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Sympathy

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it 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.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

What The Martian teaches us about the value of a statistical life

David Evans's picture

This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.

The Martian | Official Trailer


At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)
 

The Martian, bookThroughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at GiveWell.org estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.

Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?

Listening, watching…and forgetting

Sina Odugbemi's picture

People watch TV through shop windowMore and more of us these days consume news in a multiplatform manner, and every week, every day even, we learn about a fresh outrage that has occurred somewhere in the world.

Instantly.

The news media stay on each outrage for a while. A plane crashes. Why? How? The pilot flew the plane into the mountain? Goodness! Why? How did the airline miss his descent into madness? And on and on they go. For a while, it is a frenzy of analysis, fresh angles, scandal-hunting, scapegoats-sniffing and so on.

Eventually, the media move on to the next outrage. What is interesting is that we tend to move on before the media do. There is a lag before the media realize that we are bored with the story, that we are mentally blocking it, and that the readership or audience numbers are no longer sky-high.

That moving on from the intense coverage of the latest outrage that we do is what I find fascinating. For we don’t just move on, without conscious effort we try to forget about the outrage because we have to get on with our lives. We are naturally good at forgetting. The question is: why do we practice forgetting so skillfully?