Is empathy always a good thing?

Parenting | Is empathy always a good thing?

If we can harness this primal, tribalistic emotion and use it to enhance our understanding of people as different from us as possible, the world might be better for it

Representative image (iStock Photo)

A couple of months ago, my two-year old daughter was video chatting with her grandparents as usual, and she decided that she wanted to show them a picture of an elephant in her storybook. To our amazement, she turned the book around so that it would face the camera, and showed them the picture. This was probably one of the first times she demonstrated the ability to truly take another person's perspective.  

The dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This seems, however, like a pretty abstract way to define something that needs to be put under scientific scrutiny. Psychologists have described three distinct (but often overlapping) ways of sensing another person's feelings.  

The first of these is referred to as ‘cognitive empathy’. This is the type of empathy we use when we try and understand what the other person must be going through by attempting to take their perspective. This is a purely intellectual process, and can help with, say, negotiation or leadership skills. Despite attempts of popular culture to romanticise the word empathy, it remains in reality a double-edged sword. People who are narcissists, or psychopaths, often have a very good degree of cognitive empathy, while completely lacking the ability to ‘feel’ another person's pain as their own. 

This brings us to the second type of empathy, dubbed "emotional empathy" for its ability to evoke our own emotions in response to observing the emotions of another person. We experience this when we see someone close to us cry out in pain, or wail in sadness. 

Finally, there's "compassionate empathy", which is what moves us to try and help those in need.  

Our daughter is now two years and a few months old, and has developed a more sophisticated form of empathy than earlier, where she senses what emotion we are feeling. She knows, for instance, when we are angry, and even when we are sad. If we cry out in pain when she hurts us while playing, she looks at us with an expression of concern.   

On the surface, it seems as though empathy is always a good thing, but anyone in the medical profession will hasten to tell you how tough it can actually be to feel someone else's pain all the time. It can be so detrimental to the mental health of medical professionals to deliver bad news to relatives of a terminally ill patient, or to interact with a person diagnosed with clinical depression, that they often try and "blunt" this empathy, by emotionally disconnecting from the person they are treating in order to protect themselves. 

Blunt emotional empathy too much though, and they run the risk of becoming indifferent to the plight of their patients. This tells us that empathy, as with any other emotion, ought to be well-calibrated and well-balanced in order to work successfully.  

 We move now to an aspect of empathy that is deeply disturbing, but which, once we direct our own attention to, we can try and correct. Our empathy seems to be, instinctively, more driven towards people we consider to be within our tribe, rather than to those outside of it. It might be that evolution has prepared us as a species to quickly identify who is within our group, so that we might understand what they need better and if necessary, protect them from outside threats.

In fact, humans display in-group preference in many distinct ways – we tend to downplay flaws and generally like people more if we perceive them as being within the same group that we belong to; even the emotions of in-group members are perceived quicker and more accurately than those of out-group members. In fact, studies have found that intergroup discrimination arises more from in-group love and empathy than from out-group hate or distrust.  

If the first step to developing empathy is to first attribute mental states (such as beliefs and knowledge) to other people, then the ultimate aim of empathy is to recognise that others have beliefs, desires and perspectives that are different from our own, and to understand that their experiences are just as real as ours are. If we can attempt to harness this primal, tribalistic emotion and use it to try and enhance our understanding of people as different from us as possible, the world might be better for it. And for those of us who are parents, the realisation that children are not born with in-group vs out-group notions should be at least mildly comforting. 

(Perspectives on parenting from a neuroscientist mom who has discovered that her two-year-old is the ideal study subject)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.