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Is it Ever OK to Avoid Empathy? And Can We Choose?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, October 26, 2015

Have We Lost Empathy in Recent Decades? 

  Jamil  Zaki wants you to forget everything you think you know about empathy.

One very old and still dominant theory is that empathy is automatic, something that  just happens without our control. Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Studying the history of empathy, Professor Zaki finds the first modern account in Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith describes what he calls “fellow feeling” that makes people take on the emotional states of others, as when people in a crowd share the anxiety of watching a tight rope walker wobble over a precipice.  Smith felt—and many modern thinkers agree—this is reflexive and not something we choose.  Zaki’s lab has done studies that produced fMRI images showing that when a person sees another person have an experience, the witness’s response is a  “neural resonance,” in which the n brain generates a pattern of activity consistent with the brain of the person having the experience.

So why don’t we always feel empathy? In inter group setting, Zaki writes in an essay,  that when people are divided by war, opposing political and social views, and team rivalries,  empathy often collapses and people fail to share, or even be concerned with, the emotional states of those outside their own group.  Zaki says studies have shown people demonstrate less neural resonance if they see an out-group member experiencing pain than they do seeing one on their own suffers.  Sometimes, he writes, empathy is expensive: in a war too much empathy toward an enemy with a gun could be dangerous. Even in situations that aren’t life threatening, empathy could be a costly emotion.  If someone needs help we can’t or won’t give, we might choose to avoid empathy to avoid feeling guilty or having to part with money.

If we know empathy is socially approved, we are likely to demonstrate more of it.  Zaki even notes a study in which  men were more empathetic after scientists convinced them that women are more attracted to sensitive guys.  This and other studies show we can choose to be, or not be, empathetic.

Zaki likes the work of Dan Batson, who has researched  empathetic human connection as a force for cooperation and altruism.

But empathy can have a dark side. Psychopaths, con artists, and the practitioners of enhanced interrogation may have terrific understanding of other people’s feelings, but they use it for their own nefarious purposes.

A 2010 study by Sara Konrath and colleagues at the University of Michigan that analyzed 30 years worth of data on 14,000 college students found that students’ empathy had declined over the three decades examined, and that the sharpest drop came after 2000. Some theorists have blamed the decline on social media that reduces face to face contact, and others have looked at increased academic and career competition. Zaki speculates that empathy may not have change, but the idea of empathy may be different or less desirable than it was 30 years ago.  He’d like to see more research, and he wants to emphasize  that empathy is a choice that deserves serious thought and conscious decisions.  Read Zaki’s essay here.

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