… The word “empathy”—a rendering of the German Einfühlung, “feeling into”—is only a century old, but people have been interested for a long time in the moral implications of feeling our way into the lives of others. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), Adam Smith observed that sensory experience alone could not spur us toward sympathetic engagement with others: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.” For Smith, what made us moral beings was the imaginative capacity to “place ourselves in his situation … and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”
In this sense, empathy is an instinctive mirroring of others’ experience—James Bond gets his testicles mashed in “Casino Royale,” and male moviegoers grimace and cross their legs. Smith talks of how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.” There is now widespread support, in the social sciences, for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis.” Batson has found that simply instructing his subjects to take another’s perspective made them more caring and more likely to help.
Empathy research is thriving these days, as cognitive neuroscience undergoes what some call an “affective revolution.” There is increasing focus on the emotions, especially those involved in moral thought and action. We’ve learned, for instance, that some of the same neural systems that are active when we are in pain become engaged when we observe the suffering of others. Other researchers are exploring how empathy emerges in chimpanzee and other primates, how it flowers in young children, and the sort of circumstances that trigger it.
This interest isn’t just theoretical. If we can figure out how empathy works, we might be able to produce more of it. Some individuals staunch their empathy through the deliberate endorsement of political or religious ideologies that promote cruelty toward their adversaries, while others are deficient because of bad genes, abusive parenting, brutal experience, or the usual unhappy goulash of all of the above. At an extreme lie the one per cent or so of people who are clinically described as psychopaths. A standard checklist for the condition includes “callousness; lack of empathy”; many other distinguishing psychopathic traits, like lack of guilt and pathological lying, surely stem from this fundamental deficit. Some blame the empathy-deficient for much of the suffering in the world. In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” (Basic), Simon Baron-Cohen goes so far as to equate evil with “empathy erosion.”
In a thoughtful new book on bullying, “Sticks and Stones” (Random House), Emily Bazelon writes, “The scariest aspect of bullying is the utter lack of empathy”—a diagnosis that she applies not only to the bullies but also to those who do nothing to help the victims. Few of those involved in bullying, she cautions, will turn into full-blown psychopaths. Rather, the empathy gap is situational: bullies have come to see their victims as worthless; they have chosen to shut down their empathetic responses. But most will outgrow—and perhaps regret—their terrible behavior. “The key is to remember that almost everyone has the capacity for empathy and decency—and to tend that seed as best as we possibly can,” she maintains.
Two other recent books, “The Empathic Civilization” (Penguin), by Jeremy Rifkin, and “Humanity on a Tightrope” (Rowman & Littlefield), by Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein, make the powerful argument that empathy has been the main driver of human progress, and that we need more of it if our species is to survive. Ehrlich and Ornstein want us “to emotionally join a global family.” Rifkin calls for us to make the leap to “global empathic consciousness.” He sees this as the last best hope for saving the world from environmental destruction, and concludes with the plaintive question “Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avoid planetary collapse?” These are sophisticated books, which provide extensive and accessible reviews of the scholarly literature on empathy. And, as befits the spirit of the times, they enthusiastically champion an increase in empathy as a cure for humanity’s ills.
This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.
In 1949, Kathy Fiscus, a three-year-old girl, fell into a well in San Marino, California, and the entire nation was captivated by concern. Four decades later, America was transfixed by the plight of Jessica McClure—Baby Jessica—the eighteen-month-old who fell into a narrow well in Texas, in October, 1987, triggering a fifty-eight-hour rescue operation. “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on,” President Reagan remarked.
The immense power of empathy has been demonstrated again and again. It is why Americans were rivetted by the fate of Natalee Holloway, the teen-ager who went missing in Aruba, in 2005. It’s why, in the wake of widely reported tragedies and disasters—the tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina the year after, or Sandy last year—people gave time, money, and even blood. It’s why, last December, when twenty children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, there was a widespread sense of grief, and an intense desire to help. Last month, of course, saw a similar outpouring of support for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Why do people respond to these misfortunes and not to others? The psychologist Paul Slovic points out that, when Holloway disappeared, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur. Each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition.
There is, of course, the attention-getting power of new events. Just as we can come to ignore the hum of traffic, we become oblivious of problems that seem unrelenting, like the starvation of children in Africa—or homicide in the United States. In the past three decades, there were some sixty mass shootings, causing about five hundred deaths; that is, about one-tenth of one per cent of the homicides in America. But mass murders get splashed onto television screens, newspaper headlines, and the Web; the biggest ones settle into our collective memory—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook. The 99.9 per cent of other homicides are, unless the victim is someone you’ve heard of, mere background noise.
The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”
You can see the effect in the lab. The psychologists Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov asked some subjects how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked others how much they would give to save eight children. The answers were about the same. But when Kogut and Ritov told a third group a child’s name and age, and showed her picture, the donations shot up—now there were far more to the one than to the eight.
The number of victims hardly matters—there is little psychological difference between hearing about the suffering of five thousand and that of five hundred thousand. Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.
In the broader context of humanitarianism, as critics like Linda Polman have pointed out, the empathetic reflex can lead us astray. When the perpetrators of violence profit from aid—as in the “taxes” that warlords often demand from international relief agencies—they are actually given an incentive to commit further atrocities. It is similar to the practice of some parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars. The children’s debilities tug at our hearts, but a more dispassionate analysis of the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything meaningful to prevent them.