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The surprising downsides of empathy

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200930-can-empathy-be-bad-for-you

bbc.com

The surprising downsides of empathy
There’s a dark side to feeling the emotions of other people. In some cases, it can even lead to cruelty, aggression, and distress.

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A definition of empathy

A definition of empathy

The German word for empathy is "Einfühlung" and was coined in the late 1800s. It means "feeling into."

Empathy is about understanding other people's feelings. Some think empathy means the ability to read fellow human beings or simply feeling connected to people. Others see it as a moral stance about showing concern for others.

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Misplaced empathy

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can lead to exhaustion and apathy, and prevent you from helping the people who need you.

Worse, people's empathetic tendencies can be used to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

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The identifiable victim effect

Psychologists point out that defining empathy as the act of stepping into someone's mind to experience their feeling can lead to some tricky moral dilemmas.

  • We are moved to open our hearts (or wallet) when presented with a case such as a charity campaign where a single story of a named, suffering child is showcased to the exclusion of other suffering children. Psychologists call it the "identifiable victim effect."
  • This can also help explain why many people become numb to the deaths of strangers, but be up in arms about the minor loss of personal freedoms they more directly experience.

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Extending empathy to abstract strangers

We naturally have more empathy for people closer to us. Our empathy and affinity for others decline the further people are from us.

But our natural empathy for those closer and more similar to us can be used to provoke antipathy towards those who are not like us. Politicians and activists often play to the idea of "us and them," deploying empathy and identifiable victims to make a political case.

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Empathy's incapacitating emotional impact

While shared happiness is a very pleasant state, sharing someone's suffering, such as a loved one, can be very difficult.

Our brain activity in the regions associated with pain is partially mirrored. At worst, people feel "empathic distress," which leads to apathy, withdrawal, and feelings of helplessness. It can even be bad for your health.

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The difference between empathy and compassion

  • Empathy is about stepping into someone's shoes.
  • Compassion is a feeling of concern for another person's suffering, which moves the person to help.

To be compassionate, you don't have to share somebody's feelings. It's the idea of extending kindness towards others.

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Sympathy vs. empathy

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The three types of empathy

Empathy is the ability to share another person's emotions after having reached a good understanding of their suffering. There are three main types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy, which is defined as the ability to understand and to share someone else's emotions by imagining one's self in their shoes
  • Emotional empathy, which is based on shared feelings
  • Compassionate empathy, which is characterized by the need to actually help the other.

The threats of being emphatic

While empathy can make both you and the ones around feel better at times, there are also important dangers worth taking into account:

  • Empathy can often lead to unjustified anger
  • It can cause guilt and thinking that your own happiness has come at the cost or may have even caused another person's misery.
  • it can result in a great amount of fatigue.

The Compassion Collapse

We all see suffering around us, whether it is the inhumane treatment of migrants or minority groups, or any depressing news of diseases, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

As the number o...

Just Sympathy is Useless

Tragic stories and imagery make us sympathetic and wanting to help.

But a recent study reveals that the feeling of sympathy is not proportional to the help given by the person. A desire to help, or to contribute is more valuable for any tangible or fruitful result.

Feelings of sympathy do not necessarily lead to any action to end the suffering - they may cause a feeling of helplessness.

First-hand Knowledge

When people have the first-hand experience of pain and suffering, the desire to help arises from deep within, as they know the intricate details, and are motivated to help others who are in peril. This is called the Altruism born of suffering.

People who haven't experienced similar hardships themselves will find it hard to relate to others suffering. However, the desire to help can be invoked by showing them the effectiveness of the method, as well as the larger picture.

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The victimhood mindset

Researchers found the tendency for interpersonal victimhood consists of four main dimensions:

  • Always seeking recognition for one's victimhood: Those who score high on this dimension have a constant need to have their suffering acknowledged. It is also normal for victims to want the perpetrators to take responsibility for their wrongdoing.
  • Moral elitism: Those who score high on this dimension perceive themselves as having perfect morality while viewing everyone else as immoral. They view themselves as persecuted, vulnerable and morally superior.
  • Lack of empathy for the pain and suffering of others: People who score high on this dimension are so preoccupied with their own victimhood that they are unaware of the pain and suffering of others.
  • Frequently thinking of past victimization: Those scoring high on this dimension continuously think about their interpersonal offences and their causes and consequences rather than about possible solutions.

Mindset and self-image in interpersonal conflicts

In interpersonal conflict, all parties are motivated to maintain a positive moral self-image. However, different parties are likely to create very different subjective realities. Offenders tend to downplay the severity of the transgression, and victims tend to perceive the offenders' motivations as immoral.

The mindset one develops - as a victim or a perpetrator - affects the way the situation is perceived and remembered.