This just in

On Yale & Yale alumni.
Ico comments 1 comment | Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

The dark side of empathy

Who could be “Against Empathy”? Paul Bloom, that’s who.

In a Boston Review essay by that title, the Yale psychology professor argues that “if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.” Instead, he recommends compassion.

Some definitions are in order.

To empathize with someone, Bloom writes, “is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.” He distinguishes this “emotional empathy” from what he calls cognitive empathy—“the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe”—as well as from compassion, “a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others.”

It’s emotional empathy—and, especially, the unquestioned assumption that feeling empathy leads to helping others—that Bloom wants to take down.

Why? Well, on a personal level, someone who is suffering doesn’t necessarily want his friends, doctors, or therapist to suffer along with him.

“Certainly we want our friends to understand us and to care about us,” Bloom writes. But “particularly when I am feeling down, I would prefer that they greet my panic with calm and my sadness with good cheer” rather than resonating to the frequency of his pain. Also on an individual level, empathy is “highly aversive” and quickly leads to burnout, he contends.

On a societal level, Bloom says, empathy makes for bad policy. Studies show that we empathize more with people who are attractive, who look like us, or who share our backgrounds. When we want to help, those biases get in the way of deciding how best to do so.

“Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one,” Bloom declares, “and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction.”

The Review invited responses to Bloom’s provocative argument from other academics, including his Yale colleague Marianne LaFrance and graduate student Leslie Jamison ’15PhD.

LaFrance, also a psychologist, sees in Bloom’s definition of empathy yet another essential distinction: the difference between feeling someone’s pain and putting yourself in their shoes. She calls the latter “perspective taking” and links it to Bloom’s “cognitive sympathy.”

The thinking kind is real empathy, just like the feeling kind, and they go together, LaFrance argues. She cites the human tendency to “attribute another person’s action to her inner dispositions, when crucial situational factors were really at work.”

Studies show that when observers are instructed to imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling—not just what she does—they are more more likely to understand her decisions as arising from her situation and not from her sex, race, or personality.

Jamison, a doctoral student in English and author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, sees Bloom’s critique of empathy as “the beginning of a process rather than its completion.“

“Bloom is right to question the notion that empathy is inherently valuable,” she writes. “It is not that empathy does or doesn’t make us better, but that it can make us better. We need to ask ourselves how.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Paul Bloom, psychology, Marianne LaFrance, Leslie Jamison

1 comment

  • Peter Ryan
    Peter Ryan , 3:01pm August 27 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Empathy always makes an effort to slow things down so that emotions can be tempered with thoughtful reflections. Full-boiled emotions are not conducive to the expression of empathy. *

    * Cinramicol A & Ketcham K. The power of empathy. London: Piatkus publications;2000

The comment period has expired.