Does Empathy Have A Dark Side?

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sciborg2

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« on: April 14, 2019, 03:41:06 pm »
Does Empathy Have A Dark Side?

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"Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy," he writes in his forthcoming book The Dark Sides of Empathy...

"Empathy is a riddle," Breithaupt says. While it can enrich our lives, Breithaupt says our ability to identify with others' feelings can also fuel polarization, spark violence and motivate dysfunctional behavior in relationships, like helicopter parenting...

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But there's a flip side too, right? In your book you talk about something you call "vampiristic empathy." What do you mean by that?

Vampiristic empathy is a form of empathy where people want to manipulate the people they empathize with so that they can, through them, experience the world in such a way that they really enjoy it.

An extreme case of this is helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents are constantly trying to steer their kids in the directions they think are the right directions. Of course they want the best for their children. Very understandable; I have kids and I want what's best for them too.

But I think there's something else seeping in. There's this sort of living along with the kids, imagining how it must be like to have a life that's marked by successes, where obstacles disappear and life can be enjoyed. But that also means that the parents are co-experiencing that life, so they start taking over ... they basically want to use the child almost as a pawn.

In a sense, extreme helicopter parents are robbing their kids of a selfhood so that they can basically project their own self into these kids.

You write that empathy can actually make us more polarized instead of bringing us together. How can that happen?

People imagine that empathy can help resolve tensions in cases of conflict, but very often empathy is exactly that thing that leads to the extremes, that polarizes people even more.

It can happen this way, be it a family feud or something that escalates to a civil war. Humans are very quick to take sides. And when you take one side, you take the perspective of that side. You can see the painful parts of that perspective and empathize with them, and that empathy can fuel seeing the other side as darker and darker or more dubious.

One example of this comes from Northern Ireland, which has a long history of conflict. In the early 2000s school administrators there tried to resolve the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant youth by bringing empathy into the curriculum.

They emphasized that students would learn both sides, and the atrocities committed by one side or the other were always put into context. Students learned this curriculum, but follow-up studies showed that this new generation was more polarized than the one before.

So what this group had internalized was there's always two sides and, in the end, they know their side. So they reorganized this information to empathize with people on their side and withdraw from the other side.

So Northern Ireland had to abandon this project.

The other case is that of terrorists. I think a lot of terrorists may not lack empathy. Rather, they see some plight of a group they identify with — they see them suffering and see it as something horrible, and that becomes more extreme and activates them to become active terrorists.

Are there other downsides to empathy?

[Empathizers] may overextend themselves. If you are a medical doctor who sees a lot of suffering and pain every day, it can very quickly become too much. Something like a third of medical doctors suffer from "empathy burnout" that is so severe that it affects their functioning as doctors and their personal life. They become the victim of feeling empathy.

In the end though, doesn't empathy cause more good than harm?

In one sense, yes. Empathy is weakly correlated with altruistic behavior. So there is a connection. I do think empathy can help people help each other, and that makes us human.