, armed forces and rescue service people do.
Meow. Please tell us what you think about the biases, irrationalities, hindrances and other drawbacks that can arise with empathy via the Twitter comment button below.