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is Empathy Overrated?

While it may result in tremendous good, empathy can also be narrow, biased and surprisingly insensitive, argues psychology professor Paul Bloom.

Does empathy make the world a better place? It certainly looks like it. After all, empathy drives people to treat others’ suffering as if it were their own, which then motivates action to make the suffering go away. I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormentors, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize — I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied — so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

But spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

Continue reading at: is Empathy Overrated? | TED Ideas

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CONVERSATIONS

  1. I feel there are two details that should be considered when debating the good/bad results of empathy and how it is directed.

    First, the reactions to the Sandy Hook shooting vs. the higher child murder rate in Chicago is largely due to media focus. They bemoaned Sandy Hood, but never once did we see anything about child murders in Chicago. The media focus is always about sensationalism. In this case, and other similar ones, it is also about pushing gun control.

    Second, compassion is most often given with a caveat. We want to see results of our help. Thus, we focus on those nearby vs. unknowns and untrackable in Africa or some other far away place.

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