Against Empathy. Really?

Picture credits: Coonoor.medium.com

Imagine I am walking down a road to buy some groceries. On the sidewalk I see a homeless man who is begging for money. Some people give him the money while others pass by as if he doesn’t exist. I, on the other hand, trying my best to use my psychology degree to understand my own emotions while looking at a homeless man. Humans feel diverse emotions in their everyday lives. We feel anger, disgust, love, sadness, empathy, jealousy, envy, compassion, etc. We cannot eliminate these emotions altogether. But when they start getting out of our control (especially negative emotions) we should pause for a moment, accept what we are feeling and deal with them with utmost calmness and patience. 

Empathy is one of the emotions that is in spotlight because recent data in experimental psychology clearly says that it is good for our overall well-being. We should be kind and empathetic towards people and if we believe it is hard we can always become one through continuous practice. Empathy is about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s about feeling what they are feeling. Nothing wrong with that, eh? Well, looks like someone thinks a bit differently. Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology at Yale University has written a book called “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”. You can say that this post is inspired by his argumentin the book. Professor Bloom argues that empathy is a poor moral guide. It exhausts and drains us completely. Going back to the scenario I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if I am going to be empathetic towards the homeless man then I will be putting myself in his situation. I’ll be feeling what he is feeling in that moment. I cannot speak for everyone but I am pretty sure I’ll be having a hard time to control myself because seeing someone in a situation where they are unable to meet their basic requirements is not easy. I’ll be drained emotionally, at least for some time. 

What should I do then? Should I just shut off my moral engine and become a misanthrope? No. I am not supposed to perceive the world as ‘me’ v/s ‘them’. Rather, what professor Bloom says is we should practice another emotion and that’s compassion. Compassion is about caring about other people but not necessarily feeling their suffering. So, in the case of an imagined homeless man compassion will allow me to care about him but not feel his suffering to an extent that I myself start suffering. There is a fine line between empathy and compassion but rather an important one. Clinical studies have also been done on empathy and compassion and their findings are quite interesting. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist at the Max Planck Society in Germany is very well known in the study of empathy and compassion. She and her colleagues conducted a study where some participants were asked to practice empathy meditation and others compassion meditation. Their brain activities were recorded under a fMRI scanner. It was found that empathy was unpleasant and exhausting. On the other hand, compassion was exhilarating and more positive. 

In his book professor Bloom talked about two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy is a kind of empathy that allows us to process other people’s motivations, plans, etc. In other words, we are able to understand the mental state of others. So, if one of my good friends lost her job and I am able to understand why she is feeling sad or disappointed then I am probably practising cognitive empathy. However, in case of emotional empathy I will start putting myself in her shoes and start experiencing every little emotion she is feeling. This will not only be debilitating for me but I will also fail to help her out of the situation because I, too, am messed up. Empathy is said to be biased: we tend to be more empathetic towards people who are our loved ones than anonymous strangers. This eventually narrows down the scope of empathy. As Mother Teresa rightly put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” 

A relationship between a client and therapist might make the argument more concrete. If a therapist during a counselling session practices empathy then he or she will be very exhausted. It is because by being empathetic the therapist is feeling everything his or her client is feeling: all the emotions. This is not good as it will cloud therapist’s ability to act rationally and professionally. The whole rationale behind the psychotherapy will remain unfulfilled. 

Before becoming the president of The United States of America, Barack Obama gave a speech and an excerpt of his speech is:

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.

Mr Obama was right when he appealed to everyone to be empathetic towards people who are distant strangers. Empathy does play a crucial role: when we are empathetic we tend to help people more. I highly doubt if that is a bad thing. But if that same empathy starts to back fire we need to keep aside our empathy and be more compassionate. 

The worst virus you could possibly get infected with

Picture credits: thespiritscience.net

Let me start by asking a very simple question: “What do you think is a virus?”

Let me help you a bit. A virus is an ‘infective’ agent that is ‘too small’ to be seen by light microscopy and multiplies only within living cells of a host.

Coronavirus disease is caused by one of the types of coronaviruses. So, yes it is a virus. What I have been seeing lately is that people are not only getting infected with corona-virus but also a virus of illogical beliefs and unscientific ideas. It is infectious, no doubt. It passes from one person to another and then throughout communities. It is so small that you cannot look at a person and say he/she is suffering from this virus. Their qualifications and living standards might trick you into believing that they are sane people when actually they are very dumb.

I see many people not wearing masks. I see people not following social distancing. And I also know many people who are travelling as if there never was any COVID-19 pandemic. Do I feel angry at them? Of course I do. I get very frustrated. But more than frustration I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry because they are suffering from such a deadly virus of stupid beliefs and they do not even know about it. What’s even more saddening is that so many of them are qualified, smart and good people. But the pandemic has brought about their true colors. The stoics were wise enough to know how such a kind of virus is so deadly and lethal. Marcus Aurelius, a famous stoic around 2,000 years ago said very aptly during the Antonine Plague, “An infected mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any plague. One only threatens your life; the other destroys your character.” I do not mean to sound judgemental and rude but I am getting a very fine idea about people’s characters these days.

Research has shown that wearing masks actually reduces the spread of virus to a greater extent. Yet people do not do it. Why is it that people do not want to wear masks? Why are they so hesitant and arrogant enough to put their and other people’s lives in danger by not wearing masks? As it turns out there are many reasons to it.

People do not like it whenever they are told what to do. It is simply a human psychology. So, when they are asked to wear face masks they start believing their freedom has been snatched away from them and so they act out and do the opposite. “People value their freedoms. They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.” said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at University British Columbia and an author of a book “The Psychology of Pandemics”.

Everyone is exposed to different kind of information and the kind of information they have always been exposed to determine their ability to perceive anything. In this case, everyone’s risk perception towards COVID-19 varies a lot. And it decides if people are going to wear masks or not. Also, a direct experience with the virus will also shape your ability to wear a mask. People who had/have contracted the virus and suffered because of it will be much more careful than the ones who didn’t get an infection.

It is also common among people to believe that wearing masks make them look weak in front of others. So to compensate for that people do not wear masks at all. They do not want others to think of them as ‘scared beings’.

It is not easy to change human psychology especially during these uncertain and difficult times. A belief about anything cannot be changed in a moment. So, if people are infected with close-mindedness, they are impervious to reason and scientific evidences then the job becomes really hard.

We still need to try. As I said, the job is not easy but we have to try. We should and we must. Telling people blatantly to wear masks might not be the best way to make them wear one. Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard wrote an article on males who wouldn’t wear masks with a marked lack of shaming. After that many men got in touch with her and opened their minds to listen to her views. We can try changing people’s beliefs about things if we show some empathy towards them. Also, there is a need to make things less confusing- leaders, famous and successful people should set up good examples. If these people are not going to wear masks themselves and follow social distancing then it will definitely get very confusing for others to figure out what should be done.

We need to re-define the “How are you?” question

Picture credits: singinghands.co.uk

Friend: Hi.

You: Hello.

Friend: How are you?

You: I am good. How are you?

Friend: I am good too.

(The biggest and most meaningful conversation just ended).

I am pretty sure this sounds familiar. Happens with me. Probably happens with you too.

We are living in the modern world of meaningless conversations and small talks. It is like everything is superficial. We might have some good intention behind asking our friends or loved ones how they are. It is necessary that we ask them. But in the midst of a noble intention sometimes we don’t realize that we are not very observant of what we are asking and what our closed ones are replying. Sometimes or I should say most of the time (in this modern world) we don’t see the pattern in our repeated questions and answers. That is why it is high time that we re-define the “How are you?” question.

“How are you” shouldn’t always be about work

How many times you ask someone how they are and you literally mean ‘how is your work’ or ‘how is your  internship/job going’  or ‘how’s studies going at the university’ or ‘how many online courses have you done during the COVID-19 pandemic’? Again, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I know it is going to sound cliche and you probably have heard it many times before- work is just a part of life, it is not the life. We don’t try to understand that may be someone out there doesn’t want us to ask how their professional life is going. Maybe they want us to ask them how they are doing besides their work. It’s like we have made up our lives totally about professional success. We constantly identify ourselves with the kind of work we do, our professional accomplishments, etc. as if life ends and begins with mere work. The next time you ask someone about their life make sure you don’t just make it about work. Be kind and humble enough to be a little bit observant. You might make their day better. 

“How are you” is also about- how are you regulating your emotions and what can I do to help if they are unregulated at this point of time

Everyone struggles. While it may be true that some people have to struggle a lot more than others, still, the bottom line is: we all struggle. It is inevitable. With different kinds of challenges and obstacles come different emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, disgust, happiness, envy, jealously, pleasure, etc. Sadly, we are very ignorant when it comes to understanding people’s varied emotions. We don’t care enough to ask how they are regulating their emotions. And so, extending a hand for help never crosses our minds. It is possible that such ignorance is unintentional and we aren’t aware of such little things. Nevertheless, it is high time that we help our loved ones in regulating their emotions- even if they ask for our help or not.

If you’re okay with their “I am fine” replies, stop asking your “how are you” question

How are you?” “I am fine.” Done. Trust me, nobody is fine. There is always something going on in everybody’s life. It’s just that some people hide it better than the others. Our problem is that we let it go if someone says he or she is fine. I think a little push is what we need so that we create a comfortable environment for our closed ones to be able to share things with us. I don’t think we should be very quick in jumping on to another question whenever someone says they are fine. It is like we are all doing a formality by asking our superfluous the “How are you?” question.  

It is easy to ask “How are you?”. But it is very difficult to bear with the real story behind that question.