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Empathy in a Time of War

How cultivating deep empathy can foster understanding and reconciliation.

In a recent interview, Israeli survivors of the October 7 attacks by Hamas reflect on the loss of their friends, their families, the “basic, idiotic, daily things” like laughing and eating ice cream—and of things fundamental and intangible: Optimism. Trust. Empathy. “I don’t have that empathy,” one of them says, “It’s not in me anymore. It’s gone from me. It’s far from me.”

Can empathy survive a war? What do we do when empathy is lost?

In the face of intractable conflict, calls to empathy can ring hollow. “It’s too late for that,” it’s tempting to say. What good is empathy when so many people are dying? These sentiments reflect the idea that empathy is weak and that it cannot overcome the divisions wrought by pain and anger—sentiments that form the basis of arguments against empathy.

Arguments against empathy encapsulate various concerns. Two of the most prominent come from the philosopher Jesse Prinz and the psychologist Paul Bloom. The first is that empathy is exhausting and overwhelming. When we empathize, we literally experience the pain of others. Pain is aversive. When we don’t have adequate resources that support us in carrying this empathic pain—and we rarely do in times of war—we turn away rather than towards those who are suffering. Empathy leads to burnout and compassion fatigue. It renders us unable to help.

The second worry, in contrast, holds that empathy is strong—that its pull is irresistible—but that the strength of empathy is its greatest danger. Empathy is biased. We tend to feel more empathy for those who are similar to us, in close proximity, or already within our in-group. Empathy, therefore, entrenches divides rather than bridges them. On this view, empathy makes us dig our heels in and see only those who are already on our side. It quietly inflames the war instead of fostering communication and understanding.

Both of these arguments appear to be backed by evidence from psychology and neuroscience. They appear to have the force of scientific objectivity and authority. But if we look more closely at this evidence, we see that it rests on a faulty understanding of what it means to empathize. Researchers who are against empathy tend to think of it as “feeling what one takes another to be feeling.” Those feelings are commonly taken to be automatic, irresistible, and outside of our control. The idea is that when you see someone in pain, you cannot help but be sucked into their pain. Pain is contagious.

There are two problems with this view, as I illustrate in a new paper. The first is that it overlooks further psychological evidence about the nature of our emotions, and in turn, about empathy—that is, that empathy can be regulated and modulated by factors both internal and external to us. In other words, arguments against empathy present a skewed picture of the psychological evidence. The second is that they rest on a narrow and reductionistic definition of empathy that captures only one aspect of it. Narrow definitions are not problematic in and of themselves. One goal of scientific research is to break a capacity down into its components to see how it works. Narrow definitions help us to do this. But we also eventually need to put those components back together. The problem arises when we forget that our definitions capture components and not the whole of the process. Feeling what one takes another to be feeling is part of empathy. But empathy is more than the sum of its parts.

The purely feeling-based type of empathy might be too weak or too biased to survive a war. But there are other types of empathy available to us. The humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers, for example, illustrates how feeling facilitates understanding. When people talk about their experiences, they make claims about their perceptions and beliefs—about the facts of their situation as they see it. The way they talk conveys the emotional weight those facts hold for them. Tapping into the feeling dimension via empathy gives the listener clues about the other person’s perspective and needs. Humility is also crucial for engaging in this deep form of empathy. It requires a commitment to constantly enrich our understanding of one another through open-ended questions and active listening.

Rogers demonstrated the power of this deep form of empathy when he led encounter group sessions to foster reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1972). In Israel and Palestine today, nonprofits like Parents Circle–Families Forum exercise this form of empathy when they host dialogue meetings. Each dialogue meeting is led jointly by an Israeli and a Palestinian facilitator who has lost a loved one in the conflict. By sharing their own personal stories, these facilitators open others to connection, reconciliation, and deep empathy.

Deep empathy engenders trust and understanding. It humanizes. But it does not come easily or cheaply. It requires sustained dialogue, openness, and spaces of safety. We need first to create those spaces of safety, and a cease-fire is a good place to start. But then we need to turn our attention to fostering deep empathy.


Betzler, R. (in press). How the case against empathy overreaches. Philosophical Psychology. doi:

Bloom, P. (2014, September 10). Against Empathy.The Boston Review. <>.

Bloom, P. (2017). Empathy and Its Discontents. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(1), 24-31. doi:

Cikara, M., Botvinick, M. M., and Fiske, S. T. (2011). Us Versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306-13. doi:

Prinz, J. (2011). Against Empathy. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 49(1), 214-33. doi:

Weisz, E. and Cikara, M. (2021). Strategic Regulation of Empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(3), 213-27. doi:

Zaki, I., Elterman, T., and Kessel, J. M. (2023, October 30). They Believed in Peace. Hamas Stole Their Empathy. The New York Times. <…;.

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