We homo sapiens have much to be ashamed of as we wreck our planet and murder each other, but there is one trait we are proud of—empathy, usually defined as the ability to feel what another person is experiencing. Is there a more clearly positive and uniquely human trait than empathy?

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Source: Shutterstock

From early childhood, whenever we misbehave, we are counseled by wise parents to “put yourself in her shoes—how would you feel if someone did that to you?” Throughout life, we are taught that empathic people are kind, sensitive, and caring individuals whom we should emulate.

Yet recently we find empathy under challenge. Is it really a pure virtue? Is it even uniquely human? Not according to ethologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, who writes that “Empathic perspective taking…is well known outside of our species, including dramatic cases of apes, elephants, or dolphins helping one another under dire circumstances.”[1] So the next time you give money to a homeless person on the street you may be acting no more empathically than a chimpanzee, if de Waal is to be believed.

Indeed, we know something about the biological basis of empathy. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study from the University of Colorado, Boulder, showed that empathic caring activates two regions in the brain, the nucleus acumbens and the orbitofrontal cortex.[2] Patients with pituitary gland abnormalities that result in reduced oxytocin release, by contrast, manifest fewer empathic behaviors.[3] Importantly, the nucleus acumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, and oxytocin also appear in all mammalian species. Hence, the brain structures that make us feel rewarded and the hormone that reinforces feelings of social connectedness when we act empathically are clearly not restricted to our species.

Furthermore, there are emerging reasons to believe that empathy is not ubiquitously positive or beneficial. In our book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Uswe argued that empathy can lead us astray when we need to make decisions about health and safety. For example, let us imagine a parent who is worried that vaccinations may harm her child. The decision about whether to vaccinate should be based on the medical evidence, which of course clearly shows that the benefits of immunization far outweigh the risks. But if the parent sees a video clip of a child with neurological abnormalities who was allegedly harmed by a vaccination, she may empathize with that one child and make the wrong decision. Because we are more swayed by stories than data, empathic feelings can impede our ability to make rational decisions.

Some forms of empathy may even be harmful to an individual’s health. Anneke E.K. Buffone of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues explored the effects of two different kinds of empathy: feeling another person’s suffering versus understanding that another person is suffering. The former type of empathy evoked a stress response that is associated with cortisol release and negative health effects.[4] Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, then, may be harmful.

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Source: Shutterstock

The most extreme challenger of the empathy as a virtue concept is Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who calls empathy “morally corrosive” and advises that if we find ourselves feeling empathic “you should stop.”[5] Bloom argues that because we tend to feel empathically to people who are most like us, empathy is the basis for prejudice and bigotry.

Poor empathy. Once a highlight of humanity, it is now seen as an animal instinct capable of causing us harm and hurting society. Should we stop giving money to that homeless person on the street?

The obvious answer to that last question is “of course not.” Rather, like almost every other human emotion, empathy has positive and negative aspects. Anger at injustice is good, but unbridled rage at a teacher who gives us a bad grade is likely self-destructive. Love for a romantic partner is great; love for a narcissistic abuser is disastrous. All human emotions are rooted in basic biological processes that have evolved and therefore resemble those of other animals. The trick, of course, is to maximize the positive aspects of emotions like empathy, anger, and love and use our rational brains to overcome the negatives. When empathic feelings make us more sensitive to other people’s suffering, they motivate us to take morally necessary actions. On the other hand, when empathy causes us to favor the race to which we belong over another race, it is our responsibility to recognize this unfortunate part of our wiring and do better.

We will never eliminate empathy by being more rational, nor should we. Modern psychological and neurobiological science, however, is helping us understand how best to apply it and when to ignore it.

References

[1] De Waal, F: Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? New York, W.W. Norton, 2016.

[2] Ashar YK, Andrews-Hanna JR, Dimidjian S, Wager RD: Empathic care and distress: predictive brain markers and dissociable brain systems. Neuron 2017;94:1263-1273

[3] Daughers K, Manstead A, Rees A: Hypopituitarism is associated with decreased oxytocin concentrations and reduced empathic ability. Presented at Society for Endocrinology, November 7-9, 2016, Brighton, UK. Abstract 142.

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