Feeling Bad Just Isn’t Enough

If (as was stated in the previous column) the root of all evil is the failure to consider the existence of the other; and the root of all good is the recognition of the existence of the other, the all-purpose antidote would be the attribute of empathy – right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

A recent paper (‘Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?’ by Jesse Prinz – available in full-text pdf online) examines the link between feeling empathy (the ability to feel what others are feeling), and actually taking action to help others. What previous studies found was that when almost no effort was required, empathy was (weakly) correlated with taking action on behalf of others. However, as soon as some effort was required (even something as minor as crossing the street to help someone) the ability of empathy to motivate pretty much disappeared. Interestingly, ‘attention’ and ‘concern’ (i.e. ‘paying attention’ and ‘giving a hoot’) were more strongly correlated with taking action for others than empathy.

The ABC television show, What Would You Do, sets up artificial situations to see if people will go out of their way to help others in dangerous or distressing predicaments. In one episode, a young man sits on the grass in a public park crying and appearing very upset – even distraught. As he cries, many passersby simply walk past him. Thankfully all is not lost – one or two people do stop and ask him if he is okay and offer their assistance. What the show found was that the simple variable of being ‘in a hurry’ was enough to cause people to either not take the time to stop and ask if he was okay, or not even notice the young man crying in the first place. It seems that depending on empathy to override more selfish considerations (like being in too much of a hurry to care or even take notice in the first place) was not a very good bet.

This finding on the limits of empathy is demonstrated in some very well-known and much more extreme situations as well. When researchers looked at the emotions of those involved in Nazi atrocities, they  found that officials did not perform their loathsome and cruel tasks with a total absence of empathy. On the contrary – some felt quite conflicted about what they did, even crying during and after they performed their ‘duties’ – or going home and having nightmares about what they had done. Similarly, when experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram directed volunteer subjects to administer (fake) electric shocks to other participants (‘punishing’ them for performing a task incorrectly) – they did so, though they were clearly in distress as they inflicted the ever-stronger ‘shocks’ and listened to the (faked) cries of those that they were ‘correcting’. In these cases, the directions of a superior, the feeling of duty, a compelling ideology – all were enough to override feelings of empathy for another human being. This isn’t surprising, given that the studies mentioned above showed that something as simple as needing to make a slight effort or go out of one’s way were enough to extinguish the motivating effects of empathy.

If it isn’t enough to just have empathy for others, what is it that will make a difference when it comes to motivating people to make an effort for others – in actual practice, not just as an ephemeral emotional state? What makes the difference between a human being who goes through life without noticing or taking action on behalf of others and one who does? If thoughtfulness towards others is the root of all good – what is it that will make us act out that thoughtfulness in actual practice? If living transformationally means ‘acting in ways that protect, care for and empower other human beings’ – what is it that will impel us to take transformational action?

Next Week: Factors for a Transformational Life: Intention, Code, Commitment, Action

*I am indebted to James Waller, Stanley Milgram, Jesse Prinze and especially David Brooks for the research and concepts in this week’s column.

Miriam E. Mendelson, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Transformative Development, Counseling, Consulting and Mediation and is available for speaking engagements, individual and family counseling and business consultation. Click here for a complete list of all Miriam Mendelson’s articles. Column feedback and questions are welcome: Miriamemendelson@gmail.com.
  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *