Challenges to empathy

I’ve been fascinated lately with the question of empathy.  As a therapist, it seems very important to my work: trying to deeply understand someone’s experience so that I can be of help is a pretty good working definition of what I aim to do.  I’ve come across two things that have got me thinking about the issue of empathy in a more focal and challenging way: a 2010 study showing that students’ empathy is 40% less than 10 years prior, and a very interesting Invisibilia podcast questioning the value of empathy. 

Before looking at these ideas, we should define what we mean by empathy.  Researchers break empathy down into 3 types: 1.) cognitive empathy, which is a rational understanding of what a person might be feeling or thinking, and how that leads them to do the things that they do.  2.) emotional empathy, which is when we feel the same feelings someone else feels in a given situation; i.e. we hear about someone losing a spouse and we feel sadness.  3.) compassionate empathy, which is when we feel what others are feeling and act to do something about it.  These types overlap quite a bit, of course.  When I talk about empathy, below, I’ll mostly be talking about compassionate empathy. 

Regarding the study I mentioned, it comes from the University of Michigan and looked at responses of over 14,000 college aged students.  It found that students in 2010 showed 40% less empathy than students 10 years prior.  (To my knowledge that study has not been repeated more recently, and I’d love to see the data now.)  These findings concerned a lot of people, and there are lots of interesting ideas about why these findings may be the case.  Several of these explanations center around different aspects of increased social separation. 

For example, some scholars note that children are spending increasing time alone, in front of screens, rather than playing outside and with other children.  In this sense, children are not receiving as much practice in simply being around others with different perspectives, and therefore are not learning to empathize with different points of view.  Another pointed to the increasing wealth inequality in American society, and note that this polarization makes it more difficult to interact with people from different walks of life than ourselves.  The political polarization that has occurred over the past 10 or so years seems to be another contributing factor.  Additionally, the United States has always been a highly individualistic culture, and the information explosion in the digital age tends to multiply our exposure to ideas that foster this individualism, at the expense of connection with others. 

That said, these data only look at college aged students, and so some of the explanations tend to focus on the experience of youth.  I’d be very interested to see the same type of study with adults as well.

The second piece of media comes from an episode of the Invisibilia podcast (a really great podcast, by the way) called “The End of Empathy.”  Here is a link if you want to check it out:  It told the story of a man with some difficult ideas and actions, and told it in two separate ways.  The first way led the hearer to have more empathy for the man, and the second way led one to have less empathy for him.  The podcast raised some important questions:  is it even right to have empathy for someone who does things that we might find morally abhorrent?  Should we even try to walk in their shoes and deeply understand where they are coming from?  Does that excuse or permit their actions?  Does having empathy for them mean we are disloyal to the people they may have hurt? 

These are tricky questions, and worth thinking about.  That said, on reflecting on these questions, I know where I stand.  As a therapist, I think empathy is a sine qua non.  If I don’t meet every client with empathy, regardless of what they think or do, then I can’t really do my job effectively.  And my general sense is that most of us, most of the time, are doing the best we can in the circumstances that surround us.  Empathy fosters connection, and that connection creates the setting whereby people can look at the difficult parts of their lives without judgment, and can heal.  Empathy from another allows us to make positive changes in a way that judgment or condemnation rarely can. 

And in a context larger, I think empathy is invaluable for several reasons.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, said:

 “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 

This quote points to a difficult truth: none of us are purely good or bad.  We all have some of each in us, and I think it benefits all of us to become familiar with both aspects of ourselves, so that we can act in a purposeful and self-aware way. 

Following from this idea, all of us routinely do things that, purposefully or not, hurt one another.  Some of us do things that cause a great deal of suffering, break laws, etc.  And whole groups or even societies do things that are hurtful or oppressive.  How do we, in our relationships and in our society, respond to those tendencies and behaviors?  We can set rules where by we punish offenders and force them to comply, and sometimes this is necessary.  But if we don’t seek to understand why they did what they did, we can’t change the conditions under which they took those actions.  Deeply understanding what leads others – and ourselves – to hurt each other can help reduce that hurt in the long run.

Finally, I don’t think that having empathy for people who do wrong excuses or allows that behavior, or limits our empathy for those hurt by these actions.  There is an important distinction between the person and their behavior; we can seek to empathize with the person while limiting the behavior.   And I don’t think there is any conflict between having empathy for someone who does wrong as well as for those they wronged. 

These are some of my musings on empathy. I see it as something beautiful, something that helps people to be their best selves and our societies to be as peaceful as they can be.  I don’t think we can get along without it.  Not a particularly controversial stand, I know, but in the context of empathy decreasing in our world, I think it’s worth repeating.