Why Empathy Is Bad

Photo: Sal Pellingra/EyeEm/Getty Images

In 1995, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a revealing study, which centered on a story about a dying child. A team led by the University of Kansas psychologist C. Daniel Batson told a group of study participants about a charity called the Quality Life Foundation, which worked to improve the quality of life of terminally ill kids, and explained that they, the subjects, were going to hear an interview with an applicant.

The subjects were prepared for the interview in one of two ways. Half were told, “While you are listening to this interview, try to take an objective perspective toward what is described. Try not to get caught up in how the child who is interviewed feels; just remain objective and detached.” That was the so-called low-empathy condition. In the high-empathy condition, subjects were told, “Try to imagine how the child who is interviewed feels about what has happened and how it has affected this child’s life. Try to feel the full impact of what this child has been through and how he or she feels as a result.”

Then, everyone heard the same interview, which was from a (not real) “very brave, bright 10-year-old” named Sheri Summers. Her painful illness was explained in detail, and after they heard about it the subjects were asked whether they would move Sheri up the wait list, past the other terminally ill kids who were viewed as higher priority, who would have to wait longer to enjoy the Quality Life Foundation’s offerings as a result. “The effect was strong,” writes the Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom, describing the experiment in his new book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. “Three-quarters of the subjects in the high-empathy condition wanted to move her up, as compared to one-third in the low-empathy condition. Empathy’s effects, then, weren’t in the direction of increasing an interest in justice. Rather, they increased special concern for the target of the empathy, despite the cost to others.”

It would be hard to find a single study that better explains the thesis of Bloom’s book. We are told that there is no such thing as too much empathy, that politicians and policy makers and religious leaders and community activists and everyone else should feel more empathetic. Bloom doesn’t buy it — empathy has certain pernicious effects, he argues, and often leads to results like the one demonstrated by Baton’s experiment: good-hearted people actively making the world worse. Empathy is not an accurate moral signpost, let alone a good basis for policy-making.

“Empathy is bad” sounds more like trolling than a substantive argument, more like something a Twitter egg hoping to start a dumb fight would tweet at you. If I’m honest with myself, despite having a great deal of respect for Bloom as a writer and thinker, I went into Against Empathy eagerly anticipating the holes I’d be able to poke in it.

The holes didn’t materialize. Instead, over the course of a brisk 250 pages, Bloom laid out what really does feel like a tough-to-crack case against an idea that most of us have long known is key to repairing the world.

As Bloom points out early in the book, there are many subtly different definitions of empathy, so he goes with this one: “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” [emphasis his]. His critique of empathy centers most notably on two of its features: empathy has a “spotlight effect” and entails a certain “innumeracy.” The two ideas aren’t wholly distinct. The spotlight effect simply refers to the fact that the act of feeling someone else’s pain causes us to zoom in on that pain and want to do something about it, often at the expense of other, more important causes. When, to take a real-life example Bloom invokes, the Make-A-Wish Foundation spent thousands of dollars to let a terminally ill child be Batman for a day in San Francisco, that was the spotlight effect: The focus on a single child’s suffering (and joy) led good people to spend a sum that could, put to more efficient use, save many lives. (This argument only holds, of course, under the assumption that had those donations not gone to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they could have gone to some other worthy cause. Throughout Against Empathy, Bloom is fastidious about acknowledging these sorts of caveats and counter-arguments. None of his shots are cheap.)

As for innumeracy, Bloom points out that it’s really hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Seriously: Try it. You won’t be able to do it. Empathy, then, often causes us to focus so intently on individuals — often in a way that paralyzes us with grief or anger — that we miss the bigger picture. One dead Syrian child washed up on a beach can launch a flood of temporarily, limited activism, but it’s simply harder to grasp and act upon the full scope of the catastrophe in Syria.

Against Empathy is a great, provocative book, but I wanted to hear more about Bloom’s proposed “rational compassion” alternative. “There is a broader agenda” to his book, Bloom writes early on. “I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.” He is arguing for something like utilitarian-style reasoning: We should be concerned with minimizing suffering or death, or maximizing well-being, or something like that. He rightly eschews the complicated task of actually figuring out which variables go where in these equations, and which values they should be assigned in a given instance. The point is acknowledging that some higher equations should guide our moral judgment — not empathy. (Yes, there is a huge amount of Peter Singer-style thinking in this book.)

Bloom defines compassion as “simply caring for people, wanting them to thrive.” It’s a general feeling of goodwill toward our fellow humans in general, not just toward our own tribe. (Another pitfall of empathy is it usually causes us to feel the most strongly toward people who are like us, which can lead to war and other terrible acts.) He admits that this emotion, too, has problems, but argues they are far fewer in number than empathy’s. Compassion can fuel those morality and policy-making equations — we aren’t robots, so something is going to have to guide our value judgments about what matters the most. Bloom sees compassion as a good candidate, and argues his case convincingly. The rationality of cost-benefit analysis as a general system plus the humanity of compassion equals “rational compassion.”

That said, Against Empathy stops short of fully laying out a plan to spread the rational-compassion gospel, which is a shame. After all, all of the world’s dictators and hucksters and charlatans and powerful people in general are aware of the power of empathy. Empathic appeals are made not only to raise money for charity and to broker peace and win elections, but also to wage war and to torture (as Bloom points out, torture fans often attempt to hijack people’s reasoning on this subject by spotlighting the suffering of terrorism victims and their families).

Such appeals, then, are a powerful, primal tool — one that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. It feels like a daunting battle to fight back against it. What chance do the rational-compassion nerds have? Against Empathy leaves that question mostly unanswered, but when it comes to its primary goal — laying out a strong case against empathy — it absolutely succeeds. It’s the sort of book that will legitimately change how you think about the world and your own sense of morality.

Why Empathy Is Bad