Beware of Criticizing Concepts You Don't Fully Understand
Influential publications should not convey false information to the public.
Posted December 1, 2016
It’s beyond tragic that respected and influential publications such as The New York Times are publishing articles criticizing empathy because of a huge misunderstanding of the concept.
Mark Zuckerberg is correct in equating a form of empathy with understanding. He is addressing “what Daniel Goleman refers to as "cognitive empathy," which is the lowest level of empathy."
However, not only does Amanda Hess, the author of "Is ‘Empathy’ Really What the Nation Needs?" wrongly believe that cognitive empathy is the only form of empathy, but she doesn’t understand the concept of sympathy either.
For example, she says the following:
“There is a curiously strategic underpinning to these calls for empathy, too. Empathy, after all, is not sympathy. Sympathy encourages a close affinity with other people: You feel their pain. Empathy suggests something more technical — a dispassionate approach to understanding the emotions of others. And these days, it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.”
Let's distinguish sympathy from empathy according to social science researcher Brené Brown:
Sympathy - Feeling for someone
Empathy - Feeling with someone
Sympathy - does not take much effort
Empathy - being there for someone
Sympathy - looking for validation of uniqueness (that I've got it worse than everyone else)
Empathy - Reaching out for connection and to hear that you are not alone
Sympathy - often motivated by shame
Empathy - connecting with the emotion underneath an experience, not with the experience itself
Sympathy leads to disconnection
Empathy leads to increased connection
In his article titled "In Defense of Judicial Empathy," published in the Minnesota Law Review, Thomas B. Colby explained the distinction between empathy and sympathy as follows:
“Empathy is manifestly not the same thing as sympathy. To sympathize is to feel for someone; to empathize is to feel with them. '[W]hen you feel sympathy for another with a problem, you do not actually experience emotions parallel to theirs' [sic]; instead, you experience different emotions that are associated with concern or sorrow for another.’ To empathize with others, by contrast, is not to feel sorry for them or to feel a need to help them; it is simply to understand things from their perspective and to be able to sense what they are feeling. Virtually everyone experiences empathy; humans are hard-wired to empathize. Indeed, the complete inability to do so is the defining characteristic of a psychopath...
Empathy is not sympathy… Empathy is not compassion for the oppressed, or for anyone else, for that matter. Nor is it the capacity to feel the emotions of only the downtrodden. It is, rather, the capacity to understand the perspective and feel the emotions of others—all others.”
When Hess writes, “These days, empathy often seems to mean understanding people’s pain just enough to get something out of it," she is referring to “cognitive empathy.”
Cognitive empathy can be easily taught and requires no action beyond perspective-taking, which is why it can be so effectively utilized by narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths, as Daniel Goleman has explained.
In fact, I would argue that in order to get elected President, Donald Trump used cognitive empathy in just the manner Hess described.
Buzz Andersen, a tech veteran who has worked for Apple, Tumblr and Square, is referring to “cognitive empathy” when he says that “in Silicon Valley, 'empathy is basically a more altruistic-sounding way of saying ‘market research.’”
Hess is correct that “there is no movement for right-wing Americans to be more empathetic because they won.” I’d go a step farther. There is a complete lack of empathy among such people for those who fall outside of their limited worldview.
Some people have empathy for those who differ from themselves and others have empathy only for those who are similarly situated, except when their compassion rises to a level that such differences don't even occur to them. For example, when a community is destroyed by some sort of natural disaster, people often make donations and even donate their time to help rebuild the community. In doing so,they aren't typically considering the race, color, religion, gender expression/identity, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, military or veteran status, age, or disability of those they are helping. In other words, in such instances, they tend to forget all about how such people differ or may differ from them and are focusing instead on their common humanity.
Unfortunately, however, this isn't always true, such as when the Arab social media recently went "ablaze with 'Israel is burning' posts celebrating widespread fires in Israel." How about remarks by pastors celebrating the deaths of 49 people who "were slaughtered at a gay nightclub" in Orlando, Florida? Or, when Donald Trump and Marco Rubio headlined at a conference of evangelical leaders who demeaned, demonized and conveyed hatred toward to LGBTQ community in Orlando, Florida "two short months after the massacre"?
Empathy Essential Reads
Apparently, when social norms or systemic factors are involved, certain people are unable or unwilling experience any empathy and compassion - quite the contrary.
In any event, the core of empathy is perspective taking. Right-wing conservatives tend to have a much more challenging time seeing things from others' perspectives for a number of reasons. For example, they tend to fear those who differ from themselves or who fall outside of their worldview (which happens to be relatively limited). Furthermore, they also tend to believe that morals are absolute and don't vary from culture to culture.
In "The Science of Ending Conflict," David Berreby states:
"Not only are perpetrators of conflict not the cold-blooded psychopaths they’re often assumed to be; they may actually be distinguished for having an unusually high degree of compassion. In his studies of the neural mechanisms of prejudice and empathy, Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, has found that some terrorists scored higher than average on measures of empathy. Their intense empathy is limited, however, to members of their own group. 'The problem is not that they lack empathy,' Bruneau says. 'They have plenty. It’s just not distributed evenly.'"
My article "The Power of Empathy" concluded, "If a mediator, a judge, a politician, a scientist, or anyone else for that matter, has a limited worldview as a result of their personal background and life experiences, how does that impact their assumptions and ultimately the decisions they make both personally and professionally? Unless a person has become more empathic by being a member of a minority group that is discriminated against, what personal relationships shaped their learning process? In a diverse society, how do limited or otherwise sheltered world views affect the level of civility and commitment to fairness?"
As mentioned in "Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion," that conclusion was included in a study conducted by Australia21, “a not for profit public think tank specializing in promoting new evidence-based thinking about the big issues confronting Australia in a rapidly changing global environment” conducted a pilot study testing the effectiveness of empathy conversations as a policy-making instrument.”
In other words, my conclusion involved “evidenced-based thinking.” Moreover, Australia21’s study validated that conclusion.
According to Colby, “empathy involves the cognitive skill of perspective taking—the ability to see a situation from someone else’s perspective—combined with the emotional capacity to understand and feel that person’s emotions in that situation. Empathy does not, then, dictate or even imply a propensity to act in any particular way, or to favor any particular group. ‘Empathy is first and foremost a capacity. Strictly speaking, it is value-free. . . . What one does with the insight provided by empathic understanding’ is a separate inquiry from whether or not one is capable of empathizing.”
Along those same lines, Eric Maddox says that “Good listening is paramount to successful communication, and you can’t be a good listener if you don’t have empathy.” Maddox is credited with gathering the information that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein—an accomplishment that earned him several awards, including the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement and the Bronze Star. With these accolades in hand, Maddox moved on to become the first civilian interrogator at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, until he retired in 2014. Today, he trains clients worldwide in the art of effective negotiation and information gathering.”
Empathy is an amazing form of bias reduction; however, active listening requires empathy. It's a catch-22 for many people and more so for right-wing conservatives. They're too busy judging others than to be able to engage in empathic listening.
So, Hess could not be more incorrect when she says, “The nation has already bought what they were selling. The call for blue-staters to cultivate empathy isn’t about finding instructive truths in others’ world views; it’s about understanding their motivations well enough to persuade them to vote differently.”
It also bears mentioning that "every single Trump cabinet member so far opposes LGBT rights." Where's the perspective? How can you even perspective-take if you only surround yourself with people of the same perspective?
Without perspective, it's impossible to develop "cognitive empathy", let alone the higher forms of empathy, which Daniel Goleman describes as follows:
“Emotional empathy” occurs "when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious."
"Compassionate empathy” or "empathic concern” enables us to "not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed."
As far as Paul Bloom is concerned, I’m afraid that he doesn’t grasp the concept of “compassionate empathy” in that he can’t seem to move beyond “emotional empathy.” As such, he attacks empathy as a whole and completely disregards the power of empathy.
Perspective-taking is the core of empathy, which is the key to conflict resolution or management. This is why empathy conversations are so incredibly important.