Social Science

Are We Only Capable of ‘Selective’ Empathy?


We, as humans, can't take on the pain of everyone else. But we can find ways to connect through compassion. 



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We are mired in cataclysm. The pandemic continues to rage, only barely controlled within our borders, as protests against systemic anti-Black violence roil the nation. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were horrifying unto themselves, but serve also as an excruciating reminder that Black Americans live with and die from such violence every day.

Yet in the face of truly unprecedented levels and layers of loss, destabilization, and fear, a remarkable number of Americans step up every day, empathy on our sleeves, to help each other survive and heal. Community organizing in the wake of violence, neighbors delivering food to the elderly — some efforts are dramatic, but most aren’t. It’s just what people do in times of trouble. Indeed, the capacity to see and act on others’ needs is a big part of what has allowed humanity to make it this far.

The question is then, in this dark time as at any other: To whom do we direct that empathy?

In recent years, the concept of “selective empathy” has come to be shorthand for a kind of failure to achieve its opposite: a non-selective empathy meant to transform us from a country happy to help abused dogs, for instance, but less inclined to help abused women; happy to call our Senators about COVID deaths in nursing homes, but less inclined to call about COVID deaths in prisons. The idea is that we must find or create a new sort of empathy, an empathy that knows no border or boundary.

As with all emotions and mental states, empathy is a thing that happens, as it were, in our heads. Our brains produce what neuroscientists and psychologists know as affective empathy from our earliest days — if an infant hears another baby cry, they’re likely to start wailing themselves. “Nonconscious behavioral mimicry,” Jean Decety and Claus Lamm write, “increases affiliations, which serves to foster relationships.”

As we grow we become capable of cognitive empathy, which Chi-Lin Yu and Tai-Li Chou describe as “effortful and [requiring] attention and time.” That effort, attention, and time are spent primarily in “perspective taking” — the process of considering and to some degree adopting the perspective of another individual.

“When you’re taking somebody’s perspective,” explains Sara D. Hodges, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, “you can’t directly go into their brain and read the printout… You have to construct it.”

This process draws on what we know, or think we know, about the other person, our feelings about similar experiences, and any pre-existing intimacy; it’s easier to build a bridge into your spouse’s perspective than into that of a stranger.

All of this work—much of which happens before we’ve had a conscious thought about any of it—is what produces what most of us mean when we say “empathy”: stepping into someone else’s shoes, feeling with them — or, in keeping with the German from which the English word springs, Einfühlung, literally “feeling-in.”

And that’s where the problem lies.

When we really lean into someone else’s experience, it takes a real toll. When your son is sad, you don’t just observe his sorrow, you feel your own. Mothers mourning their children cause us real grief; children separated from their parents can feel like a knife to the heart.

Moreover, some problems are thornier than others: “Even though [Michael Vick] had 47 dogs, you can fix them all,” Hodges explains, “whereas if you tackle the problem of NFL players who abuse their spouses… it’s a much bigger problem to fix. It’s embedded in an entire system.”

All this even as we struggle with the limitations of the human mind: “Psychic numbing begins when the number of victims increases from one to two,” Paul Slovic, also a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, told Vox in 2017. “The feeling system doesn’t really add; it can’t multiply… It’s maximized at the number one: ‘Protect myself. Protect the person in front of me’.”

Then, as Hodges says, “the more you become involved, the more bad stuff you expose yourself to, the less you can walk away from it,” which can in turn contribute to a sense that even if we want to help, our drop in the bucket won’t matter. This is what Slovic calls “pseudo-inefficacy” — the feeling that our actions can only ever be inadequate.

Here, I believe, we run into yet another hurdle: discomfort with our necessarily limited grasp of the facts. There’s a fear, likely not even conscious, that we lack crucial information regarding human suffering, a fear we don’t have about dogs, for instance. The dogs were surely innocent, but maybe the women did… something? Maybe if I try to help, I’ll only make things worse. Maybe it’ll be easier if I don’t know.

And maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that we struggle to catch all of this in our empathy nets. It may be literal madness to try.

Empathy that knows no border or boundary would be a door that never closes in the psyche. I cannot feel for strangers what I feel for my children; I cannot feel for every single victim of every single horror, period.

Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has said that empathy “generally is a disaster,” not the benevolent force we conceive it to be. “It’s biased,” Bloom says. “We feel more empathy for people who look like us… [or for people] who are close, rather than far. It’s innumerate. We feel empathy for the one but not for the hundred.”

And not only that, but empathy can be and routinely is weaponized, “to catalyze anger and hatred against other groups.” Sound familiar?

On the other hand, compassion, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary, is “deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it.” Awareness, not sharing. Not walking in someone else’s shoes, not feeling all their cuts and bruises.

“The case for rational compassion,” Bloom says, appeals “to moral principles.” You don’t have to know someone, know their whole story, or even like them very much, to know what your moral principles are regarding the sanctity of human life and dignity. You don’t have to be consumed by someone else’s rage or sorrow to recognize injustice and act against it. You also don’t have to be trapped by pseudo-inefficacy: “Even partial solutions,” Slovic says, “can save whole lives.”

Finally, compassion is more easily grounded in what I find to be the most useful of social lenses: A sociological imagination. First coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills, novelist and essayist Kim McLarin has described the concept as “the ability to link individual experience with greater societal patterns and with the course of history.”

If we don’t have to depend on empathy, but can instead apply compassion rooted in a sociological imagination, no one has to be “an angel” — whatever that means — to be deserving of a life without unnecessary suffering. Smacking a woman is always wrong, even if she pissed you off. Anti-Black violence is always abhorrent, even if some of the people protesting it fail to respect property laws. Abandoning people to die horrible deaths is always evil, even if they’ve committed crimes.

Empathy on a small scale is a vital element of healthy, intimate relationships; on a large scale, it’s an unreliable, frequently dangerous tool. We have to be selective, or we’d lose our minds.

Compassion, though, can be boundless — and allows room to find compassion also for ourselves. When we can acknowledge our limitations, it can be easier to open ourselves to the needs of others. We can care, support, offer aid and assistance, without fearing it means we must also be lost in the tide. We can make intentional choices, even uncomfortable ones, in the knowledge that societal patterns and the course of history have made those choices complex and imperfect.

The cataclysms through which we’re living will not simply end. There are no easy, convenient solutions. COVID-19 is still killing us in the hundreds and thousands; police and armed white supremacists are still killing and terrorizing Black Americans — but as Senator Cory Booker has said, Americans “cannot allow their inability to do everything about the problem of racism in America to stop them from doing something more.” Or, as we’re taught in Judaism: We’re not required to complete the task of repairing the world — but neither are we free to desist from it.

Our moral principles should not depend on our capacity to take the perspective of every person in pain; compassion, not empathy, grounded in a sociological imagination, allows us to act on those principles, and stay in the fight.

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