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Empathy and Logic

A critique of Paul Bloom's book, "Against Empathy."

The argument that empathy is at the root of violence, cruelty, and callousness is flawed and irrational on multiple levels, yet it is a catalyst for much needed clarification about what empathy actually is and how to use it. I am grateful to Paul Bloom for initiating this discussion.

Empathy is resonating with how another human being feels on an emotional level. Feeling someone else’s pain in order to truly understand what they are experiencing is empathic. It requires getting in sync or on the same plane with another person’s feeling state. It is emotional attunement which heals and empowers.

Sympathy, on the other, hand is feeling pity for another human being. It tempts an individual to save and rescue. When a person attempts to “save” someone or is put in a position to “rescue” someone, as in the majority of studies Bloom cites, the individual is exercising sympathy not empathy. Sympathizers are on a different emotional plane. They have put themselves in a position of power because they are executing control over the other person’s situation. The old adage give a person a fish or teach them how to fish is a clear metaphor for the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Empathy heals and empowers while sympathy largely disempowers and often creates a victim mentality in the other person. In the bulk of studies Bloom cites, the subject is put in a position to save and rescue. For example, an individual is asked to decide who to move up on an organ donor list. This is a measure of sympathy not empathy. Against Empathy confuses empathy with sympathy. A more accurate title would be, Against Sympathy .

A second problem with Bloom’s attack on empathy is his claim that empathy cannot exist with logic. For example, Bloom states, “You can’t have it both ways, empathy and logic.” This statement is false. As a psychotherapist with a bustling practice, I dance between a deep state of empathy and a logical stance for most of my day. I empathize with a client in order to truly understand their experience, but also step back momentarily to contemplate theories of attachment, human development, trauma, and transference. After synthesizing this data in conjunction with the client’s history and his or her present experience, I empathically interpret my formulation to the client, which usually gets the client unstuck. In my experience, the interplay between empathy and logic is at the heart of every brilliant endeavor.

As a mom, I regularly oscillate between a deep state of empathy and a logical stance. For example, the other day I discovered my 10-year-old daughter sitting on her bathroom floor sobbing. She was supposed to be getting ready for a pool party. I sat down on the floor with her, gently rubbed her back and asked her what was wrong. She told me she was embarrassed about the way she looked in her bathing suit. I continued to rub her arm and empathized, “It hurts to not like the way you look.” Softly, I whispered, “I get it.” She snuggled closer to me and I told her a story of how her nana accidentally cut my hair cut too short when I was 10. “I spent hours crying in the bathroom because everyone thought I was a boy. I get it, honey. I understand.” She stopped crying and allowed me to hug her for a few minutes, appearing to be healed from my empathy. Next, I logically asked, “How should we deal with this, a cover up, water shirt, or different suit?” she looked at me and said, “I’ll wear this one, mom. Its okay.” I validated her strength of character and her inner beauty. She hugged me and took off. Hours later she came home smiling and exhausted. In terms of parenting, empathy heals and logic guides. They complement each other.

Another deficit regarding Against Empathy is it omitted an entire body of research about empathy. Empathy is essential to healthy brain development. In the 1980s, authorities discovered deplorable conditions in orphanages in Romania. These “child warehouses” were shut down and many of the orphans were adopted by American families. The children suffered significant, emotional, physical, behavioral, and attachment issues. Brain scans showed that many of these children had dark spots where their brain failed to develop. Although the children had food and water, they were deprived of emotional sustenance, like empathy and emotional attunement, which resulted in damage to their brains. Additional studies prove that empathy promotes the firing of neurotransmitters in an infant’s brain. The continued firing of these neurotransmitters, builds neurological pathways in the brain, allowing for the development of healthy brain anatomy.

Attachment Theory complements these findings, providing evidence that the consistent empathic response of a caregiver is the key to healthy development and emotional regulation in an infant, which translates to a secure sense of self in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (working model of attachment). It’s difficult to argue that empathy is not healthy when there is science indicating it is essential to a child’s brain development and emotional health.

Adding to the problematic argument waged in Against Empathy is the author’s wish to eradicate human emotion. “Anger leads us astray in the here and now and we would better off without it,” states Bloom.

Yet, anger is a normal, healthy, and necessary human emotion. Like sadness, happiness, and other human emotions, it makes us who we are. However, it is how an individual act on the emotion of anger that may be problematic. Expressing anger in a healthy manner is important. Aside from self-defense, acting on anger violently or cruelly means there is a problem with the person’s ability to regulate their anger. Anger is nothing of which to be ashamed, but acting on anger violently because of a characterological issue is. If an emotion is treated as shameful, as Bloom suggests, children will not be supported in handling the emotion in a healthy way and may eventually act on it violently. Embracing human emotion and using both empathy and logic to help children regulate emotion reduces the probability that individuals will act out violently.

For example, last year my 9-year-old son walked through the door and angrily dropped his back-pack on the floor and snapped at his sister. As ugly as the display of anger was, I did not send him to his room. Instead, I said, “You are mad. I’m not sure why, but you probably have a good reason and I want to hear about it – but you can’t slam your back-pack. Go pick it up.” As soon as his anger was honored, he calmed down, picked up his back-pack, and took a seat at the kitchen island next to me. He proceeded to tell me about an older kid on the bus that picked on a kindergartener. My son intervened and attempted to defend the little guy, but the older kid pushed my son down and took his lunch and threw it. Obviously, my son’s anger was warranted, and because I empathized and supported him in expressing his anger appropriately, he didn’t act on his anger violently or cruelly. I helped him find a way to logically problem solve and identify a way to effectively handle the dynamic on the bus. Yet, If I had shamed him for his anger, and sent him to his room, the anger may have brewed and intensified, possibly eventually resulting in violence or cruelty. It is not emotions that are the problem, as Bloom suggests. It’s an individual’s emotional immaturity that is the problem.

Continuing down this path, Bloom states, “We need to use our heads not our hearts.” This distaste for human emotion is obvious when he lumps a multitude of distinct feeling states together such as, loyalty, affection, familiarity, and positive regard and incorrectly labels them as “empathy.”

For example, in one study subjects were purposefully allowed to have personal contact with one of the candidates about whom they were deliberating. When it was time to make a decision about the candidates’ plights, these subjects were more apt to give the candidate that they knew special treatment. Bloom blamed empathy on their biased decision. Yet, it was not empathy, it was familiarity that influenced their decision. Neurologically, human beings are hard-wired to, initially, find the familiar more appealing than the unknown. This has little, if anything to do with empathy, but everything to do with familiarity and sympathy.

One of the most irrational of all of Bloom’s assertions is that sociopaths have empathy because they know how to manipulate others. This cannot be further from reality. If sociopaths had empathy, they would not intentionally inflict terror and suffering on a fellow human being because they would feel that terror and suffering themselves. Clearly, sociopaths hate getting caught, so it is logical to assume that they do not like feeling terror and suffering. In addition, it’s a sociopath’s ability to tell stories and create an image of themselves that elicits empathy in their victim. Then, they take advantage of their victim’s empathy.

Finally, Bloom blames a person’s need for violent retribution and vengeance on empathy. Again, not true. Outside of self-defense and PTSD, an individual who seeks violent retribution, revenge, and lives by an “eye for an eye” moral code has a characterological issue. They are morally and characterologically impaired which has absolutely nothing to do to with empathy.

It seems that Bloom presents a view of empathy that is narrow and incomplete. I am fortunate to have the expertise and experience to expand on this topic. Empathy when combined with logic allows for brilliance and healing. Empathy is a human beings most powerful gift. I hope to help people use it wisely.