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Discussion Starter #1
I originally posted a slightly edited version of this on the INTJ forum, but it was suggested that I should cross-post this on a more general board in order to get a greater variety of opinions.

I recently read a book entitled Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom and will be summarizing his arguments in here and adding my own commentary. Modern society has developed a very high opinion of affective empathy. This is not to be confused with cognitive empathy. Affective empathy deals with feeling the feelings of others, while cognitive empathy deals with understanding the feelings of others.

From the practical perspective, this affective empathy prompts poor decision making. When we empathize with someone, we are prone to go out of our way to help this person. This is meant to be a major selling point, but this tendency often manifests in irrational ways. A study was done where a ill girl was waiting for needed medication from a charity. Participants read a story about her and were asked if she should be allowed to cut in line for this medication. Those who read a version that led them to empathize were more likely to let her cut, even though his hurt the children that were ahead of her.

Much of the adulation for affective empathy that we see owes to it being seen as a necessary condition for doing good deeds. This does not bear out, as people can be altruistic for ethical reasons as well (that is, they can be motivated by Fi and not Fe, to bring it into the MBTI context). A wealthy philanthropist donated his own kidney on the grounds that the odds of dying in the surgery were 1 in 4,000, so to not donate would mean that he valued his life 4,000x as much as a stranger's. Furthermore, studies have found that nurses who rate highly in affective empathy actually spend less time helping patients, as they are forced to seek comfort from other hospital staff to deal with their empathetic reaction.

A point the author did not touch on but occurred to me, is also the inaccuracy of empathy. I have been in situations where someone empathizes with a plight that I am unfazed by, and they waste time and energy being concerned with it. Many of the boosters of empathy imagine that it is a better route to identifying with other people than sheer rationality, but this concept is largely unfounded. Feelings, like thoughts, are personal to the individual. In trying to focus on the feelings of others, you create a conception of that person that is necessarily incomplete and potentially very inaccurate.

I'd be interested in hearing people's takes on this argument. The INTJ crowd tended to be pretty receptive, but I know that there is a multiplicity of opinions out there.
 

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Against empathy - suggests a lack of empathy which in turn suggests tendency towards sociopathy.
My main lens that I view life through is social inclusion.

If you can not empathise with a position but are tolerant (for the lack of a better word), you are not showing empathy but sympathy. "Inaccuracy of empathy" would also imply sympathy assuming you mean you don't get it and don't mean something like MAN UP.

Brene Brown is my go to on this subject and this sums up her and my view loverly.
 

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As usual with INTJ thinking and aims there is too much concern with rationality or awareness in general, and the motivation is soundly based in fear.

If one lets go of fear, or restrains it to balance it with anger and desire, one is left with being or presence (anger) and will (desire). There are moral aims of fear and some of them are to be aware in general, to be prepared, to experience all that is. But the downside of fear is paralysis, inaction, and confusion. This can lead to the over-active analysis, past awe and on into nihilism. That is the general case rational INTJ error.

Analysis paralysis, no matter the current state of awareness, is a failing. You ARE correctly pointing out the possible and likely failing of other types. Well done. Just be aware your type has them also. And they are BY DEFINITION equally as bad. Awareness is actually overrated, ... and ... simultaneously, it cannot be valued enough.

Like all virtues, the irrational seeming effort towards perfection-aiming is required to be moral. Awestruck, yet, you must act. Desire and affective empathy will allow you to act. Do not decry their existence or use.
 

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Against empathy - suggests a lack of empathy which in turn suggests tendency towards sociopathy.
My main lens that I view life through is social inclusion.

If you can not empathise with a position but are tolerant (for the lack of a better word), you are not showing empathy but sympathy. "Inaccuracy of empathy" would also imply sympathy assuming you mean you don't get it and don't mean something like MAN UP.

Brene Brown is my go to on this subject and this sums up her and my view loverly.
Hahaha I'm probably the only social worker who disagrees with Brene Brown on sympathy vs. empathy. This is a giant cultural thing now: sympathy gets a bad reputation while empathy is glorified. But you can feel the feeling of someone else and understand them and still be indifferent to their plight. So basically, you can still be empathetic and be a jerk.

Sympathy is nothing more or less than feeling for someone. Feeling grief or sorrow for someone else. Not just trying to silver line someone's misfortune. That's just a badly done attempt at comforting. Sometimes sympathy is even defined as an "understanding between people - a common feeling" like, "There was a special sympathy between them". Essentially, I think we've just started calling any emotional connection between people as "empathy" now and this has gotten a very good reputation as of late.

@PiT - you bring up interesting points. I have felt affective empathy and certainly I've felt sympathy for many people I've worked with. But if there is one thing I've come to understand, you can't make impulsive decisions. I don't think affective empathy is to blame. Just bad decision making. It is possible to feel someone else's feelings and yet still give proper care and make good decisions even while feeling all of those things. And I think this can be good because you understand someone's feeling in a less distant way. You can form an emotional connection with this person and they can form one with you and that can be a beautiful, valuable thing. I don't think affective empathy is what this guy is trying to criticize - he is just criticizing people who say they feel what other people feel.

I've felt for and with people who don't have a home and have to be on some waiting list. But if I could let them cut in that line, I know that's not right either. If I did that, there's someone else I'm not seeing. What is important is being with that person, treating them as someone with inherent dignity and worth, and using wisdom to figure out the best course of action.

But yes, it's important not to be impulsive and make sure you're focused on more than just the moment and coming up with short term solutions to problems.
 

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Affective empathy is a very important part of being human and one that keeps us alive. With it we can relate to other people and not harm each other. Arguing against affective empathy in general is nonsense. Wanting to have a balance between affective empathy, cognitive empathy and rational decisions is of course desirable, as yes, empathy can be applied in ways that bring negative results, but that's not because empathy is wrong but because we are unbalanced. We can use affective empathy to feel for the child who needs a transplant, but we can also expand this and empathize with all the rest and make a rational decision based on that. Empathy is important and necessary and we can understand just how much when we look at the cases of sociopaths/psychopaths and what happens then.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
Against empathy - suggests a lack of empathy which in turn suggests tendency towards sociopathy.
My main lens that I view life through is social inclusion.
I haven't had the opportunity to follow this thread too closely, but I wanted to take the time briefly to comment on this because it cuts to the heart of what motivated me to read this book and make this topic. This line of thinking is a common problem. To suppose that a lack of empathy implies sociopathy supposes that there are no other motivations for good behavior. It is true that low empathy is a characteristic of sociopathy, but so are other features such as antisocial and egotistical behavior. There are many reasons unrelated to empathy to behave in a considerate fashion.

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Getting at a point that several people have raised, affective empathy certainly isn't an unconditionally bad thing. I have personally been the recipient of kind and helpful acts out of empathy as well as useless and annoying ones. The problem is more that there is a trend to think of it as an unconditionally good thing (so much so that Simon Baron-Cohen, a respected research psychologist, described evil as "the erosion of empathy"). There is no shortage of thought in educated circles today to articulate the shortcomings of pure reason, and so I do not actually do this here. Pointing to the shortcomings of empathy is comparatively a radical position.
 

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This author is confused! he is talking about Compassion and Sympathy and not Empathy. The examples do not represent Empathy in anyway. Just another example of an author muddying the water to get recognition and sell books

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object.
 

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Discussion Starter #8
This author is confused! he is talking about Compassion and Sympathy and not Empathy. The examples do not represent Empathy in anyway. Just another example of an author muddying the water to get recognition and sell books

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object.
If by "sharing his emotions" you are referring to "feeling those emotions yourself", that's exactly what the author is talking about. The point is that this empathetic feeling can prompt people to act in irrational ways that are of no benefit to the person they are empathizing with. Sympathy and compassion are great, but they need to be employed with care. To act impulsively based off untempered emotion can often be damaging in its results.
 

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I haven't had the opportunity to follow this thread too closely, but I wanted to take the time briefly to comment on this because it cuts to the heart of what motivated me to read this book and make this topic. This line of thinking is a common problem. To suppose that a lack of empathy implies sociopathy supposes that there are no other motivations for good behavior. It is true that low empathy is a characteristic of sociopathy, but so are other features such as antisocial and egotistical behavior. There are many reasons unrelated to empathy to behave in a considerate fashion.

---

Getting at a point that several people have raised, affective empathy certainly isn't an unconditionally bad thing. I have personally been the recipient of kind and helpful acts out of empathy as well as useless and annoying ones. The problem is more that there is a trend to think of it as an unconditionally good thing (so much so that Simon Baron-Cohen, a respected research psychologist, described evil as "the erosion of empathy"). There is no shortage of thought in educated circles today to articulate the shortcomings of pure reason, and so I do not actually do this here. Pointing to the shortcomings of empathy is comparatively a radical position.
Do you think it is really just unchecked empathy that is the cause of these unthoughtful and not helpful actions?

I'm being extremely nitpicky. At the heart of this I am sure I agree with you. It's more a mindset you're talking about. Many people just glorify empathy now and strive for it, but we're not simultaneously emphasizing the importance of other things - like taking other things about the whole situation into consideration and actually making a wise decision. Aka: being rational, like you said, or employing rational compassion.
 

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The point is that this empathetic feeling can prompt people to act in irrational ways that are of no benefit to the person they are empathizing with. Sympathy and compassion are great, but they need to be employed with care. To act impulsively based off untempered emotion can often be damaging in its results.

I completely disagree.

Empathic feeling cannot prompt you into acting irrationally, You are either providing empathy or you are not, if you are not then you have crossed over into delivering sympathy or compassion and are no longer providing empathy.

Empathy is not a one way street where one person uses empathy on another person and then takes action on behalf of the other person.

For Empathy to exist it must be experienced by the other person in the relationship. This is what happens in therapy. Empathy is not an active/action based process

Most people cannot recognise the difference between Empathy, Sympathy or Compassion that is usually left to the professionally trained.

It takes many years of training to get empathy right (undergraduates struggle with the concept) and even then you must check with the client to confirm that your empathic understanding is correct.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
Do you think it is really just unchecked empathy that is the cause of these unthoughtful and not helpful actions?

I'm being extremely nitpicky. At the heart of this I am sure I agree with you. It's more a mindset you're talking about. Many people just glorify empathy now and strive for it, but we're not simultaneously emphasizing the importance of other things - like taking other things about the whole situation into consideration and actually making a wise decision. Aka: being rational, like you said, or employing rational compassion.
There are other reasons people can be unthoughtful, definitely. Ultimately it's important to adopt a balanced viewpoint. The problem is doing this harder than just acting based off of one form of principle. People naturally seek shortcuts, even if they don't make sense.

I completely disagree.

Empathic feeling cannot prompt you into acting irrationally, You are either providing empathy or you are not, if you are not then you have crossed over into delivering sympathy or compassion and are no longer providing empathy.

Empathy is not a one way street where one person uses empathy on another person and then takes action on behalf of the other person.

For Empathy to exist it must be experienced by the other person in the relationship. This is what happens in therapy. Empathy is not an active/action based process

Most people cannot recognise the difference between Empathy, Sympathy or Compassion that is usually left to the professionally trained.

It takes many years of training to get empathy right (undergraduates struggle with the concept) and even then you must check with the client to confirm that your empathic understanding is correct.
But you defined empathy as including "sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress". To deny that this phenomenon can prompt people to act irrationally would be to deny that emotions can prompt people to act irrationally, which is a non-starter as an argument. The concept that empathy must be experienced by its target strikes me as wholly arbitrary; for the subject who is having the empathetic response, it hardly matters whether the other person is in front of them or across the world. Indeed, I have a hard time imagining a fictional character experiencing my empathetic feeling for them, yet you have specified that they can prompt an empathetic response.
 

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Well, the issue here is the behavior of the person after using empathy, not empathy itself. Which means different empathy users will behave in different ways, when combined with other factors. The other factors have a strong impact on whether the action will be negative or positive to the target of the empathy. Empathy itself is sort of objective...it feels the emotion of the other person, but it doesn't necessarily lead to positive or negative behavior. Like @Jewl said, somebody can be very empathetic but still be a jerk. They could know you are suffering, but still choose not to do anything about it or even make it worse for you. The behavior after using empathy is a result of different factors that make up a person's character. For example, if one considers letting the ill little girl cut in line, but not considering the illness of others before her, that is either selfish or not well thought out, but not actually due to using empathy, as the situation could have gone the other way if the person used other factors to come to their decision. Therefore, no I don't think using empathy is detrimental to the target of the empathy.
 

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@master of time and space, are you a trained therapist? That is incredibly neat. Just got my BSW in social work and I'm applying to graduate school right now. :) I hope to be able to provide that sort of support to someone in the future - at least I want to have the skill. What population of people do you work with or have you worked with?

I think all @PiT is getting at is that while empathy can be good especially in a therapeutic relationship, there are times when even the most skilled therapist will be moved after feeling what their client is feeling. Empathy leads to stuff like sympathy and compassion. All three often go hand in hand. Sometimes this can lead to mistakes. Boundaries being crossed is probably the most common one. It does happen. No one is immune. It takes a lot of work and skill to feel what another is feeling, form that empathetic connection, and not have problems as a result. Like coming home and bringing your work with you.

I remember having a difficult time coming home after having just listened to a client I was working with who had been raped. She wanted to talk to someone about it, and I just happened to be the one there. I felt with her - all the anger she felt at how the court case went, the anger she felt towards the guy who did it, and the deep pain and shame that was underneath it all that she didn't have as much insight into herself. But oh, it was there. We formed a good connection, such that she felt I understood her and that she could talk. I tried to just listen and validate her feelings. Didn't want to give any advice or confront anything. Besides, it was just too fresh, I think.

When I got home I'd been so busy listening to her openly and actively and feeling with her that I hadn't had the time to process my own emotions. It was a terribly difficult night. I wished then that I had some coping skills to deal with something like that. It interfered with my sleep that night. If I'd had to go to work the next day, the lack of sleep would've impacted my performance.

While empathy was not to blame per se, it certainly contributed.
 

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As someone who suffers from emotional overwhelm on a regular basis due to involuntary empathy, I've come to separate the concept of empathy from care and compassion. I think of care and compassion as a conscious act, for which empathy may be the catalyst but may also cause unnecessary suffering in the process. I want to choose care and compassion, without being carried away on a tide of emotion and sometimes submerged to the extent that I feel like I am drowning. Some days I feel so exhausted and stressed by the emotions of people around me that I am barely able to function. So I do agree that being able to detach myself from this extreme would help me to care for others better sometimes, because I would feel stronger and healthier myself. To what extent we can actually choose or reject empathy though I think is another matter. I think people tend to be wired in different ways, and some people naturally will be more emotionally empathetic than others. Those who are, and those who aren't, are not more or less caring than each other. So I don't think empathy should be 'condemned' or that people who are empathetic should be considered inferior in any way. No more than I think people who are not naturally wired to be emotionally empathetic should be labelled as uncaring or unfeeling. I think we need to recognise this, and also that care is a decision that we make irrespective of how we feel.

Anyway, I'd not heard of Paul Bloom before. Here is a youtube video that may do a better job of explaining his perspective than (with respect) the OP can in a couple of paragraphs. I wouldn't say that everything he says resonates with me, because he's clearly coloured by his own personal experience and perspective too (just as we all are), but he's reasonable, sincere and has good intent. I have a lot of time for people like that. I am also glad that he acknowledges that there is a place for empathy, and how in intimate and close relationships we want the people we love to empathise with us even if this means they suffer with us. It is the comfort of knowing that we are 'in it together'. I've said elsewhere that at the heart of empathy (along the lines of Brene Brown) is the sentiment "me too". A sentiment that is free of judgment and sometimes even understanding. But we can't be "me too" with every stranger we meet, and I don't think it is necessary or wise, if we had a choice:


ETA: I think some people have too much empathy and some people have too little. Too much empathy can be emotionally crippling, too little empathy can remove the strongest incentive to be compassionate (whatever Paul Bloom says, we are motivated most strongly by our feelings, whether we extrovert them or not). I think empathy also allows us to connect to others on a subconscious level, that is almost magical, and I think those who don't have much of it can't appreciate what that means. Connection in itself is not the same as care though. As I've already said, I suffer from involuntary empathy for people I don't even know or care about, and in such cases my empathy only hurts me and helps no one.
 

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I wish I had more of that soft mushy feely stuff. Some people don't think it even exists. I would have a richer life.
You probably have a lot of that soft mushy feely stuff already. It sounds like it to me from your post. A tender kind of longing. I don't think of empathy as necessarily equating to the amount of soft mushy stuff :)
 

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Discussion Starter #18 (Edited)
Do you think it is really just unchecked empathy that is the cause of these unthoughtful and not helpful actions?

I'm being extremely nitpicky. At the heart of this I am sure I agree with you. It's more a mindset you're talking about. Many people just glorify empathy now and strive for it, but we're not simultaneously emphasizing the importance of other things - like taking other things about the whole situation into consideration and actually making a wise decision. Aka: being rational, like you said, or employing rational compassion.
There are certainly other reasons that someone might engage in unthoughtful actions. People are complex beings, not easily broken down into single causes. Naturally, complex beings demand complex decision-making processes. Diversifying is important.

Well, the issue here is the behavior of the person after using empathy, not empathy itself. Which means different empathy users will behave in different ways, when combined with other factors. The other factors have a strong impact on whether the action will be negative or positive to the target of the empathy. Empathy itself is sort of objective...it feels the emotion of the other person, but it doesn't necessarily lead to positive or negative behavior. Like @Jewl said, somebody can be very empathetic but still be a jerk. They could know you are suffering, but still choose not to do anything about it or even make it worse for you. The behavior after using empathy is a result of different factors that make up a person's character. For example, if one considers letting the ill little girl cut in line, but not considering the illness of others before her, that is either selfish or not well thought out, but not actually due to using empathy, as the situation could have gone the other way if the person used other factors to come to their decision. Therefore, no I don't think using empathy is detrimental to the target of the empathy.
There are various studies, a couple of which I refer to, wherein inducing an empathetic response in people makes them more likely to engage in certain undesirable behaviors. I agree that the problems here have to do with more than pure empathy in itself and that empathy isn't always a bad thing. With that said, much as how unemotional reason can cause problems by leading someone to callously ignore human suffering, illogical empathy can cause problems by persuading someone to take actions that seem good on the surface but are ultimately ineffectual. The title "Against Empathy" is highly provocative, but the ultimate point is not that emotion is bad so much as it is that you need reason to support and temper your emotional response.
 

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There are various studies, a couple of which I refer to, wherein inducing an empathetic response in people makes them more likely to engage in certain undesirable behaviors. I agree that the problems here have to do with more than pure empathy in itself and that empathy isn't always a bad thing. With that said, much as how unemotional reason can cause problems by leading someone to callously ignore human suffering, illogical empathy can cause problems by persuading someone to take actions that seem good on the surface but are ultimately ineffectual. The title "Against Empathy" is highly provocative, but the ultimate point is not that emotion is bad so much as it is that you need reason to support and temper your emotional response.
^ This is super important. This is really neat, @PiT, and this probably is a conversation that needs to be had since emphasis is on glorifying empathy and emotional connection lately. It's necessary to have that balance.
 

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A point the author did not touch on but occurred to me, is also the inaccuracy of empathy. I have been in situations where someone empathizes with a plight that I am unfazed by, and they waste time and energy being concerned with it. Many of the boosters of empathy imagine that it is a better route to identifying with other people than sheer rationality, but this concept is largely unfounded. Feelings, like thoughts, are personal to the individual. In trying to focus on the feelings of others, you create a conception of that person that is necessarily incomplete and potentially very inaccurate.
This is a very good discussion for sure. It seems the core of the issue was all discussed and came to a closure, and I wanted to say I agree with your points.

The part I quoted was something I recently thought about. It seems there wasn't too in-depth conversation of this portion (correct me if I am wrong. I may have missed it). I don't have any specific studies to back up what my train of thought, but it seems we project our emotional response of situation onto the other and even find them strange when they are found unhindered by the situation. So it is actually difficult for me to understand the word 'empathy' in a conventional sense. The definition of empathy is "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." But in this case, we are only feeling what is triggered in our own brains after observing the other person, and 'empathizing' the way yourself would want to be empathized.

Then I start getting very nit-picky and think about the act more likely to be labelled as "empathetic" and the inner workings of empathy. It's difficult for me to articulate for me at this point, but from similar train of thought you had, I couldn't draw any definite conclusion. Instead, I ended up asking the question, "Well, then, is empathy even a thing? Or is it some sort of formula the society created?"

Bottom-line: Although I still am unable to draw any conclusions, I found this discussion very interesting. Thank you. If you have any additional comments on this, don't hesitate to make them.
 
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