Empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand, right? It’s a given that the best way to care about other people is to walk in their shoes and to see how they feel.
Not so fast, say Yale Professor Paul Bloom. In his new book Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion, Bloom explains that empathy, in fact, often prevents compassion. How? Because there are limits to compassion – the amount of money we donate to different causes, the time it takes for us to help someone in need, or even the psychic toll it can take on us.
Since these limited resources entail trade-offs, empathy can lead us to make poor decisions about how we use them. As described by journalist Jesse Singal, the biggest problem with empathy is the “spotlight effect”
The “spotlight effect” simply refers to the fact that the act of feeling someone else’s pain causes us to zoom in on that pain and want to do something about it, often at the expense of other, more important causes. When, to take a real-life example Bloom invokes, the Make-A-Wish Foundation spent thousands of dollars to let a terminally ill child be Batman for a day in San Francisco, that was the spotlight effect: The focus on a single child’s suffering (and joy) led good people to spend a sum that could, put to more efficient use, save many lives.
That’s the problem with empathy – we tend to focus on what’s immediately in front of us, which means that we lose the opportunities to make a big difference. Indeed, we are wired to respond to the emotional appeal of one person rather than the rational need of many people.
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