Contributing writer provides personal insight into Common Hour, “Against Empathy”

By Shawn Kim || Contributing Writer

This past Thursday, Dr. Paul Bloom of Yale University delivered a talk about empathy, a topic that has distinguished him for his unique perspective. Dr. Bloom makes a case against empathy, denouncing it as a potentially reckless motivator.

Dr. Bloom began his talk by defining empathy by referencing the well-known phrase, “putting ourselves in the shoes of another person”. One thing that Dr. Bloom additionally established was the difference between compassion and empathy- compassion as showing concern and care, while empathy as a more vicarious experience. After doing so, Dr. Bloom made his first point-“Empathy is biased”. He argued his point by explaining an experiment conducted on European male soccer fans. In the experiment a subject received a shock on the back of his hand then watched another person also receive a shock. Through trials, the shock was given to fans of the same soccer team and fans of opposing teams. The study revealed that when subjects witnessed soccer fans of the same team getting shocked, an empathic neural response was evoked, but not so much with fans of opposing teams. Bloom revealed that mutual and superficial factors, such as ethnicity and appearance, were significant in evoking empathy.

Bloom then discussed the innumeracy of empathy. He recognized school shootings and how much media attention they received, but revealed that these events made up only 1% of US homicides. Bloom clarified that he was not denouncing the significance of school shootings but was revealing how empathy creates a provincial perspective. He explained that empathy constricts us to focus our attention on single individuals rather than groups, favoring irrational and emotional motivations rather than logical and rational considerations. To further his point, he discussed the massive media attention given to a young white teenager who had been kidnapped, and the contrastingly dearth of media attention and awareness about genocide and crime occurring in Africa at the same time.

Bloom used the metaphor of a spotlight to further explain empathy. Though empathy shines the light on certain issues, it is limited just like a spotlight. This spotlight simile was displayed in the Ebola crisis, during which much more attention was focused on the few “light-skinned” patients than on the multitude of dark-skinned patients. He also argued that the “spotlight” caused by empathy allowed for the manipulation of it by unscrupulous groups of people. He argued that empathy exhausted individuals who tried to “put themselves in the shoes of another person”, leading to stress and poor health.

Bloom, however, took the time to recognize the importance of empathy in certain circumstances, specifically those involving pleasure (i.e. being a parent, reading books). But he concluded his talk by asserting the effectiveness and rational power of compassion, separate from empathy.

I had previously read an article titled, “The Perils of Empathy” by Dr. Bloom, which was one of the reasons why I was especially excited for his Common Hour. When I first read the article, I was intrigued at the unconventional insight that he provided by attacking empathy, and listening to Bloom talk, reminded me of those same ideas. However, I developed some skepticisms to some of his points, specifically involving the relationship between compassion and empathy.

Are compassion and empathy not intertwined? Dr. Bloom began by differentiating the two, providing his own definitions of each, but how separate are they really? I found myself wondering whether compassion without empathy risks being disingenuous. After all, doesn’t the ability to be wholly compassionate rest its foundation on empathy? For example, when donating to certain charities and organizations, we may be perceived as compassionate by others. However, empathy seems to differentiate the superficial and indifferent acts of compassion from the genuine acts of compassion. As one of the commenters on his WSJ article wrote, “compassion and sympathy don’t exist in a vacuum”. Dr. Bloom’s points still maintain their validity because even if the two emotions cannot be separated, rationality and logic should remain an essential factor in how we act and perceive certain circumstances.

First-year Shawn Kim a Contributing Writer. His email is skim2@fandm.edu.

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