Everywhere you turn in American politics, leaders talk about the need for empathy. What do we mean by empathy? Some use the word to describe what psychologists call cognitive empathy—that is, the capacity to understand what’s going on in the minds of other people, without necessarily sharing their feelings. Empathy in this sense is essential; you can’t act effectively in the world if you don’t have some sense of what other people want. But it isn’t inherently a positive force. High cognitive empathy is also necessary for a successful con man, seducer or torturer.
When most of us talk about empathy, we mean what psychologists call emotional empathy. This goes beyond mere understanding. To feel empathy for someone in this sense means that you share their experiences and suffering—you feel what they are feeling. But emotional empathy is a different matter when it comes to guiding our moral judgments and political decisions. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our everyday lives) shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.
In moral and political debates, our positions often reflect our choice of whom to empathize with. We might feel empathy with minorities abused and killed by law enforcement—or with the police themselves, whose lives are often in peril. With minority students who can’t get into college—or with white students turned away even though they have better grades. Do you empathize with the mother of a toddler who shoots himself with a handgun? Or with a woman who is raped because she is forbidden to buy a gun to defend herself? With the Syrian refugee who just wants to start a new life, or the American who loses his job to an immigrant? Such empathic concerns can lead to hostility. Consider that the most empathic moments in the 2016 election season came from the president-elect, in his attacks on undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump wasn’t stirring empathy for the immigrants, of course, but for those he described as their victims, those putatively raped and assaulted and murdered.
Fortunately, empathy isn’t the only force motivating us to do good. Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates. The distinction is nicely summarized by the neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki in a 2014 article for the journal Current Biology: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
These studies also revealed practical differences between empathy and compassion. Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal. Compassion training, by contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others. It has all the benefits of empathy and few of the costs.