Are People Actually Bad at Empathy?

The New York Times published an article by a psychologist named Paul Bloom, titled “Imagining the Lives of Others.” In it, he reports on a new book by psychologist Nicholas Epley called “Mindwise”, which says that humans are actually much worse at empathy than we think we are. Like several of the commenters on the column, I am skeptical that the studies cited really prove that. Those studies “included asking speed daters to identify others who wanted to date them, asking job candidates how impressed their interviewers were with them and asking a range of people whether or not someone was lying to them.” The fact that the subjects were pretty bad at doing these tasks doesn’t tell me that people can’t be empathetic.

But, his main point, that it is much harder than we realize to truly understand the lives, experiences, and feelings of others, is true. As he says, if you haven’t been to war, you can’t really know what it’s like–as any returning soldier will tell you. If you haven’t had a child die, you cannot know what it’s like for those bereaved parents. If you haven’t been out of work and searching for a job for a year, you can’t really know what an unemployed person is going through.This is why support groups are so popular and useful. People need to be with others who have had the same experience, as they will tell you.

And indeed, this is necessary for human survival. We are exposed to a lot of difficult and horrible things in the news every day, ranging from those that affect a large number of people, such as natural disasters, to those that affect only a few, such as the story on our local news station the other night about two teenage brothers who were killed in a car crash. I saw the devastated family, the sobbing teammates of the boys, and I could understand to some extent how unalterably horrible this unexpected life-changing event was. But I could turn off the news and go back to making dinner–which I did, because it was too hard to watch that. If we did experience complete empathy for every person we meet, every person we know, and every person we see or read about in the news, it would be overwhelming. It would be incapacitating.

So, perhaps the amount of empathy most of us are able to feel for others is generally OK. We are a highly social species, and empathy helps to maintain those social ties. Humans are far more empathetic than any other species. (Which is not to say that other species, notably dolphins, elephants, and primates, don’t experience empathy. Apparently they do.) We need to try to understand one another, as best we can. We need to read novels and non-fiction, see movies and plays, as a way to learn about others’ lives and experiences. We need to talk to other people, pay attention to others’ lives.

And as Paul Bloom says in this article, “These failures [to be as empathetic as we think we are] should motivate a certain humility when it comes to
dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know
what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what
they have to say.”

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