Paul Bloom On When Empathy Eats People
It's from a podcast by EconTalk's Russ Roberts, from the Library of Economics and Liberty, about Bloom's recent book, "Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion."
Bloom explains to Roberts:
There's actually no evidence that high-empathy people are better people. And there's a few studies against it.
... I'm not sure I mentioned this in the book--it came out recently--that nurses who test for high empathy spend less time with patients. And you can see why. If I'm around somebody who is suffering, and I feel their suffering, well, it draws their suffering to my attention. Which could be good. But it also is unpleasant. And so, if I could turn my head and walk away, that's a wonderful solution.
Empathy in itself does not make you good. And in fact, you know, as somebody who suffers from a little bit of too much empathy himself, there are many cases where, if I see somebody in, if I see a lot of suffering, it kind of makes me, you know, want to walk away--want to go online and look at something else.
And so, even when empathy does its work, it does its work in concert with other sort of emotions that are separate that want to make the world better.
I talk about this in my science-based book, "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck," in respect to Pathological Altruism:
Do random acts of judicious kindness.
Sometimes, we engage in knee-jerk goodness--goodness that ultimately isn't so good. An act that, on the surface, seems kind, generous, and helpful may actually be none of these.
For years, I sneered at the term "putting your dog to sleep" as a nefarious euphemism that helped people feel better about killing a dog that had become inconvenient for them. If you value life and love your dog, keeping him or her on the planet as long as possible seems like the right thing to do. It did to me--until the vet told me that my darling fifteen-year-old Yorkie, Lucy, was in kidney failure.
We weren't at the end yet, he reassured me. He gave me meds and instructions on caring for her, but I came home in tears and called my friend Debbie. She started to cry, too, and then told me what she'd learned in putting her beloved elderly bichon, Marley, to sleep a few months before.
It took her three times going to the shelter to go through with it. That third and final time, when she saw what a peaceful process it actually turned out to be, how they really do just fall into a deep sleep as they're going out, she realized that she'd been wrong to hang on to Marley for as long as she did and that she'd done it for her benefit and not Marley's.
By telling me this, she helped me understand that being judiciously good means recognizing that keeping your dog alive when he or she no longer has a very good quality of life is prolonging suffering, not prolonging life.
About a month later, one awful morning when I saw that Lucy was struggling to keep her furry little butt up, this meant that I was prepared to do the right thing, right away. A few hours later, when the vet opened, I rushed her there, and as I held her, petted her, and cooed to her, he gave her an injection, and she closed her eyes and floated away. I still miss her terribly and completely, down to her tiny little musty wet doggy smell, which now only faintly lingers in some of her sweaters, but I take solace in realizing that I gave her both a good life--the best I possibly could--and a "good death."
Engineering professor Barbara Oakley studies the area of psychology that this sad situation with Lucy could have fallen into, altruism gone wrong: attempts intended to help that instead result in unanticipated harm--for the recipient, for the helper, or sometimes for both.
For instance, we may tell ourselves that we're doing good when saying yes to someone's request for help feels better at that moment than saying no.
Oakley, in a paper on "pathological altruism" for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gives the example of a brother trying to overcome an addiction to painkillers. "When he goes through withdrawal, you get more painkillers to help him feel better, and you cover for him when his work supervisor calls. You genuinely want to help your brother, but the reality is that you are enabling his addiction."
Paradoxically, being judiciously kind would mean letting him suffer for days, allowing him to hate you for it, and being there to hold his hand and mop his brow.
We don't give much thought to the potential negative effects of helping upon the person offering the help, but we sometimes do kind deeds at too great an expense to ourselves. Unhealthy giving is even painted as a virtue--"Give till it hurts!"--but bailing somebody out should be considered a bust if you're going beyond your means in time or money or jeopardizing your job, your health, or your continued ownership of your house.
Oakley notes that we are especially blind to the ill effects of over-giving when whatever we're doing allows us to feel particularly good, virtuous, and benevolent.
To keep from harming ourselves or others when we're supposed to be helping, Oakley emphasizes the importance of checking our motives when we believe we're doing good. "People don't realize how narcissistic a lot of 'helping' can be," she told me. "It's all too easy for empathy and good deeds to really be about our self-image or making ourselves happy or comfortable."
I talk about how giving to strangers in small ways can be good for both strangers and us in my recent TED talk, "The surprising self-interest in being kind to strangers." But, again, Oakley's cautions above apply.