Is it possible to run out of empathy?
Hopes&Fears asked psychologists, philosophers and scholars of empathy for their insight on the limits of compassion.
After the tragic attacks in Paris last Friday, the world responded with an outpouring of grief and support. Then came a wave of backlash. Just the night before the tragic attacks in France, another terrorist strike hit Beirut, with two suicide bombers killing 43 people. Journalists and regular people around the world voiced distress that the global population was seemingly mourning one group of people above another.
The idea of equally distributing grief raises questions. In our connected age, we are exposed to more horror than ever before. Do our brains have the capacity to feel pain for every disaster in the world? Are we capable of producing unlimited empathy and compassion, or is there a point past which we cease to feel for others? How do we cope in a world where we find out about every tragedy instantly, our reactions immediately broadcast publicly?
Hopes&Fears asked psychologists, philosophers and scholars of empathy for their insight on the limits of compassion.
Lori Gruen, Ph.D.
Philosophy Department Chair, Wesleyan University
One difficult issue that faces those of us who argue for more empathetic engagement with others, particularly different and distant others, is how to deal with mass atrocities like the terror attacks we have witnessed over this year, most recently in Paris and Beirut. If a call for empathy entails trying to imagine what everyone who is injured experiences, or trying to put oneself in the place of a family member who has lost a loved one and imagining their specific grief, or trying to imagine the fear and horror that witnesses and first responders and caretakers feel, then empathy would lead one to become overwhelmed with despair. The sort of empathy I endorse—what I call entangled empathy—helps us to refocus our immediate empathetic reactions and organize those feelings into meaningful responses. Closing off our empathetic perceptions because it is just too painful can be more debilitating than temporarily feeling overwhelmed. In my book Entangled Empathy I discuss various methods for processing empathetic responses to horrible events that may help us grieve collectively. I also think it is really important not to close off empathy because it may actually help us to begin to understand why these things happen, and what we may be able to do, together, to prevent them.
Stephanie D. Preston
Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan
There is a very large literature from medical professionals and therapists on "empathic fatigue"—you can look up the articles. I don't usually read these articles and I can't cite their stats or authors because I think the effect is overstated.
I think you can be empathic all day long and about everyone if you think the events either have personal relevance for you or if you start with a core belief that all people are important—but these two factors are hard to come by in daily life.
Most trauma outside of our own social network does not have any bearing on our own personal life and success and most people do not feel deeply compassionate about all people, without significant evidence of their "inner life". Empathic training in mindfulness meditation helps people extend the natural love, compassion, and sense of similarity that they feel for close others to those who are more distant from them or who they actively dislike.
The basic empathic mechanism—the ability to feel the emotions of those we observe, as a window into their suffering and a motivation to act—evolved primarily to deal with people we directly encountered, in face-to-face interactions, with individuals who were close to us or important to personal life outcomes. There are later-evolved cognitive mechanisms that allow us to put ourselves into the shoes of people who are not present (i.e., perspective-taking), but these mechanisms are more fragile than the directly-evoked forms of empathy and they require effort, which people tend not to give unless it pays off in their own life. Thus, just as it is harder for people to be kind over email than in person, it is hard for people to empathize with the suffering of people thousands of miles away, that they do not know, whose lives do not directly intersect with theirs. It is especially hard to sustain this empathy in a way that is needed to make meaningful change in the world that goes beyond the immediate cash donation to a temporary crisis.
Thus, only if you feel or actively foster a sense of agape (the Greek word for "brotherly love" that you can feel for all fellow men) will you naturally come to feel a deep, emotional sense of empathy for people who are not part of your own social network, especially if you cannot directly observe their pain.
The typical literature from health care professionals implicitly assumes that feeling for others or being thoughtful about how your work affects them is effortful and saps people of energy in a way that cannot be sustained. I don't think there is really evidence for this. "Bottom-up" empathy—the kind you spontaneously feel for people exhibiting distress right in front of you—does not require any effort to experience. But caring about others' feelings may require professionals to think a little more about their recommendations or how to phrase something. Most of the time, I think patients are dehumanized because professionals are selected to be more interested in grades and success (e.g., getting into medical school) than they are in people. They also have a lot of competing demands for their time that force them to move quickly and avoid complexities. It's a structural problem in the medical profession more than an inherent limitation on empathy, which is not a fixed quantity or a limited resource.
These features also play into people's limited empathy for world events because they have their own real, competing demands to meet in their own lives, which can crowd out even legitimate empathy that they feel in the initial moment when they had a direct window into the suffering from television coverage right after the event. Without continued, direct evidence of the suffering—especially in the face of competing personal demands—this empathic response naturally fades away.
Science Director, Greater Good Science Center
What do you mean by empathy? What is empathy? I think you mean compassion, which is feeling interested in helping someone and feeling bad for their suffering. Empathy is a much simpler process. It relies on structures in our brain that mimic expressions from other people. This can be amusement like if you walk into a room with laughing people and find yourself laughing. Or fear: if you see a bunch of people screaming, you may feel fearful. Empathy is very overarching as a means to register expression from others. There is no limit to how much empathy we can experience, but there is a limit to how much our brain can track at a given moment. If you’re looking around, you can’t keep track of everything that’s in front of you at the same time. With active time passing, there’s really no limit to how many things you can empathize with.
But I think you’re really asking about compassion. At what point do we feel like, I can’t deal anymore with all this terrible sadness, and I need to get angry or disconnect myself. I think there isn’t a scientific answer to that. The optimistic answer is no, there is not limit. But being able to tap into our bottomless well of compassion requires a certain kind of emotional stability in ourselves.
If you imagine yourself in the presence of deep suffering, there are different ways to react to that. The first is an empathic response, a feeling in your own body, and that can feel like a bad feeling, you might not like the way it feels. If you register empathy as a feeling that happens to you then, yes, there is a limit. You have to numb yourself or turn it into anger or hostility. But if you find a way to connect with it, and, in that moment, you have an awareness that you’re not the person suffering, you can realize that your body is aroused and ready to act. If we can use that feeling as our Superman fuel to be able to support others, then there really is a never-ending supply of compassion.
What happens when you have a response to suffering? Do you feel heroic and motivated to help or do you feel threatened yourself? When people understand that feeling of empathy as a threat, they hit their wall of no longer wanting to engage, or lash out against it. When people do that, there are other problems that can lead into other aspects of life. They can have trouble in their relationships, or if they are in a caregiving profession, they might fall into the category of people who experience burnout. It’s good if we cultivate the skills to be compassionate. And the more time we spend in a compassionate state of mind the better off we are.
[The Internet] does get in the way. Daryl Cameron at the University of Iowa has written quite a bit about what he calls compassion collapse, this thing that happens when people feel like they are powerless and they don’t have any agency. Rather than sitting in that place of ineffectiveness that challenges their ego, they dismiss and turn down their feelings of empathy and compassion. It’s a really important issue. A lot of the exercises that are used to try to become a more compassionate person attempt to preserve a sense of personal effectiveness by not tying your feelings to an immediate action. You don’t have to solve the problem immediately. You don’t have to punish the perpetrator or save the victim. But you have to want to prevent people from being victims, want people to not be perpetrators of violence. That channels into a willingness to do things every day that will minimize the kinds of suffering you encounter.
We have a worldwide major challenge with the Islamic State, it’s coming from history and inequity and cultural misunderstanding. One form of compassionate understanding would be to fly to Paris, and try to support people there, or you could commit your life to an enterprise that will increase cross-cultural understanding. You don't have to solve the problem tomorrow, but you can create a daily routine that helps chip away at the suffering. Thinking more broadly about your effect in the world can help prevent that collapse.
Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, Philosophy Department, Loyola University Chicago
I think the closest thing to what you are asking about is "compassion fatigue". We need to strike a balance between empathizing with others and getting compassion fatigue. This is a diagnosable condition in England, and occurs when you help (or want to help) others but their situation is hopeless and so there is nothing you can do about it. It is most common among military nurses and caregivers in hospices. I say strike a balance because the normal reaction to chronic exposure to suffering is a kind of paralysis. We empathize with those who suffer, but we feel that the problems are too big, too far away, too mysterious, to do anything about.
This is probably a hint that we shouldn't be thinking about our reactions to suffering (which is understandable but self-focused), but about the structures that can reduce it. And at any rate, we have a long way to go before we, as a passively viewing public, really face the issues confronted by nurses, etc.
of college students today consider themselves less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.
Inbal Bartal, Ph.D
Neurobiology of Empathy Researcher, UC Berkeley
It is hard to wrap our heads around this barbaric act and all the repercussions.
While there is a well-known effect of empathetic fatigue, usually discussed in the context of medical care, I do not think this is what's happening here. For one, the chronological order does not match with this explanation—most people are experiencing more empathy with the Paris attacks which happened after the other terrible events you mentioned. I believe it is a question of the reference group. People tend to think of Paris as the symbol of the free world and its people as group members in many senses. This makes it easier to relate. There is a well-documented in-group bias effect for empathy, as seeing others in distress will evoke a significantly different physiological response, including neural activity, autonomic and endocrine activation, and reported emotional response depending on whether the person in need is perceived as being an in-group or out-group member.
The attacks on Beirut and in Kenya are perceived as belonging to someone else's war, making it harder to take the perspective of those individuals. While we can all picture all too vividly the terror of the kids at the Bataclan, and may think it could have been me, my child, my friends we don't do the same with the other events. The terrorists know this very well.
In fact, this is exactly what terrorism is—in just a few minutes, a single man with a gun can break so many lives. But the goal is wider—instilling terror in the hearts of millions. Mission accomplished for these guys. As you probably know, fierce debates are now taking place regarding refugee policy, with many calling to close the borders. The attacks will increase xenophobia, and bring extremism in that respect. Another win for the killers. It's critical that the French will teach by example, refusing to let these few dictate the relationship with the benign majority of Muslims in France. Maybe it will help to realize that ISIS does not represent Muslims, and remind ourselves that it is butchering mostly Muslims around the world. Hoping the Parisians can extend the spirit of #portesouverts (open doors) they showed on Friday night into a spirit of #coeursouverts (open hearts), and not close their hearts to others of different religions and ethnicities who seek nothing more than to be their in-group.
Using the social context to guide social behavior is an adaptive response with ancient evolutionary roots. It stems from the need to compete with other groups over scarce resources. But the original reason for in-group bias is not useful in much of today's context, and it is imperative that we overcome the strong drive to revert to an 'us vs them' scenario here that over-generalizes 'the other'. Being Israeli I know first-hand how psychological effects of terrorism can be corrosive for society and induce a sort of general paranoid psychosis. It is the ultimate victory of the terrorists. Ironically, the victims are very much on both sides of the conflict. As the year draws to a close with this sad note, I extend thoughts of solace to all those who were deprived of loved ones this year due to acts of senseless violence.
Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Colorado, Boulder
If you define empathy as feeling the pain of others, as opposed to compassion, which is sympathizing without literally feeling, then I think there is evidence that you can run out of empathy. I’ll mention the research on Matthieu Ricard, a neuroscientist and a Buddhist monk; they did fMRIs on his brain after a lifetime of meditation. When he did meditation on compassion, they found that the brain readings related to empathy were not activated.
When he did meditation involving empathy—really feeling and imagining another person’s pain—most regions were activated and he came out of the experience claiming he was absolutely exhausted. So in that sense, yes, it is possible to feel too much empathy. I don’t think that’s what’s going on for most of us ordinary people who are watching the news and kind of looking the other way.
For most of us, I kind of side with the psychologist Paul Bloom, who has done a lot of work on this topic. He points out that if we could actually do it, actually feel the starvation of a starving child in Africa, or feel the pain that someone went through after the attacks in Paris, we would be exhausted and worn out constantly. What we do instead is feel empathy for people who are close to us, and for the rest of the people, we can overlook quite a lot of suffering in the world because we just don’t put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Bloom would argue that’s not a really good guide to the way we should behave; it really biases us. We feel empathy for people who are close to us, people who are like us, that’s where the research that I’ve done comes in.
We feel empathy for the young, the vulnerable, but not as much empathy for adults, people who can take care of themselves. There was a study that examined people’s empathy for starving children in Africa. They would give someone those flyers you get in the mail—the ones with children with the distended bellies, asking you to adopt a child. If they give you information about one child and that child’s background, you will be more likely to donate than if you get a flyer that says, you know, “a thousand kids in this town have died or are suffering from malnutrition." Once it gets bigger, we lack the ability to put ourselves in that position. For one child, we’ll be sympathetic, but for a group we may not support the state-wide tax increases that would improve things for all children.
Participants in a study were asked to donate an amount of money to help save the life of either one child or eight children. Their average donation to help eight children was lower than their donation to help one child.
Daryl Cameron, Ph.D
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
University of Iowa
In answer to your question: can we run out of empathy and compassion? Many would suggest that the answer is yes (though I suggest the answer is no). It can be very easy for us to feel empathy for single, identified victims. Think of Cecil the Lion. Or more recently, the Syrian boy who drowned trying to escape persecution in his home country. But when it comes to feeling empathy for large numbers of victims, studies show that empathy and compassion actually decrease: we feel more empathy and compassion for single victims than large numbers of victims. According to some explanations of this effect, this compassion collapse occurs because we simply cannot extend compassion and empathy to that many people. One factor may be divided attention. We can’t attend to all of the suffering in the world at once, and so empathy and compassion reach a “bottleneck.”
But I think something different may be going on. It may not be that we have a fixed limit. Instead, we often want to turn away from suffering because it’s costly for us to think about. We might be worried that empathy for large numbers of victims will be financially costly or emotionally exhausting, and this may lead us to strategically turn away. For instance, I may see an SPCA commercial come on about animal suffering, and even though I love animals, may turn the channel because it’s too emotionally excruciating to think about. So in other words, it’s not so much that we hit a limit or run out of energy; instead, we make strategic choices to avoid empathy if we think it’s going to be costly