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Should We Have Empathy For Those We Hate?


Empathy can seem like just what's needed in an age of deep polarization, right? But psychologists and neurologists are discovering that empathy can actually have a really dark side.

Here's Invisibilia co-host Hanna Rosin.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: In 1977, a young psychology graduate student named Mark Davis was hunting around for a dissertation topic when he landed on a decent idea. At the time, people were very interested in the concept of empathy, but no one knew precisely how to define it yet.


ROSIN: So Mark wrote up a list of statements to try and parse out its different dimensions. For example, question number two - read by my colleague from Hidden Brain, Parth Shah.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.

ROSIN: Empathic concern - feeling compassion for people in need. And another question...

SHAH: Before criticizing someone, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.

ROSIN: That measures perspective taking - imagining the world from someone else's point of view. A list of 28 questions - agree or disagree. And the list was a huge success - used thousands of times by researchers who were tracking the empathy levels of America's youth.

SHAH: I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the other guy's point of view. I sometimes don't feel very sorry for other people when they're having problems. I believe there are two sides to every question, and I try to look at them both. If I'm sure I'm right about something, I don't waste time listening to other people's arguments.


ROSIN: Is this Sara?


ROSIN: Sara Konrath, a professor at the University of Indiana.

KONRATH: I study empathy and altruism.

ROSIN: In 2010, Sara had this idea that she would track down as many studies as she could find that used Mark's list and see if she could find any patterns.

KONRATH: But when I saw the picture - to just see this line declining over time, it was surprising.

ROSIN: A straight slide downwards, starting around 2000, in perspective taking and empathic concern.

KONRATH: We found a 40 percent decline in empathy.

ROSIN: 40 percent.


ROSIN: Isn't that a lot?

KONRATH: It feels like a lot.


ROSIN: What happened to empathy? - because in the '70s, when Mark made that list and when I was growing up, being empathic was something you 100 percent aspired to.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Absolutely. That's exactly how I grew up.

ROSIN: This is Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at the University of Indiana who wrote a book on empathy. After World War II, social scientists and psychologists started to push this concept of empathy into the culture. The idea was we were either headed for World War III or we were going to have to learn to see the world through each other's eyes.

BREITHAUPT: And that was always the idea - that had the Germans had had more empathy in the 1930s, Hitler would not have happened. The genocide would not have happened. Empathy was kind of seen as the hope against all of these kind of things.

ROSIN: In my elementary school in the '70s, we wrote letters to pretend Russian pen pals in order to teach us to open our hearts to our enemies. Empathy was also big with civil rights activists. The idea was that people with power and privilege were supposed to inhabit the realities of people without power, not from the safe noblesse, oblige distance of pity but from the inside.


ROSIN: So when did you notice a skepticism about empathy start to creep in?

BREITHAUPT: What I noticed was, indeed - it happened in classrooms. It was students.

ROSIN: Over a decade ago, students just stopped buying the automatic logic of empathy. Like, why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who was not them, much less someone they thought was harmful?

BREITHAUPT: The good purpose it serves is to empower people who feel victimized by certain other people to say, OK. It's important for me to step up against that - against abuse, about discrimination, about injustice. So...

ROSIN: So it's to refuse to have your strength sapped, essentially.

BREITHAUPT: Yes, exactly, by those other people.

ROSIN: The new rule for empathy is reserve it, not for your, quote, unquote, "enemies" but for the people you believe are hurt or you have decided need it the most - for your own team...


ROSIN: ...Which is a problem because here's the dirty secret about empathy. Lately, psychologists and neurologists have started to look at how empathy actually works in our brains. And one thing they found, says Fritz...

BREITHAUPT: One of the strongest triggers for human empathy is absolving some kind of conflict between two other parties.

ROSIN: The Super Bowl, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kavanaugh hearings.

BREITHAUPT: But once they take the side, they're drawn into that perspective. And that leads to strong - very strong empathy and to strong polarization, where, suddenly, you only see this one side and not the other side any longer.

ROSIN: Researchers who study empathy have noticed that it's actually really hard to empathize with people who are different than you are. But set up a conflict, and people get into automatic empathy overdrive with their own team. This is a kind of dynamic that Fritz says might even be motivating terrorists.

BREITHAUPT: Some terrorists - it's not an complete absence of empathy that draws them in. But rather, it's an excess of empathy. They feel the pity. They feel the suffering of their people.

ROSIN: This is why Fritz called his new book "The Dark Sides Of Empathy" because there's a point at which empathy starts to look more like tribalism - a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others. In my generation, we thought of empathy as the big, warm sun, lighting the path to peace for us all. Now it operates like a torch. You shine it on your friends and use it to burn your enemies.

What's the endgame of excluding some people from the possibility of empathy?

BREITHAUPT: Basically, you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy because if you feed into this division more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous.

ROSIN: So why aren't you one of these people who say, I'm against empathy? Say the concept is so tainted - like, we've learned so much about it and how it works and how corrupting it can be that it's just not a useful concept.


BREITHAUPT: I think that empathy still, overall, is the key to all humanity. Without empathy, we would be just alone. I mean, throwing that out would be - well, cutting out 90 percent of what our life is all about.

ROSIN: Empathy in its elemental, basic form - one person looking another in the eye and really seeing them. However we use it - for friends, for enemies - it's the substance that keeps us from spinning out into loneliness - the worst way of being, except for all the others.

Hanna Rosin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hanna Rosin
Along with Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin co-hosts Invisibilia, a show from NPR about the unseen forces that control human behavior—our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts. Invisibilia interweaves personal stories with the latest human behavior and brain science, in a way that ultimately makes you see your own life differently. The show was nominated for a Peabody Award in 2015. Rosin's stories have won a Gracie Award and a Jackson Hole Science Media Award. Excerpts of the show are featured on the NPR News programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The program is available as a podcast.