The pros — and cons — of empathy

Experts are arguing that it’s not empathy we should be striving for, but compassion.
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Your friend is going through a breakup. Is it better to absorb her pain, or just ask how you can help?

Paul Bloom would argue the latter.

In his new book, Against Empathy, the Yale professor of psychology argues it's not empathy we should be striving for, but rational compassion. Empathy, however innocuous and well-meaning it may seem, can ultimately contribute to us making irrational, biased and prejudiced decisions, he said.

He knows it's a tough argument to make.

"Being against empathy, people take it like being against kittens," said Bloom in an interview with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "It seems like a crazy view."

But Bloom isn't arguing you should stop striving to be a kind, loving person. He's arguing you should stop trying to put yourself in other people's shoes.

"Unfortunately, if you feel empathy for somebody… you're likely, if you're a helper (such as a doctor), to be burned out, to be exhausted," he said. He added that empathy can also racially bias you towards people who look like you, and bias you against those who don't.

Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at McGill University who studies pain, agrees with the crux of Bloom's argument, and said we can thank evolution for our empathetic biases.

"The evolved empathy system is not going to get you… to be kind and compassionate to everyone," said Mogil. "The only way to do that is to get outside it and rationalize the fact that people who you've never met are just as deserving of your attention and your charity and your compassion… If we rationalized it, the world would be better."

Indeed, Bloom's argument is that compassion — when you value other people and care about them, but you're not suffering with them — is what we should be striving for instead of empathy.

Mogil's shares this example of applying rational compassion when making a decision: giving money to people suffering in a foreign country who will benefit from your donation. If you're not immediately moved to donate, perhaps your empathy was not triggered, but, when thinking rationally, you know your contribution will help and the logic motivates you to donate.

However, Mogil thinks it's pointless to debate whether we should like or dislike empathy. "It's a little bit weird to talk about whether we agree or don't agree with something that's there," said Mogil. "Empathy is there and people have it … It's like arguing that you don't like a spleen."

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist and a professor at the University of British Columbia's faculty of education, sees Bloom's argument against empathy as "controversial" but welcome in the field of empathy research.

"I see him as a provocateur who is trying to instigate some good discussion about empathy," she said. "We need people who come out and throw a wrench into things."

Schonert-Reichl said while she is not "against empathy," she is "pro-compassion," and the two aren't mutually exclusive.

"Empathy, or some dimension of empathy, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for compassion," she said. "The critical aspect of compassion is the motivation to alleviate the suffering. Empathy has no motivational component in it — you feel like someone else. That's the end of it."

She explains compassion as involving feeling concern for someone suffering, feeling a desire to alleviate the suffering and having a willingness to help. Compassion would not include the "emotional contagion" piece tied to empathy, in which someone feels the exact same emotions, she said.

So, if you aren't brokenhearted over your friend's split, that's okay. But, if you can spare an evening to let her vent over a glass a wine, you could help mend her broken heart.

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.