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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making

Decety, J. (2021).
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 


Although empathy drives prosocial behaviors, it is not always a reliable source of information in moral decision making. In this essay, I integrate evolutionary theory, behavioral economics, psychology, and social neuroscience to demonstrate why and how empathy is unconsciously and rapidly modulated by various social signals and situational factors. This theoretical framework explains why decision making that relies solely on empathy is not ideal and can, at times, erode ethical values. This perspective has social and societal implications and can be used to reduce cognitive biases and guide moral decisions.

From the Conclusion

Empathy can encourage overvaluing some people and ignoring others, and privileging one over many. Reasoning is therefore essential to filter and evaluate emotional responses that guide moral decisions. Understanding the ultimate causes and proximate mechanisms of empathy allows characterization of the kinds of signals that are prioritized and identification of situational factors that exacerbate empathic failure. Together, this knowledge is useful at a theoretical level, and additionally provides practical information about how to reframe situations to activate alternative evolved systems in ways that promote normative moral conduct compatible with current societal aspirations. This conceptual framework advances current understanding of the role of empathy in moral decision making and may inform efforts to correct personal biases. Becoming aware of one’s biases is not the most effective way to manage and mitigate them, but empathy is not something that can be ignored. It has an adaptive biological function, after all.