Empathy — minus reason?
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes,” writes author and prominent business-world thinker Daniel Pink. “Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
A lovely thought. But new research suggests it isn’t always true.
A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behaviour. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: You also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.
University at Buffalo psychologists Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin found empathy can provoke such behaviour even absent “traditional predictors of aggression” such as feeling threatened, or a tendency to act impulsively.
What’s more, it can be activated even “in the absence of wrongdoing or provocation from the target of aggression.” That party doesn’t have to be doing anything wrong; he or she simply has to pose a problem for the person you empathize with.
Years ago, public education was mostly focused on, “The 3 R’s,” and the rest of the time was spent studying the humanities.
That’s a diplomatic way of saying that the founders of freedom valued education as a means to basic literacy and math — and then wanted everyone to understand the foundations of democracy, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, an official opposition, rule of law, judicial impartiality, the right to privacy, the right to avoid unlawful search and seizure, checks and balances etc.
In other words, they assumed people WOULD BE driven by their passions — and needed a reason to buttress such.
Along comes modern thought. Our students don’t need any of that antiquated knowledge — we need STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology and Math) to make a great country. And, our schools bought in pumping out millions of students with a solid grasp of the advanced calculus they will NEVER again use for the rest of their natural lives — and little else.
Ignorance about how to be a decent country began to dominate our society. The rich soon bought the courts, freedoms were cancelled in the name of terrorism, politics became a bribery ridden farce that represents no one but the uber-wealthy, the middle class started to vanish and cruelty (Yes, read unbridled passions) began to reign as no one seems to have any idea how to fix it all.
So, the experts speak: “We can fix everything if people just learn empathy… Let’s make a kinder, gentler nation together.”
But, empathy is just another version of passion — and, ungoverned by reason, could it ever be any less dangerous than any other passion?
Or, maybe the real problem is not that we don’t know how to feel our passions.
Maybe the real problem is how few of us are still being trained to think…