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Is Empathy Good or Bad?

The triumphs and perils of a supremely human trait
July 27, 2017 | Comments

Since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, many emotions have been swirling around in the American public. Some people feel enraged. Some feel vindicated. Others feel scared. Still others feel perplexed and helpless.

But there’s one emotion, one that’s perhaps uniquely human in many ways, that’s gotten a particularly sustained amount of attention: empathy. In the immediate aftermath of the election, many people proclaimed that Liberal “elites” had been out of touch with the majority of the American public for far too long, that these largely bi-coastal urban dwellers lived in “echo chambers” or bubbles and failed to understand the experiences of many Americans who felt desperate enough to turn to a man with little political experience and many offensive points of view for deliverance. Still others immediately found the answer in a greater emphasis on a handy human emotion that could help us understand each other better. That’s right, you guessed it: empathy.

Of course, this outpouring of opinions on the need for a greater degree of empathy in America led to an equally loud vein of questioning and opposition. Some were skeptical. Others were sure that empathy in this instance was downright wrong. And in the midst of all this, a very provocative book by Yale professor Paul Bloom came on the scene, arguing passionately that empathy is not only ineffective but actually dangerous.

Some people have fallen passionately on one side of the debate or the other. But most people have just been left asking: so is empathy good or bad?

We’ve followed these debates closely and with great interest. As usual, the issue here is that this emotion, like any human emotion, is complex. In many ways, it’s adaptive and wonderful. But in equally many other ways, it’s destructive and harmful. In the arena of science denial, we see empathy as potentially harmful in that it can cause people to pay more attention to individual stories than statistics and lead to serious miscalculation of risk. On the other hand, we have long advocated for more empathy on the part of healthcare professionals for patients who become confused or concerned about evidence-based practices like vaccines.

This month on Psychology Today, we take on this complex topic and weigh in on the evidence for and against empathy, offering a new take on its benefits and drawbacks. We hope you enjoy the piece and look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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