Did a lack of empathy cause both Brexit and Trump?

Since Barack Obama declared that America has an "empathy deficit", empathy has become a political buzzword. But is it always a force for good?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In 2006, the then senator Barack Obama declared that America’s greatest problem was its “empathy deficit”. Since then, empathy has been perpetually in the news, with neuroscientists mapping its location in the brain and everyone from politicians to psychologists offering it as a cure for society’s ills. A lack of empathy was blamed at once for Brexit and Trump’s victory, and for the failure by many to see those events coming.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, has reservations about this mania for empathy. His book explores various areas – charity, politics, intimate relations – in which he believes empathy does more harm than good, marshalling scientific research, thought experiments and real-world examples into a lively, systematic critique of the 21st century’s most fashionable virtue.

According to Bloom, empathy is “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does”. It is not understanding the way someone else experiences the world, or feeling concern towards others. In Bloom’s formulation: “If you feel bad for someone who is bored, that’s sympathy, but if you feel bored, that’s empathy.”

With a few examples, Bloom dismantles the argument that empathy is the basis of all morality. Most people would agree that dropping litter is wrong, but there is no clear victim of litter-dropping with whom to empathise. Most people believe in at least some degree of free speech, even if we empathise with those hurt by expressions of the free speech that we defend.

Bloom’s more provocative claim is that empathy leads to wrongdoing. Take a study carried out by the social psychologist C Daniel Batson and colleagues. Batson played participants an interview with a terminally ill ten-year-old called Sheri, and told them to try to “feel the full impact” of her suffering. He then asked if they wanted to move Sheri up the waiting list for access to a charity that improved the final years of sick children, though doing so would mean that other children, with greater priority, would have to wait longer. Three-quarters of the participants wanted to move her up, against only one-third of a group that had been played the same interview, but received instructions to remain objective. Empathy makes us make bad decisions, allocating resources in a way that ignores justice or need.

“Empathy is like a spotlight,” Bloom writes. It illuminates others, making vivid their pain and joy. But spotlights “only ­illuminate what they are pointed at”, and where we direct our empathy reflects our biases. We find it easier to empathise with the young, the attractive, those who look and think like us. Empathy, it turns out, is sentimental, superficial and racist. It’s of little use in tackling the biggest problems we face, from global poverty to climate change.

Empathy may prompt us to give money to the needy, but it also leads us to give in ways that diminish the effect of our money. Many people are “warm glow givers” – that is, they enjoy the burst of pleasure they experience each time they give to charity. As a result, they are more likely to give small amounts to many charities than to give one large sum to a single organisation. But processing donations costs money: the same sum, split between five charities, will go less far than if given to only one.

Where others praise empathy’s ability to overcome divisions, Bloom worries about its tendency to deepen them. The fact that we empathise more readily with those of our race, religion or nationality allows empathy to be used for nationalistic ends. Anti-immigrant rhetoric, for instance, trades on empathy, stressing the pain of native-born, working-class people who can’t find jobs, or focusing on victims of crimes perpetrated by immigrants. (During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the murder of Kate Steinle, a white woman allegedly shot by an undocumented Mexican immigrant in 2015.)

Defenders of empathy typically recommend that we try to change our biases, training ourselves to feel as deeply with the different or the distant as we do with those at home. Bloom argues that this is bound to fail: we will never feel as much for a stranger’s child as we do for our own. (Even if we could, it might not be a good thing: one study suggests that high-empathy individuals have higher levels of aggression.) Instead, we should train ourselves to think about consequences, and to respond to situations with “rational compassion”. This demands approaching others with warmth and understanding but remaining emotionally detached when deciding how to act.

What constitutes “rationality” and “objectivity” is far from straightforward, and Bloom is only partly convincing in his attempts to discredit recent research suggesting that human beings are frequently and obliviously irrational. Nevertheless, in an age in which politicians denigrate experts and offer “alternative facts”, there is much to celebrate in the suggestion that we focus on expanding our capacity to reason, to interpret information and to act effectively.

The weakest parts of Bloom’s book are those concerning individual relationships. No one wants a lover or parent who panics when you panic, he argues; no one wants a doctor who weeps while giving you bad news about your own health. But empathy in such contexts usually signifies something like “understanding the other’s perspective and responding appropriately” (which Bloom favours). His argument here suffers from his narrow definition of empathy.

Peter Bazalgette’s book has the ­opposite problem. Bazalgette is a former chair of Arts Council England who now leads the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, and is the TV executive who was responsible for bringing Big Brother to Britain. The Empathy Instinct presents studies showing how we unconsciously mimic one another, which many neuroscientists see as the basis of our ability to empathise. When a macaque reaches for a raisin, the same “mirror neurons” in the monkey’s brain activate as when he watches another monkey reach for a raisin. Babies cry in response to other babies’ cries; yawning is contagious. Bazalgette argues that we should use this “empathy instinct” to inform how we approach every realm of society, from health care and education to social media and conflict resolution.

Bazalgette highlights certain benefits of empathy that Bloom overlooks: for ­instance, the prison programmes he describes in which offenders meet their victims and, on learning to empathise with their suffering, make amends. But other recommendations, such as offering prisoners cognitive behavioural therapy and opportunities for education, seem to have little to do with empathy.

This vagueness is present from the first chapter, in which the author blames the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Armenian Massacre on failures of empathy, and follows this by suggesting that individuals who helped the victims of those genocides did so because of their exceptional empathy. Kindness, compassion, respect for human dignity: all are viewed as subcategories and sometimes even as synonyms of empathy. As a result, he often seems only to be making the colourless recommendation that we treat each other nicely.

Bazalgette emphasises art’s ability to produce empathy. If this leads to increased funding, we should rejoice. But the unreflectively celebratory tone of The Empathy Instinct made me as uneasy about the fetishisation of empathy as anything in Bloom’s book. Bazalgette praises a charity that asks the public to “vote for the most empathetic films” and he describes schoolchildren putting on “empathy shows” and singing a song with the words: “Empathy is great. We love empathy. You should too.” It may be that, contra Bloom, empathy is, on balance, a force for good. But The Empathy Instinct unintentionally shows the impoverishment of moral and aesthetic conversation that we risk if empathy becomes the only virtue a human being or work of art need possess. 

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom is published by Bodley Head (285pp, £18.99)
The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society by Peter Bazalgette is published by John Murray (375pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage