Selective empathy: a deeper dive

As if often the case with me, my recent meditation on the concept of “selective empathy” in the context of the 2020 election led me down a merry rabbit hole to learn more about the concept of selective empathy in general.

Hi, I’m Sherri and I like long walks on the beach, obsessively learning new things and brain science…

Now, I am in no way pretending to be an expert after reading a few online articles, but what I have read so far has me grappling with things in a way that is valuable to me. Like I can almost feel my brain expanding past some prior limitations and blind spots.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but also one I absolutely love.*

So here’s the provocative statement I’m mulling over tonight:

What if, by focusing on “empathy,” I’ve been barking up the wrong tree all this time?

This is a bit of a world-shaking notion to consider. Like NPR columnist, Hanna Rosin, I grew up in the 1970’s, when cultivating empathy was just plain common wisdom. A universally-accepted, unquestioned Good Thing™. Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes and all that.

But it turns out that this enduring core value is less enduring and more contextual than I’d thought:

Since the late 1960s, researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help” or “Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.” [. . . ]

Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, [Sara] Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

There’s a few different theories about why this trend became more prevalent. First there’s the moralizing impulse. Rosin, again:

Why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who was not them, much less someone they thought was harmful? In fact, cutting someone off from empathy was the positive value, a way to make a stand.

But there’s other hints in brain science that point to other likely causes.

A drawing of neurons in a word-cloud of multicolored words representing different thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

As Emily Hauser summarizes, writing for Dame:

When we really lean into someone else’s experience, it takes a real toll. When your son is sad, you don’t just observe his sorrow, you feel your own. Mothers mourning their children cause us real grief; children separated from their parents can feel like a knife to the heart.

The cognitive limitations of the human psyche are something that anyone in non-profit fundraising has grappled with at one time or another. We talk about “compassion fatigue” a fair amount—how to walk the line between showing how important our mission and services are, without hitting the tripwire that starts folks feeling overwhelmed and helpless. (The problem’s too big, it can’t be solved, my contribution won’t make any kind of difference…)

But I’m not sure how many of my colleagues are aware of just how fast that fatigue (sometimes called “compassion collapse” or “psychic numbing”) sets in, cognitively speaking. It happens when the number of victims goes from one to two.

That’s all it takes. From one to two.

Hauser’s suggested solution for this conundrum is to shift the conceptual focus from empathy to compassion, drawing on the work of author Paul Bloom.**

Empathy on a small scale is a vital element of healthy, intimate relationships; on a large scale, it’s an unreliable, frequently dangerous tool. We have to be selective, or we’d lose our minds.

Compassion, though, can be boundless — and allows room to find compassion also for ourselves. When we can acknowledge our limitations, it can be easier to open ourselves to the needs of others. We can care, support, offer aid and assistance, without fearing it means we must also be lost in the tide. We can make intentional choices, even uncomfortable ones, in the knowledge that societal patterns and the course of history have made those choices complex and imperfect.

It’s an attractive notion. I’ll admit, though, I’m only partially convinced.

One of the things I find so troubling about the expression of selective empathy (and here’s where I come back to the MAGA voter) is the political tribalism at play: I will root for and help those who are “on my team” or in my in-group—but if you are an outsider to me, then you are undeserving of aid or consideration.

Even if we shift our focus from empathy to compassion, what’s to keep the MAGA voter—or anyone in a division-making frame of mind—from being just as selective around who “deserves” compassion and who “doesn’t”?


* #Nerdcore, from now until the end of time.

** I’ve already ordered the book in question (Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion). Watch this space for a review within the next decade!


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