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Empathy Is Overrated – And It Can Actually Prolong Suffering

Oasis had it right: stop crying your heart out. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy may be working against our best interests, and that compassion may be a better strategy.

Paul Bloom: I argued empathy is a poor moral guide. It’s biased. It’s enumerate. It zaps the spirit. It can be weaponized to make us worse people. But one question I often get is what replaces it? And in my book I make a distinction between empathy and compassion. Now a lot of people think the terms mean the same thing and it’s not an argument of words. You can use whatever words you want. But psychologically there are two different processes. One is what I’ve been calling empathy which is you’re suffering, I put myself in your shoes. I feel your pain and that has all sorts of effects, most of them bad I would argue. But a second distinct process is compassion where I care about you. I care about your welfare but I don’t necessarily feel your suffering. Now you might say well that’s just a verbal difference or how do we know such a compassion exists. But there’s some really cool research exploring this and actually I got into this because I was at a conference in London and I bumped into Matthieu Ricard. He was hard to miss, long saffron robes, beatific smile. The happiest man on earth. And I got to talking to him and he asked me what I was up to and I told him that I was against empathy. And to me that felt kind of awkward but I thought, you know, telling a monk you’re against empathy. But he said oh, empathy. Of course you should be against empathy. And he began to tell me about his research and then I realized there’s a body of research, neuroscience research that distinguishes empathy from compassion, exactly the distinction I was looking for where they put people in scanners, FMRI scanners and they get them to engage in empathy meditation where you feel the suffering of the other person.

You imagine feeling it. And you compare that to compassion meditation where you care for people. Loving kindness they call it. Without any empathic connection. And this work which was done in collaboration to the neuroscientist Tania Singer illustrates a real sharp difference where empathy is exhausting, it is unpleasant, it is difficult and it makes you withdraw. Compassion is exhilarating, it’s energizing, it is seen as a positive experience and it makes you approach. It makes you more likely to help. And since then there’s been other researchers. Some work by David DeSteno out of Northwestern looking at the effects of mindfulness meditation. And I’m naturally skeptical about this work. A lot of claims about mindfulness meditation are often overblown and I think we should be cautious about them. But DeSteno’s work has been replicated a few times and it seems robust. And the finding is it makes us nicer. It makes us more compassionate and more kind for strangers. And there’s not exactly consensus as to why this is so but one speculation they have is it makes us nicer because it dampens our empathic feelings. Less empathy, more compassion, more kindness.

A lot of relationships are based on other things and I actually think for many relationships empathy gets in the way. So think about what you want from a doctor or a therapist. You want them to understand you. You want them to care about you. But do you want them to feel your pain and feel your suffering? On the one hand if they do so, they’ll be exhausted. They’ll suffer from burnout. If a therapist sees a series of patients for 50 minutes each day and she feels their depression, their anxiety, their fear, their anguish she wouldn’t make it through a week. But more than that it would make them less effective at what they do. Think about what you want when you see a doctor and you’re very anxious. Do you want the doctor to be anxious? No, you want the doctor to respect you, to understand you, to listen to you, to be concerned about you. But not to echo your anxiety or your fear. Certainly for a therapist if I go to see my therapist and I’m deeply depressed I don’t want her to get deeply depressed. Now I have two problems. I have me and I have her. I want her to look at me with that therapist look and say so how does that make you feel? I want her to have some distance from me so she can set herself to solving my problems and to providing a more realistic perspective. Or take parenting. You might have a teenage son or teenage daughter who’s extremely anxious for some reason, maybe he or she left the homework for the last minute and is just freaking out.

A good parent does not freak out along with their child. A good parent says okay, calm down. Let’s take a minute. Let’s figure out what to do. Take a breath. And is supportive and calm and loving. But doesn’t inherit the anxieties and sufferings of their children. Part of what it is to love somebody is not to share their suffering but try to make it go away. Now it is complicated. In intimate relationships I think there is a place for empathy. Often we want to share our feelings and we want to share the feelings of others. Sometimes in a romantic relationship, a couple, one person will feel angry or humiliated or upset and wants their partner to feel the same thing to share it. Sometimes if you have a kid and your kid is enthusiastic about something sharing the kids enthusiasm is important. I don’t doubt that empathy plays some such role but I think we tend to overstate it. I think when we think hard about what other people need, what it takes to be a good person, a good friend, a good parent what really matters is understanding and compassion but empathy often gets in the way.

In some way my book is an optimistic book because I argue about all of our limitations and how empathy leads us astray. But in order to make that argument we also have to have an appreciation of we’re smart enough to realize that empathy could lead us astray and that we’re smart enough to act so as to override its pernicious effects. So it’s empathy that causes me to favor somebody who looks like me over somebody who doesn’t. Or somebody from my country or ethnicity over a stranger. But it’s rationality that leads me to say hey, that’s not reasonable. There’s no reason to do it. It’s not fair. It’s not impartial. And so we should try to override empathy. So what I argue is that we have the capacity for rationality and reason. This is actually fairly controversial. In my field my fellow psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists often argue that we’re prisoners of their emotions, that we’re fundamentally and profoundly irrational. And that reason plays very little role in our every day lives. And a good one of the main goals of my work is to argue against that. Now there’s a specific argument that is often made which I think is just not a good argument at all which is to say well, determinism of a sort is true. What we do, how we act, how we think is the product of events that have started a very long time ago plus physical law. We are physical creatures. We can’t escape from causality so we’ll just continue doing what we’re doing.

And for the most part I actually agree with that. I think that notions of more responsibility can be reconciled with determinism. But I think determinism is correct but none of that challenges rationality. And as an illustration you could imagine a computer that’s entirely determined but is also entirely rational. You could imagine another computer that’s entirely determined but is capricious and arbitrary and random. And so even in a deterministic universe the question remains what sort of computer are we. Are we emotional creatures or are we rational creatures? But there is nothing, not the slightest bit of inconsistency between the claim that we live in a determined universe and that we’re rational reasoning creatures.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s latest book is called Against Empathy, which doesn’t leave you guessing where he stands. Bloom argues that empathy is doing us damage – there is a place for it, but not so high up on society’s pedestal. Empathy can cloud our decision-making, and bring us too close to problems that require action rather than commiserations. Realizing that begs the question: in a world with less empathy, how do we connect and help our fellow humans? Bloom is banking on compassion, and makes a distinction between the two that transcends semantics: empathy is feeling what other people feel, imagining their predicament, echoing their emotional state. Compassion is more rational: you hear the other person’s predicament but you don’t feel their emotion – this frees you up to understand it, and to make headway on a solution. Bloom likens it to seeing a doctor or a therapist. Do you want them to feel and echo your pain or anxiety, or would prefer that they do something about it? If empathy is as overrated as Bloom suggests, then compassion may be the better way to show you care. Paul Bloom is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.


Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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