With reference to theory and the research literature, critically discuss the claim that “The only problem with empathy is that we do not have enough of it."
“We have an empathy deficit.” That quote is from Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. Empathy refers to processes through which people respond to others’ emotions (Zaki, 2017). Initially empathy was seen by the general population as something worth striving for. However, this view was recently challenged by the American psychologist Paul Bloom by stating “The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy. Actually, they are often due to too much of it.” Research indicates that individuals who make decisions based on empathy are often biased and irrational (Bloom, 2017). According to this perspective increasing empathy in the population will not solve social problems, but rather have a negative effect on society. This essay examines whether empathy leads both individuals as well as social groups to show prosocial behaviour and make morally better choices.
Researchers share the common understanding that empathy describes several different but interconnected processes through which people react to the emotions of others.
Based on the current state of research, empathy consists of three components: the affective component, the cognitive components and the motivational component. The affective component describes an individual feeling and taking on others’ feeling, while the cognitive component refers to the reasoning about others’ emotions and the motivational component covers the desire for others’ emotional state to improve (Zaki, 2017).
Evidence for empathy having a positive effect on prosocial behaviour is delivered by Morelli, Liebermann and Zhaki (2015). They found that positive empathy is directly linked to prosocial behaviour. The data suggests that people who get more positive emotions while witnessing others having these emotions are in fact more inclined to help other people. This is supported by additional research which shows that emotions in general and empathy in particular lead to prosocial action (Zhaki, 2018). Based on the definition of empathy as an umbrella term, the research shows the effect of the affective motivational component of empathy. Therefore, these both components of empathy can result in prosocial behaviour.
This is supported by findings that empathy causes people to act pro-socially towards strangers and that individuals care for humanity as a whole beyond their own social groups. This is reflected in the social structures that humanity has developed, such as human rights for example (Decety and Cowell, 2014). Such findings underline the positive impact of empathy on moral action and moral judgement as well as which crucial part empathy played in the development of human civilization.
However, current research indicates that empathy can also have a negative influence on moral action. Bloom (2017) points out that while empathy motivates people to behave more pro-socially, empathy is like a spotlight that is only able to focus on the suffering of a small number of people at the same time. This spotlight nature of empathy results in people favouring one over many in different situations. There is evidence of social conflicts triggering empathy, which leads individuals to very quickly prefer one side, which can cause them to adopt negative views towards the other group (Todorov,
Pakrashi and Oosterhof, 2009). Further supporting this, Green (2014) gives the example of terrorists, motivated by empathy for people in conflict zones, commit acts of violence.
Research shows that higher empathy for the chosen side will cause more negative feelings for the other side (Breithaupt, 2012). Therefore, empathy can cause intergroup dynamics in which an in-group and an out-group form prejudices towards each other and become further divided. In addition to emotions, the empathizer adapts the opinion of his target of his empathy and of the group to which his target belongs. Furthermore, the antipathy of the empathizer regarding people belonging to the out-group increases.
Apart from this, multiple researches show empathy also having a negative effect on moral action on an individual level. For example, Bloom (2017) states empathy clashes with fairness and that empathy leads to immoral decision, referring to an experiment by Batson et. al., where participants were confronted with a sick girl, who was low on a list for a treatment. Participants who experienced empathy with the girl, agreed to the option to move her up in the waiting list, even though that means, that another child would not get the treatment. This is considered an immoral act resulting from prosocial behaviour caused by empathy. Further evidence for the causation of immoral behaviour by empathy comes from two experiments by Batson, Klein, Highberger and Shaw (1995). Participants were requested in both experiments to take allocation decisions which affect the welfare of other persons. Those who were not empathized tended to act in line with moral principles. Participants who were manipulated to feel empathy violated these principles significantly more often by allocating preference to allocating resources preferably to their target of empathy. These results show that empathy promotes prosocial behaviour, but that in many cases such prosocial behaviour can end up in immoral judgement making. Thus, prosocial behaviour and morality are independent and can be in conflict with each other.
This was the subject of a debate between Zaki and Bloom in which Zaki criticised parts of Bloom's ideas. While agreeing that empathy works like a spotlight, Zaki states that the outcome reflects the empathizer’s goals. Hence, prosocial behaviour caused by empathy can be align with morality (Zaki, 2017). Zaki's key message is that empathy, like emotions in general, can never be considered as entirely good or bad. It is rather neutral and, depending on the context, either of the two. However, Bloom agrees with Zaki that it plays a valuable role in intimate relationships but makes it clear that empathy fails when it comes to moral decisions. He distinguishes empathy from compassion and highlights, that compassion leads to better moral judgement. This is due to the fact, that compassion involves caring for others without experiencing their emotions (Bloom, 2017). It is clear from the debate that empathy consists of several components, while the emotional component results in poorer moral judgement.
Further evidence of empathy consisting of different components comes from social neuroscience research. Neuroimaging studies suggest that empathizing with another person’s emotions activates neural networks that also activates when a person experiences those feeling him- or herself. Experiencing compassion on the other hand leads to activation of other neural networks (Singer and Klimecki, 2014). In regard to moral decisions in compassion or concern is considered to be superior to empathy (Bloom, 2017). Additional indications are delivered by Stietz, Jauk, Krach and Kanske (2019) by pointing out that empathy can be categorised in affective and cognitive components. The distinction is that affective component means that the empathizer feels the emotions of his or her target and cognitive component allows the empathizer to understand but not feel those emotions. The researchers call the cognitive component perspective-taking. Study results show perspective-taking rely on different neural capacities than affective empathy, supporting the findings of Singer and Klimecki (2014). Although researchers are using different terminologies, they all agree on empathy being an umbrella term and needs to be distinguish in order to be better understood. Furthermore, current research suggests that perspective-taking leads to better moral decision than affective empathy.
This is further highlighted by two experiments conducted by Jordan, Amir and Bloom (2017), which show that compassion and empathy activate different types of behaviour. This study indicates compassion is a highly positive predictor of prosocial behaviour, while empathy is either non-predictive or negative predictive of prosocial behaviour.
These findings imply that empathy and compassion are psychologically different. Similarly, Singer and Klimecki (2014) distinguish compassion and empathic distress.
While compassion is linked to positive feelings, other-related emotions, good health and a prosocial motivation, empathic distress is a strong aversive and self-orientated response to another person’s suffering. People experiencing empathic distress tend to withdraw from the situation in order to protect themselves from mental health issues like burnout. The latter is supported by research findings from a study looking at burnout and empathy in healthcare professionals. An association between burnout and empathy was found. Although the results indicate that empathic distress can give the empathizer burnout, more research is necessary to establish the causality (Wilkinson, Whittington, Perry and Eames, 2017). Since compassion is the care about the welfare of others, compassion motivates the empathizer to increase these very welfares, thus acting pro-socially. Affective empathy on the other hand makes the empathizer take on the feelings of their target, which results in morally worse decisions due to their bias.
Nevertheless, compassion has its limits too. With the number of people requiring help growing, the extent of people's compassion for them is decreasing. This is known as the collapse of compassion. Research provides first indications of the effect that motivated emotional regulation increases insensitivity to mass sufferings (Cameron and Payne, 2019). One possible explanation is that people empathise / feel compassion more easily with one other person and that empathy or/and compassion with a larger group is