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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Choosing Empathy

A Conversation with Jamil Zaki
The Edge
Originally published October 19, 2015

Here are some excerpts:

The first narrative is that empathy is automatic. This goes all the way back to Adam Smith, who, to me, generated the first modern account of empathy in his beautiful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith described what he called the "fellow-feeling," through which people take on each other's states—very similar to what I would call experience sharing.              


That's one narrative, that empathy is automatic, and again, it’s compelling—backed by lots of evidence. But if you believe that empathy always occurs automatically, you run into a freight train of evidence to the contrary. As many of us know, there are lots of instances in which people could feel empathy, but don't. The prototype case here is intergroup settings. People who are divided by a war, or a political issue, or even a sports rivalry, often experience a collapse of their empathy. In many cases, these folks feel apathy for others on the other side of a group boundary. They fail to share, or think about, or feel concern for those other people's emotions.              

In other cases, it gets even worse: people feel overt antipathy towards others, for instance, taking pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone on the other side of a group boundary. What's interesting to me is that this occurs not only for group boundaries that are meaningful, like ethnicity or religion, but totally arbitrary groups. If I were to divide us into a red and blue team, without that taking on any more significance, you would be more likely to experience empathy for fellow red team members than for me (apparently I'm on team blue today).  

The entire post and video is here.