Paul Bloom

Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

See also:

The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

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Non-self and ethics: Just who do you think you are?

Phrenology head

There’s a compelling article in Atlantic on the theory that the self is not unitary but a composite of multiple selves.

“First Person Plural,” is written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He’s writing a book on the theme of pleasure, and I imagine it’ll be well-worth reading.

His article shows that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

He explores each of these areas in turn. He outlines competing views of the self and presents his own view, which

is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

He explains how competing inner selves result in the kind of conflict where, for example, one self wants to lose weight and the other wants to enjoy pizza, comparing this to research on what used to be called multiple-personality disorder (now dissociative-identity disorder).

There’s some though-provoking hilarity here:

One woman got a settlement of more than $2 million after alleging that her psychotherapist had used suggestive memory “recovery” techniques to convince her that she had more than 120 personalities, including children, angels, and a duck.

And further humor where he talks about imaginary friends (we all have them — who doesn’t have “conversations” in their own head?):

The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.

The practical implications of this theory are worked out in terms of “binding,” which is where one self, anticipating the arrival of another, limits that others’ actions — for example the self that wants to give up smoking may tell friends not to give them a cigarette, no matter how much they may plead. And he discusses the role of binding in politics and society:

The natural extension of this type of self-binding is what the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein describe as “libertarian paternalism“—a movement to engineer situations so that people retain their choices (the libertarian part), but in such a way that these choices are biased to favor people’s better selves (the paternalism part). For instance, many people fail to save enough money for the future; they find it too confusing or onerous to choose a retirement plan. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out.

Lastly he discusses the fact that it’s simplistic to think that the long-term self is always right. Here’s an extreme example:

Many cruel acts are perpetrated by people who can’t or don’t control their short-term impulses or who act in certain ways—such as getting drunk—that lead to a dampening of the contemplative self. But evil acts are also committed by smart people who adopt carefully thought-out belief systems that allow them to ignore their more morally astute gut feelings. Many slave owners were rational men who used their intelligence to defend slavery, arguing that the institution was in the best interests of those who were enslaved, and that it was grounded in scripture: Africans were the descendants of Ham, condemned by God to be “servants unto servants.”

There are two elements that I think could be added to his overall discussion.

First is that one method of self-binding is to adopt an ethical perspective and an ethical code. An ethical perspective is the notion that ethics makes sense and is beneficial to one’s long-term happiness — that neither short-term whim (one of those many selves) nor the uneducated “long-term self” (although he never quite defines what that is) is able to act in one’s best interests. It’s recognizing that the whole self exists in a larger reality and that it must function appropriately in that context in order to be happy. From a Buddhist point of view (as seen in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta) this corresponds to the Right View that there are ethical consequences to our actions.

An ethical code is a working out of that perspective in terms of guidelines for behavior: for example the five or ten precepts that provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a say that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

The slave owners he points to of course had a “carefully thought-out belief system” which amounted to a moral code — but it wasn’t cohesive or self-consistent. A belief system that includes “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself” and “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t sit easily with the notion of treating other humans as chattels, and the definition of Africans as “not human” isn’t sustainable. So not any moral code would do — we have to have a moral code that’s based on reality and that’s self-consistent. We have to have one that’s capable of producing a unitary self.

The second thing that I think is missing is a discussion of meditation, and how it can help us develop a unitary self. [In a separate interview, Bloom comments: “The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about.”]

In the practice I was doing this morning, the Mindfulness of Breathing, the aim is simply to keep coming back to the breath. Basically, I’m working on developing and strengthening the “self” that observes, long-term, what’s going on in my awareness. Other selves make themselves known by creating thoughts, emotions, and fantasies that project into awareness, and demand attention. The self I’m working on strengthening notices those experiences arising but lets them quietly settle down. It’s kind and observant. Sometimes a particular thought or feeling will be recurrent, and the meditating self may decide to pay attention to what’s going on. For example, a pleasurable fantasy might keep arising. The meditating self realizes that this is expressive of a need for pleasure that’s not currently being met, and takes action to bring more pleasure into awareness, for example by relaxing, by paying more attention to pleasurable sensations in the body, and by developing a more kindly attitude.

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy, The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

From a Theravadin perspective we are nothing more than this collection of selves, but from certain Mahayana perspectives “we” are awareness itself — the space that contains these multiple selves. I suspect that philosophically the Theravadin perspective is correct, but I prefer the Mahayana approach as a working model. I think it’s going to be a long time before that model becomes any kind of real spiritual hindrance in my own practice.

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