The meaning of empathy

5 August 2016
12 min read

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of podcast episodes of Hidden Brain and Invisibilia. The concept of empathy has come up multiple times in the context of the social science research that is shared and it’s stuck with me. As a psychology major in college, empathy was something that we studied and talked about abstractly but it wasn’t until grad school when *EMPATHY* became the thing that our entire design practice was centered around (and I say that with some amount of sarcasm because I’ve found out how some designers work in a cave). Still, I’ve tried to define what empathy means for me in both my design practice and as a human being.


Helping a few others or helping ourselves?

"If empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes, think of putting yourself in two people's shoes. It does not work. It falls apart.” 

Shankar Vedantam, in his book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, talks about how when humans respond to tragedy, they respond better to single victims rather than large groups of people. It’s much easier to transpose your own emotions onto a single person than a faceless mass of people. He has hypothesized that unconsciously as humans, we think that the instinct to help an individual will eventually help ourselves in the long-term as well. In some ways this becomes a question of evolution and what evolution has discovered is functional in getting humans to survive. I equate this to “defeating” implicit bias when someone in a stereotyped group (the judge) gets to know another individual (the judger) and the judger in fact realizes that the stereotype doesn’t apply to the judgee because they have gotten to know them so well. A great example of this can be seen in This American Life’s episode about integration of schools.

Shankar goes on to talk about the “telescope effect” in relation to compassion. Here is a short excerpt from his book:

I have often wondered why the hidden brain displays a telescope effect when it comes to compassion. Evolutionary psychology tends to be an armchair sport, so please take my explanation for the paradox as one of several possible answers. The telescope effect may have arisen because evolution has built a powerful bias into us to preferentially love our kith and kin. It is absurd that we spend two hundred dollars on a birthday party for our son or our daughter when we could send the same money to a charity and save the life of a child halfway around the world. How can one child's birthday party mean more to us than another child's life? When we put it in those terms, we sound like terrible human beings. The paradox, as with the rescue of Hokget, is that our impulse springs from love, not callousness. Evolution has built a fierce loyalty toward our children into the deepest strands of our psyche. Without the unthinking telescope effect in the unconscious mind, parents would not devote the immense time and effort it takes to raise children; generations of our ancestors would not have braved danger and cold, predators and hunger, to protect their young. The fact that you and I exist testifies to the utility of having a telescope in the brain that caused our ancestors to care intensely about the good of the few rather than the good of the many.

Shankar also goes on to say:

One of my central conclusions after writing my book is that we cannot rely on our hearts to reach out and help people suffering from "everyday disasters," because our hearts are predisposed to reaching out and wanting to help the earthquake survivor in Haiti, the person who is crying out for help most urgently. We have to rely on our minds in order to act as truly moral agents -- to channel and direct the energy that our feelings generate in order to help the largest number of people...The problem I have is when the decision is carried out by unconscious algorithms in the hidden brain that leave us feeling good about what we have done and cause us to remain unthinking about what we have not done.

Reading all of this makes me think that if my own brain is unreliable and anything that it might think is unreliable, should I be under the assumption that I’m operating in a Matrix? I know it’s a bit extreme but it makes you consider with which moral and values you live your life and find meaning. Empathetic acts are a result of compassion which we slowly believe are changing the world. At the same time we are also living our own individual lives and require empathy from others. Shankar’s thoughts on this are:

A simpler place to start might be that we all have some parts of ourselves that want to see a better world, a kinder, more empathetic world. Perhaps we are not willing to forego all our material possessions to help others, but we are certainly willing to forego some things. How can we best utilize what compassion we have to offer to help the largest number of people?


Empathy and morality

Another one of Shankar’s arguments is that our internal guide about moral behavior is often flawed. We regularly believe we are acting in moral and high-minded ways when the outcomes and data show we are not. For example, the fact that we might contribute to an individual’s college education over sending money to victim’s in Haiti. And it is all tied together; empathy and moral rules are tightly bound to one another. Research finds that people who value being moral also tend to feel more empathy.

According to C. Daryl Cameron, Indeed, empathy may be the motivating “spark of fellow-feeling” that connects a cognitive appreciation of moral rules to actual moral behavior. One of the messages from Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil is that empathy suppression in everyday contexts can create a moral landscape not unlike that of the psychopath. For those of us who create situational empathy gaps by actively pushing empathy to the side, we may erode the bedrock of our own morality.

Paul Bloom claims that “there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us.” In fact, the research says otherwise. In Cameron’s work, it was found that people who regulate empathy—by comparison to those who regulate distress or who do not regulate any emotion—erode their moral principles and values. Callousness has a cost: suppressing empathy forces people into a state of cognitive dissonance in which they begin to either value morality less or relax their standards for moral behavior. Importantly, these facets of the moral self-concept each predict real-world moral behavior.


Receiving empathy

So on the other side of things, why do we need empathy? As human beings, why do we need to feel empathy from others? When do we need to feel it? An article by Psychology Today  addresses what they call core vulnerabilities. Core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, against which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. The most common core vulnerabilities are fear and shame.

For example, people whose core vulnerability is fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation will accept shame, even  humiliation if they have to, in order to feel safe, secure, or connected or, at least, to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk harm, abandonment, and resources to feel successful or, at least, to avoid feeling like a failure.

In general,  fearful and shame-based people attract each other. Those for whom the most dreaded emotional experience is fear are likely to cope by forming emotional alliances with others – there is strength in numbers. They are apt to seek partners they perceive to be protective, powerful, and generous. Those whose most dreaded emotional experience is shame are likely to cope with their vulnerability by projecting power, protectiveness,  generosity, or other visages of success and will look for partners who are especially appreciative of those qualities.

While these qualities often bring partners together, they also tear them apart during crises, when mutual compassion is needed. A fearful partner can hardly identify with the deeper experience of a shame-based lover, because failure, though unpleasant, is not nearly as bad for her, as long as she feels connected to others who care about her. And shame-based partners can scarcely identify with the deeper experience of their lovers’ fear, because  anxiety is not that bad for him, as long as he can feel successful. These limitations of empathy become a trap in intimate relationships when they inhibit  understanding and provoke negative judgments.

Empathy is, in general, confined to one’s experience of core vulnerability.

The main point of the article is thus: empathy is confined to one’s experience of core vulnerability. In a recent class taken at GE Crotonville, we explore what our personal emotional triggers were. In a lot of ways, our emotional triggers are our core vulnerabilities, tied together with our values being attacked. On the other hand, shared values are what create empathy in friendships and relationships.


Extreme / excessive empathy

With one of my new years resolutions being to be more selfish, it makes me rethink what it means when I give and offer compassion and empathy to others. Shankar talks about “best utilizing the compassion we have to offer.” In some ways I think I’m slowly learning to regulate the amount of compassion for others. I definitely think I am more empathetic towards individuals rather than groups (so my compassion isn’t maximized) but the amount of compassion is what needs to be regulated. Learning to do things for myself rather than others and making sure the empathetic acts I do offer are not causing harm to me (analogous to getting back into touch with my survival instinct).  A friend of mine wrote an article on empathy and mentioned how "empathy was not always a feel-good moment." Being an emotional human being (no it’s not because I’m a girl) and a designer who strives to succeed at her job (aka having a lot of empathy), sometimes I feel like I have extreme empathy. The feeling of dealing with lots of emotions (which I’d like to think most people can’t tell cause I act logically) is also based in how they are communicated. The five love languages is a great read in understanding how we regulate and communicate emotions such as love.

An example extreme empathy that stood out to me was in an episode of Invisibilia titled Mirror Touch. In this episode, a woman with mirror-touch synesthesia. If she saw someone be slapped, she would feel the slap herself. While this is an extreme case, it makes me think about why I chose to make “being selfish” as a new years resolution. The adverse effects of extreme empathy also mean that at some point in time you forget or are too overwhelmed to communicate. You’re so caught up in your empathy for someone else, that you don’t know how to act. #irony because the emotions themselves originate from someone else. A Harvard Business Review article  about empathy in organizations addresses just that. They talk about how “failing to recognize the limits of empathy can impair performance”, is zero-sum (meaning it is limited in amount so some spent here can’t be spent there), and can erode ethics. They also give tips on how to fix extreme empathy for organizations (phew).


Limited amounts of empathy

Shankar suggested in his work that we only have a certain amount of compassion / empathy to give, and we choose to focus it on single individuals rather than groups of people. But after doing a little digging, a psychologist by the name of  C. Daryl Cameron suggests otherwise. In his piece, “How to Expand your Compassion Bandwidth”, he suggests  that the identifiable victim effect is due to an active choice to turn off empathy. The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of individuals to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person ("victim") is observed under hardship, as compared to a large, vaguely defined group with the same need.

He goes on to say:

But if you get people to think that empathy for others won’t be costly, they don’t show the identifiable victim effect—thus motivation seems to matter. And only people who can skillfully control their emotions show this effect—so emotion regulation seems to matter as well. The identifiable victim is due to strategic empathy avoidance, rather than reflecting a basic limit on how much empathy we can feel.

Therefore empathy doesn’t have to be innumerate: People can feel more empathy for more victims when they want to. Bloom claims that “to the extent that we can recognize the numbers [of victims] as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.” My work suggests precisely the opposite—reason often stands in the way, strategically preventing empathy from unfolding when more victims are involved.

Empathy for the in-group over the out-group may reflect a strategic decision to erase empathy for people who are different.

Empathy may not be limited by scope or similarity. What may matter more is whether you think that empathy is limited in these ways. Some situations and traits make people afraid that empathy will be overwhelming or threatening, and so they make themselves callous. A comparable debate exists over ego depletion—that self-control is a limited resource that gets tired, like a muscle. Some studies have found that self-control is a limited resource only for the people who believe that it’s a limited resource. In a similar vein, the people who believe that compassion is a limited resource may avoid feeling empathy altogether, creating the very deficit they were worried about.

These considerations imply that people’s expectations about empathy can have powerful effects on how much empathy they feel, and for whom. Identification with all humanity is an empirically documented individual difference that predicts more empathic emotion and behavior. And research with mindfulness interventions suggests that training people to approach, rather than avoid, their emotional experiences can decrease fear of empathy and increase pro-social behavior.

I also recently started reading Leaders Eat Last and their explanation of empathy is fundamentally what allows people to have trust in each other and move the company forward. The limitations of empathy we feel for co-workers vs. significant others might actually hinder how we function professionally.


Empathy vs. sympathy

This is where empathy is first taught. The difference between empathy and sympathy. I recently attended a Design Workshop by Leyla Acaroglu who brought this wonderful video to my attention. It truly exemplifies the difference. It is also voiced by Dr. Brene Brown, a wonderful psychologist / sociologist who does work around shame and guilt (and inner dialogue).

And with that long discussion, I end this blog post and my thoughts on empathy. Everyone says empathy is the answer to a lot of the world’s problems. I don’t think I have personally reached any conclusions but hopefully my seedlings of thoughts about empathy will launch some of your own.


Another great resource to read about empathy is this awesome NY Times article. And empathy about animals.



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