Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?

05 Mar

Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?

This sermon, “Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on March 5, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.

By Paul Smith

We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.

But new research makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations—who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison—are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions, and specifically empathy.


RECOMMENDED READING Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

Following are notes and highlights from the sermon. Please listen to our podcast for the full audio version.

What is empathy?

Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel another person’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes vicariously. Another definition: the ability to understand and experience another person’s feelings. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, empathy means identification with and understanding another person’s situation, feelings, or motives.

“I feel your pain.” – Bill Clinton

What is sympathy?

Sympathy means feeling for someone, not with them. Sympathy is your reaction to their pain. Empathy is you sharing the experience of their pain.

What about compassion?

Compassion is a related capacity to appreciate and understand what’s going on in the minds of other people without a contagion of their feelings. “If I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself” — this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind-reading, theory of mind, mentalizing, or cognitive empathy (vs. emotional empathy).

Compassion allows you to understand someone’s experience, and know what it’s like to feel that way, perhaps because you’ve felt it before yourself. But without consciously re-living that emotional experience again now.

Why empathy is good

Empathy makes us care about other people and more likely to try to improve their lives. Everyone is naturally interested in themselves. Empathy makes other people’s experience important to us personally, because their pain becomes our pain, their joy our joy. Therefore, we are motivated to increase other people’s joy and minimize their pain. E.g., “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”

Empathy is necessary for intimate relationships, such as with a spouse or parent. You’re supposed to be biased.

“It’s not love that makes the world go ’round. It’s empathy.” — Who said that? Me, just now.

Empathy in scripture


Qur’an: Chapter 9, Verse 128 — There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer.”


Exodus 23:9 — You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. [Another translation “you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens.”]


Romans 12:15 – Paul said we should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

1 Corinthians 12:26 – Paul says that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

In John, Chapter 11, we learn that Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus, had fallen sick. Two days later, Jesus decides to go to Judea where Lazarus lived. Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has died and he wanted to go there to raise him from the dead. (“He is asleep, but I am going there to wake him up.”)

In verse 33-35, we read, “When Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister, Mary, weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. . . (35) “Jesus wept.”

He didn’t weep when he heard Lazarus was sick. He didn’t weep when he learned Lazarus had died. Why? Because he knew Lazarus was going to come back to life because he decided to raise him from the dead before he even went to Judea.

The only time Jesus wept was when he got to Judea and found Lazarus’ sisters and Jewish friends weeping, and he was so deeply moved by their pain that he wept himself. This is precisely what it means to be empathetic – to literally feel someone else’s pain as if it was your own.


The Buddhists have a concept of “sentimental compassion” (empathy) and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as exhausts you. Whereas great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved, and can be sustained indefinitely.

Why empathy is bad

1. Empathy reflects our biases.

It’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, similar to us, and those we see as more attractive. “In this way, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.”

Consider the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, in 2012, in which 20 kids and 6 adults were killed. That’s less than the number of school children killed in Chicago every year.

The city of Newtown started getting so many toys and gifts that they had to hire people to store and manage it all. It became a burden.
Yet, we rarely think about the kids in Chicago. Why? Part of the answer is that Sandy Hook was a single event. The murders in Chicago are more of a steady background noise. We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses.

But it’s also in large part because it’s easy for people like me to empathize with the children and teachers and parents of Newtown: They’re so much like those I know and love. Teenage black kids in Chicago, not so much.

Here’s another example of empathy bias: In an MRI study of male soccer fans in Europe, participants watched a video of someone described as a fan of their favorite soccer team receiving electric shocks. Parts of the brain that activated were the same ones that would activate if they were actually receiving electric shocks themselves. In other words, scientific evidence of empathy. Then, the researchers used this same situation with people described as fans of the rival soccer team. The MRIs showed that the empathy part of the brain shut down, and pleasure centers lit up.

2. Empathy focuses us on whoever is in front of us and visible.

Empathy is a spotlight, focusing us on certain people in the here and now. It makes us care more about them, but leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts, and blinds us to the suffering of those we cannot see, leading to parochialism and racism.

In an experiment led by C. Daniel Batson, researchers told subjects about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment that would relieve her pain. Subjects were told that they could move her to the front of the line. When simply asked what to do, they acknowledged that she had to wait because other more needy children were ahead of her. But if they were first asked to imagine what she felt, they tended to choose to move her up, putting her ahead of children who were presumably more deserving.

Here empathy was more powerful than fairness, leading to a decision that most of us would see as immoral. Batson has defended the “empathy-altruism hypothesis”— the idea that empathy motivates the helping of others— but he does not claim that empathy inevitably has positive consequences. As he puts it, “Empathy-induced altruism is neither moral nor immoral; it is amoral.”

3. Empathy favors the one over the many.

In a study comparing charity advertisements, the ad featuring one little girl elicited the most generous donation, while an ad showing the same girl and a boy led to a smaller donation. Another ad with a photo of the girl among a whole group of villagers generated an even smaller donation.

If there was ever a clear example of a moral failure, this is it, and it’s because of empathy. We can only feel empathy for one or a few people at a time.

4. Empathy can overwhelm us and prevent us from doing good.

Social neuroscientist Tania Singer teamed up with a Buddhist monk and trained one group of people to feel empathy, while another group learned how to feel compassion. She learned that empathy training made people suffer and burn out, while compassion training was enjoyable and made people kinder.
Another example of how empathy can lead to burnout: A woman and her husband were 9/11 second responders, meaning the people that went in to dig out survivors and victims. After a week, she couldn’t take it anymore because she just couldn’t take the emotional trauma. But her husband happily went right on day after day without stopping. She was empathizing with the victims. Her husband was sympathizing and having compassion for them, but not empathizing.

5. Empathy drives short-term thinking with long-term consequences.

Consider child beggars in developing countries of Africa and India. The sight of an emaciated child is shocking to a well-fed Westerner, and it’s hard for a good person to resist helping out. And yet the act of doing so ends up supporting criminal organizations that enslave and often maim tens of thousands of children.

The world contains unscrupulous people who exploit others, so empathy can be strategically triggered for bad ends. Consider orphanages. The feelings that many have for needy children motivate other individuals to establish a steady supply. Most children in Cambodia’s orphanages, for instance, have at least one parent: Orphanages will pay or coerce poor parents to give up their children.

Linda Polman interviewed warlords, asking them, “Why do you chop off children’s arms?” They answered, “We do it for you.” In other words, such atrocities energize Western interests. They set up NGOs in the warlord’s country, and the warlords make money off NGOs by taxing them—exploiting your empathy.

Singer points out that many people are “warm glow” givers. They donate small amounts to multiple charities, motivated to spread their money across many causes because each one gives a distinctive little jolt of pleasure, like plucking small treats from a bountiful table of desserts. But small donations can actually harm the charities, since the cost of processing a donation can be greater than the donation itself.

Also, though Singer doesn’t mention this, charities often follow up with donors, which is expensive for them, particularly if they send physical mail. If you want to harm some organization that supports a cause you object to, one mischievous way to do so is to send them a $ 5 donation.

How these problems creep into our public policy

Consider laws that were mistakes based on empathy. Remember the Willie Horton ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Michael Dukakis was the Democratic candidate? As part of a furlough program in Massachusetts, Horton was released from jail and raped someone. But there was evidence that the program was working, that the criminals let out were better behaved than they would have been if they’d had to serve their full time. It didn’t matter. It’s easier to feel empathy for someone who did get raped or killed than for the people who never got raped because your program is working.

What about victim statements during the sentencing phase? Empathy-related factors such as how much the victims (or family members) cry, and whether they have the same skin color as you, influence the number of years a defendant spends in prison.

As a far more serious issue, consider Western aid to developing nations. It turns out that there is considerable debate over how much of such aid actually helps and a growing consensus that a lot of it has a negative effect. Many worry that the clearly kindhearted intervention of affluent Westerners has made life worse for millions of people. This might seem weird— what could be wrong about sending food to the hungry, giving medical aid to the ill, and so on?

Part of the problem is that foreign aid decreases the incentives for long-term economic and social development in the areas that would most benefit from such development. Food aid can put local farmers and markets out of business. Empathy is influenced by what we think about the person we are empathizing with and how we judge the situation. Low empathy doesn’t even predict bad behavior like criminal behavior or sociopathic behavior.

Action items

  • Listen to your head, not your heart when making moral, charity, fairness, and justice decisions.
  • Visit EffectiveAltruism.org – “Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.”
  • Use Givewell.org to monitor the efficacy of charities to determine which ones make the most difference.

Sermon slideshow

Paul Smith is a member of Harmony and the best-selling author of Lead with a Story.

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