Photo credit: Sarah Deragon
For the last 15 years, I’ve been obsessed with three questions: How do people connect with each other, what do those connections do for us, and can we learn to connect better? This has driven me deep into the science of empathy — people’s responses to each other’s emotions. I’ve probed empathy using everything from brain scans to surveys, in psychiatric hospitals, schools, theaters, and police departments. I’ve squirted oxytocin up people’s noses to see if it would help them understand others, and forced people to wander Stanford’s campus without their phones to see if they’d connect better with strangers. It’s been an adventure.
One of the fun, and vexing, things about studying empathy is that everyone wants to talk about it. According to Google Trends, searches for the term “empathy” increased by about 600% over the last 15 years. I think our hunt for empathy online reflects our search for it in the rest of life, and a nagging sensation that it’s gone missing. People are increasingly stressed, lonely, and tribal, all forces that diminish our connection to one another. And empathy has eroded — the average 2009 college student reported being less caring than 75% of 1979 students.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I wrote my new book, The War for Kindness
, to help people understand why it can feel hard to empathize these days, how we can overcome these barriers, and why we should (and must!) try. One mission of the book is to overwrite common but incorrect ideas that people often have about empathy that can get in the way of them using it well. Here are six such misconceptions.
Empathy is just one thing
Sometimes it feels like there are as many definitions of empathy as there are people talking about it. When you cry at a sad movie, is that empathy? What about when you cringe at a friend’s embarrassing faux pas, or think about what your boss will think about the email you just sent? Is it hugging people, or helping them?
Psychologists quibble about these questions, but we mostly agree that empathy isn’t truly one thing at all. It comprises multiple ways that we respond to each other, including vicariously “catching” their feelings (emotional empathy), thinking about their experiences (cognitive empathy), and wanting them to feel better (empathic concern). These pieces of empathy might feel like different sides of the same coin, but they can also split apart. Cognitive and emotional empathy activate different parts of your brain. And whereas people with autism sometimes struggle to understand others — a difficulty with cognitive empathy — psychopaths are perfectly able to decipher people’s feelings, but fail to share or care about them.
Empathy is only a reaction to others’ suffering
A colleague and I once asked 500 people to fill in the blank in this sentence: “When I feel empathy it’s because someone else is feeling _______.” In completing this, people used negative words almost 40 times more often than positive ones. This matches a common assumption that empathy means feeling others’ pain, and it can. But in fact, empathy is not intrinsically about negative emotions; it can just as often mean connecting with other people’s joy, hope, and excitement.
Empathy is a trait
One of the most stubborn stereotypes The War for Kindness
addresses is that empathy is a trait — hard-coded into our genes and our brain. This would mean that each of us has a “level” of empathy, somewhere between psychopath and saint, and like our adult height, we’re stuck there for life.
partially inherited, but that’s not the whole story. Our genes determine our empathic “starting point,” but our experiences play a big role in where we end up. For instance, people who suffer traumas often end up more caring than they were before, as though their pain has opened up a channel for understanding that of others. More importantly, just like we can work on our jump shot or chess game, we can practice empathy and get better at it in the process. The War for Kindness
describes all sorts of activities, from reading novels to meditating or forming a diverse group of friends, that help people work out their empathy muscle.
Empathy is always a good thing
It’s easy to stereotype emotions as good or bad. Most of us would like to turn up our happiness and turn down our stress. But even though stress doesn’t feel good, it’s useful — helping us prepare and focus during difficult times — and though happiness is fun, at its deep end it can drive impulsive decisions or even turn into mania.
Empathy is like this. We can equate it with simply being “good,” and thus imagine that everyone would be better off if we turned our empathy up to 11, all the time. But imagine how that would feel — to hold onto everyone’s pain and stress and joy all the time. You couldn’t walk one Manhattan block without collapsing into an overwhelmed heap. Caring professionals, such as nurses, social workers, physicians, and teachers, often burn out after being inundated with others’ pain. And empathy can be used against us. As Paul Bloom elegantly describes in his book, Against Empathy
, politicians, advertisers, and propagandists weaponize our care to make us buy things, support policies, and even hate and dehumanize people who harmed members of our tribe.
Empathy, like other pieces of our minds, is not something we should be “for” or “against.” It’s simply part of us, and the question we should ask is how we can use it effectively, and in ways we believe in.
Helping others always costs us
This year, I taught a seminar at Stanford called “Becoming Kinder.” The students and I completed “kindness challenges,” trying to push ourselves past the boundaries of our normal generosity and goodwill. We started by examining the barriers that stopped us from helping or connecting with others. The most prominent response: stress. Students (and I) were so overwhelmed with everything we had to do, that helping others felt like an unaffordable psychological luxury.
This is a common assumption: that when we empathize with or benefit someone else, we must somehow lose something ourselves — maybe time, or money, or energy. In fact, research suggests just the opposite. Helping others decreases people’s stress, leaves them happier, and even makes them feel like they have more time for themselves.
Technology is an empathy killer
One widespread suspicion is that such drops reflect the rise of technologies — especially on social media — that have destroyed our common humanity. This is an easy case to make: compared to our analog selves, people’s online identities tend towards anger, cruelty, and self-obsession. But technology is not to blame, at least not in and of itself. The Internet in particular offers unmatched opportunities to widen the scope of our kindness and compassion. It’s a historical accident that social media has fed our worst impulses. In The War for Kindness
, I describe an alternative vision of technology — one that emphasizes, rather than obscures, our better angels.
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is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. His writing has appeared in The New York Times
, The Washington Post
, The New Yorker
, and The Atlantic