Empathy Is Nice, But It’s Not Exactly Necessary

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In a 2011 Sesame Street episode, a monster named Murray learns a new word: empathy. If his friend — in this case, celebrity guest Mark Ruffalo — is sad about losing a favorite teddy bear, and Murray can imagine that feeling, to the point where he feels it, too — well, there you have it. “That was empathy!” Ruffalo says in the video, which has been watched on YouTube nearly two million times. “You could understand how I was feeling, exactly how I was feeling.”

As Ruffalo defines it, “Empathy is when you’re able to care about and understand how someone else is feeling.” It’s the way the concept is typically described, as a prerequisite to concern, which, therefore, leads to action. And it does seem obvious that if you can feel what someone else is feeling, you’ll be more likely to act with kindness toward them. That’s why empathy is typically seen as a cornerstone of a moral life, as it’s understood to motivate prosocial behaviors like cooperating, volunteering, sharing, or donating money. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report led by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit group behind the kids’ show — found that most teachers would rather their students had empathy than basic manners.

All of which helps make a new study, published earlier this fall in the journal Emotion, so interesting. In it, a trio of researchers from Yale University draws a distinction between empathy, or feeling what someone else is feeling, and concern, or caring about what someone else is feeling —what you might call sympathy. (One of the three researchers is Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist whose book, Against Empathy, will be published later this year.) In three experiments, they find that while concern reliably predicts helpful behaviors, such as donating money, empathy does not always do so. In their words, “empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe.” In other words: You can behave kindly toward someone even if you aren’t personally buoyed by their happiness, or dragged down by their sadness. Feeling another person’s emotions is nice, but it may not be as necessary as you think.

In one experiment, for example, people were given a (very) small amount of money; they were told they could donate as much as they wished to a children’s charity, and that they could keep the rest. They also completed a set of surveys designed to measure each person’s level of concern (once again, that’s caring for another’s well-being) and empathy. In the end, the researchers discovered that a high level of an individual’s concern predicted that they would donate more money than did a high level of empathy. In fact, in this experiment and one other recounted in the paper, empathy either had no relationship to prosocial behavior, or it had a slightly negative one, meaning that those who scored higher in empathy were less likely to donate money or behave cooperatively.

The researchers didn’t test why this might’ve happened, but they have a hunch. If empathetic people tend to “catch” emotions from others, then, perhaps, sensing someone else’s distress makes them so distressed that it causes them to shut down rather than take action.

Maybe, maybe not. It is, for now, just one group of experiments, though it’s an intriguing one. And although it may seem like it’s semantics we’re arguing here, it isn’t. Not quite. Rather, this line of thinking helps to separate emotion from action. “Taken together, these three studies suggest that feeling what others feel is psychologically distinct from caring about what others feel,” the authors write in their conclusion, adding that “caring about what others feel is a much stronger motivator of prosocial thoughts and actions than feeling what others feel.” You don’t have feel like doing something in order to do it.

Wharton business-school professor Adam Grant, for example, has made a career out of persuading people to act generously toward others; it’s the subject of his 2013 best seller Give and Take, in which he makes the case that personal success comes, at least in part, from helping others succeed. He says people sometimes ask him about the role empathy plays in being a “giver,” which he defines as a person who helps someone else without expecting anything in return. “I tell them it’s important, but it isn’t essential for giving,” he recently wrote on his Facebook page. He added that this new study provides “fresh evidence that you don’t need to feel other people’s emotions — you just need to care about their well-being.”