Getting Real About Empathy – Part 3 of 5: Moral Implications and Consequences

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1part 2, part 4, and part 5.

It is often assumed that if people were more empathetic and compassionate, we’d see fewer conflicts and wars. Continuing from my previous post, I make the case that it’s inaccurate to view high empathy and the lack thereof in black-and-white terms. As it happens, empathy and compassion can lead to conflict because of whom one empathizes with and feels compassion for. The stronger the empathy and compassion, the more one tends to act in the interest of those one empathizes with. Consider Claus Lamm’s and Jasminka Majdandžić’s findings in “The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment“:

In the public but at times also in the academic discourse, it appears to be taken for granted that empathy can act as a remedy or a stronghold against anti-social phenomena which seem to affect our society to an increasing extent – such as the selfish greed in the financial industry supposedly contributing to the global financial crisis, or the many armed conflicts we are witnessing these days, ranging from Syria over the Ukraine to Gaza. For instance, US-president Barack Obama has repeatedly spoken of an empathy deficit in our modern society, and stated that an “empathy crisis” may be at the root of the economic and political crises we are experiencing (2006, June 19). Such views have certainly been influenced by the folk intuition that empathy motivates prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need. Indeed, this intuition has received widespread support from social psychology (see Batson, 1991), as well as more recently from the field of social neuroscience. For instance, Hein et al. (2010) demonstrated that individual differences in altruistic behavior (taking over painful shocks from another person) were predicted by activation of empathy-related neural responses in left anterior insula (see also Hein et al., 2011, Masten et al., 2011 and Mathur et al., 2010). At first glance, such a link between empathy and altruism might imply that increasing empathy in our society will reduce egoism and selfishness and the social conflicts associated with them (Rifkin, 2010).

However, such propositions overlook the fact that empathy is sensitive to deeply-rooted parochialism and ingroup bias (see Chiao and Mathur, 2010). This implies that it will motivate altruistic action in a way that prefers to help or cooperate with persons and groups that we perceive as closer or more similar to us…

Finally, we need to consider that people may be able to empathize with others (in the sense of being able to feel what they are feeling, or “feeling as”) and still harm them. The “tools of empathy” or knowledge about them at times may even be deliberately exploited to inflict harm in others, for instance in persons with psychopathic personality traits. Only recently, a series of social neuroscience studies has added to our knowledge of the psychopathic mind and how he or she is able to engage in such a-moral or a-social behavior. Interestingly, these studies suggest that psychopaths seem to show a lower propensity for empathy (in the sense of affect sharing), yet are able to feel what others are feeling when explicitly instructed to do so – though the exact way in which this instructing should be devised is still somewhat controversial, with different studies yielding somewhat different results ( Decety et al., 2013a, Decety et al., 2013b and Keysers and Gazzola, 2014b for review; Lockwood et al., 2013a, Lockwood et al., 2014, Meffert et al., 2013 and Pfabigan et al., 2014). Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the capacity to fully (and possibly empathically) sense the effects of one’s actions, but to deliberately modify one’s behavioral response to it can be exploited to do harm rather than to increase the welfare of others…

Unfortunately, we do not have to go all the way to psychopathy to illustrate how empathy can be exploited for one’s own and not for the greater good. For instance, we probably all know competitive situations, such as in sports, in which team tactics exploit our knowledge of how our opponents will feel and act in response to certain actions (such as the “psychological warfare” that might be applied during penalties shots in football), or conflicts with friends or loved ones in which our enhanced ability to empathize with them may provide us with all the more effective tools to hurt their feelings.

To describe the results of a recent study conducted by Anneke E. K. Buffone and Michael J. Poulin (see “Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others–Even Without Provocation“), Tom Jacobs writes in “This is the Dark Side of Empathy“:

[P]articipants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. This occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The results should put a damper on what the researchers call “recent enthusiasm for interventions that involve administering caregiving-related neurohormones or empathy training.”

It seems that Sáez et al., who’re excited about prolonging the effects of dopamine in people’s brains, haven’t considered the conclusions of this study. In another report of this study, “Can love make us mean? Researchers explore the relationship between empathy and aggression,” Poulin elaborates on the neurochemical process through which empathy and compassion for another triggers aggression:

“Both oxytocin and vasopressin seem to serve a function leading to increased ‘approach behaviors,'” says Poulin, associate professor of psychology. “People are motivated by social approach or getting closer to others.”

But Poulin adds that people approach one another for many reasons, including aggression, so it stands to reason that if compassion is linked to the action of these hormones and these hormones are linked to social approach behaviors that they might help account for the link between compassion and aggression.

The researchers conducted a two-part study consisting of a survey and an experiment. “The results of both the survey and the experiment indicate that the feelings we have when other people are in need, what we broadly call empathic concern or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” says Poulin. “In situations where we care about someone very much, as humans, we were motivated to benefit them, but if there is someone else in the way, we may do things to harm that third party.”

And that reaction is not because the third party has done anything wrong.

Such findings should appeal to common sense. However, for those born on the “wrong” side of the empathy spectrum (yes, there’s a genetic contribution according to Baron-Cohen and other researchers), today’s pro-empathy bandwagon resembles the start of a witch-hunt. People, by and large, don’t evaluate the value of empathy or lack thereof in an objective manner. This bias transcends political ideology but appears especially pronounced among those on the left whose self-definition places central importance on empathy and compassion and influences the tenor of academic research, as in this article.

Even worse, for a group that gives lip service to tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance of diversity, this widespread clamoring for people to be more empathetic goes against those aforementioned espoused values because less empathetic individuals are also part of life’s natural diversity. The question “Should serious people be more fun-loving to make society a happier place?” has an obvious counterpart: “Or should fun-loving people be more serious so that more work gets accomplished?”  The same kinds of questions should be asked with regard to empathy.

In Part 4, I’ll wrap up this discussion with other critical questions and final remarks.

Recap: Empathy, far from alleviating conflict, can cause or exacerbate it. Further, the drive to elevate empathy above other traits is intolerant, short-sighted, and unscientific.