Empathy for You Cancels out Empathy for Me. So, What Gives?



The other week, I posted information on #stopasianhate to my personal Instagram, hoping to educate and elicit empathy among my peers. I was taken aback when a former classmate asked me to stop these posts because they made social media less “fun.” Instead of empathizing with my sorrow, he was asking that I empathize with his annoyance. What gives?

Why we choose not to empathize

Empathy is such an incredible cure, yet studies show that we have a robust preference to simply avoid it. Why? Sure, empathy takes some cognitive resources, but no more than other tasks or goals. We don’t shy away from empathy because it’s difficult. We shy away from empathy because it doesn’t serve us. It’s not about ability: it’s about motivation. We choose not to empathize because empathy for you feels like it cancels out empathy for me.

My classmate thought the situation was overblown and felt irritated that it disrupted his status quo. Empathy for me would involve thinking of the situation as real and feeling the weight of the status quo. Empathy for me would negate the empathy he was seeking from me. This zero-sum notion of empathy only spirals downward. Both sides demand empathy without giving it. In the end, neither receives.

Cognitive vs. emotional empathy

So what can we do about this empathy tug-of-war? First, we need to clarify what empathy is. Empathy has two components: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy involves thinking what the other is thinking, while emotional empathy involves feeling what the other is feeling. For example, a husband might practice cognitive empathy by understanding why #metoo exists but fail to practice emotional empathy by not feeling the same fear his wife feels.  Conversely, he might practice emotional empathy by feeling sad when his wife is crying but fail to practice cognitive empathy by not asking or understanding why she is sad.

Practicing empathy through film

Second, we need to stretch empathy like any other muscle. Here’s an easy empathy exercise: Instead of passively watching Netflix, imagine yourself vividly walking in the shoes of each character. Afterward, discuss with friends how different characters may have been thinking and feeling. Studies show that doing so can make you 3x as likely to exhibit prosocial behavior.1

This may come naturally for characters with whom you identify – after all, it’s because we see ourselves in heroes or heroines that we develop deep bonds with certain books or films. However, we are scientifically more motivated to empathize with people who look like us, are kind of us, and are close to us. This kind of empathy isn’t enough. Instead, try to empathize with the characters least like you, the antagonists to the protagonists you so cherish.

Conscious empathy in everyday life

Watching the news can be jarring. It’s difficult to imagine ourselves in extreme situations of horror or heartbreak. But don’t become desensitized or assume that because it hasn’t happened to you, it isn’t real. Instead, consider what it might feel like if you or your family were the ones on screen. What would you think? How would you feel?

In the future, virtual reality may be able to help us truly “live” the experience of another gender, race, socioeconomic class or sexual orientation. Preliminary use of VR simulations has proven to dramatically increase empathy and decrease out-group aggression. Perhaps one day, all DEI training will include some form of VR – to truly see through another’s eyes and walk in another’s shoes. But until then, our conscious practice of trying to think and feel what our colleagues and fellow citizens experience is the best we can do, even if it feels like it doesn’t serve us. Because continued empathy-for-you-cancels-out-empathy-for-me may only result in a nation further divided.

[1] Johnson, D. R., Cushman, G. K., Borden, L. A., & McCune, M. S. (2013). Potentiating empathic growth: Generating imagery while reading fiction increases empathy and prosocial behavior. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(3), 306–312. 


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