The Limitations of Empathy: Friends or Foes

Finding Empathy in the Brain

Empathy is often described as a combination of three factors: cognitive empathy (thinking about another’s emotions), emotional empathy (sharing another’s emotions), and motivational empathy (caring about another’s emotions – or compassion). ‘Empathy is not just one thing, but rather it’s an umbrella term that describes the different ways that people respond to each other’s emotions,’ Stanford Psychologist Prof. Jamil Zaki explains.

Each of these, though closely connected, are actually independent psychological and neurological processes. In recent years, as researchers have started to probe the brain to better understand how empathy works at the neural level, studies are beginning to show how these three components can be teased apart in the brain.

At the very basic level, neuroscientists have found that empathy stimulates shared representations in the brain – participants activate the same neural areas in response to feeling pain and observing others in pain.

Ingroups and Outgroups

Empathy is biased – we are more likely to empathise with those who are from similar social, racial and political circles. Engendering a strong empathic response towards in-groups is a potent tool to mobilise people to a cause.

In competitive situations, rather than feeling sadness or distress at the sight of a suffering out-group member, people tend to feel pleasure at another’s pain, or ‘schadenfreude’, and will not feel motivated to aid them. There are even separate neural circuits that determine how we react to another group’s suffering.

Evaluations of Empathizers depend on the target of Empathy

Empathy is often depicted as an uncomplicated moral good — something we should unconditionally strive for. But the results of a recent study suggest a more complex situation, where empathy is morally relative rather than absolute. The social consequences of empathising with a disliked third party can be great.

This is also evident in perceived warmth, another seemingly straightforward trait. In this study, when an empathizer wasn’t liked or respected for their behaviour (i.e. due to empathising towards a disliked third party), they were still considered warm by others. These effects were present with both genders.

Further research could look at how this impacts all kinds of behaviour — that is, are we less likely to be friends with someone who has empathised with a group or person we dislike? And how does this affect significant processes like voting or endorsing political candidates?

Though we tend to think of empathy as something that exists between two people or groups, we rarely think about the observers witnessing it. This recent study shows that understanding the broader social context of empathy may help us better understand its true effects.