Empathy: Who, What, Why, When and Where?

I am strong believer that one possesses only a finite and limited amount of genuine empathy to practice in life. I have blogged about a similar idea previously- the notion of “Dunbar’s Number,” a theory that posits that people have a limited amount of human beings, namely family and close friends, for whom they can authentically feel and care.

I wholeheartedly believe this theory.  Therefore I jealously guard my empathic feelings and emotions for those whom I can have a direct and real impact on in their lives –my parents, my own family, and close friends.

Please do not get me wrong, if I were to see a stranger choking on a sandwich in public I would rush to practice the Heimlich maneuver as my empathy would be generated by close proximity and my ability to engage.bt-against-empathy

Yet the mass media, also known as the handful of corporations that control the news I receive and the impact/style in which I see it, wants to drain my empathy tank and create news narratives that tempt me to care.

Let’s think outside the mass media box for a few moments. Please bear with me…

What if I were to suggest that the shooting of a gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo means nothing to me, or, for that matter, an alligator killing a young child at Disney World does not effect me in the slightest? Oh, and what if I was to say that I would not lose any sleep over a horrific nightclub shooting with 50 lives lost?

I would be an asshole, right?

Maybe. Yet perhaps such an attitude is warranted at a certain level.

I certainly could be informed of important information regarding such reported occurrences…careful of gators, vigilance in public places, etc…though empathy?

Perhaps it is a wise decision to NOT allow news directors to guide our life narratives, concerns, and conscience. Perhaps it is not cruel hearted or sociopathic to be in control of our own personal story while refusing to allow someone else to dictate what we should find relevant and important.

“But wait Jimmy, these terrible things really happened. Is it not natural and humane to show concern for such events?”

Glad you asked.

So, if a lack of concern for these matters causes you to think negatively of such a person, myself in this case, I could counter that your complete lack of concern over the thousands in our country who have died since these media events through illness, traffic accidents, drownings, and less “sexy” means of death –most of which go unreported- might make you the callous asshole, a lemming callous asshole at that, because you are allowing greedy corporations to dry up your empathy tank.

My father is not doing very well these days. I absolutely care about that. I care deeply and feel for him. Yet the news media tries to suck my limited amount of available empathy for strangers 3000 miles from my home? I do not believe our brains are even wired to be able to practice genuine empathy in these cases. Although I cannot make a direct cause and effect argument, perhaps it is no coincidence that with the rise of reported global events comes the rise of anxiety and depression…perhaps big pharma, producers of Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc…have none other to thank than mass media.

If you do care and empathize with these reported events and show no concern for the un and under reported events, I would not believe you are a callous asshole, rather just a fellow human being who cannot possibly exercise true empathy for every tragedy the world offers up each and every day -we allow the news directors to do that work for us. Imagine having to be concerned for the 151,600 people who die EVERY DAY through all kinds of means? Kill me now.

I refuse to allow a news director tell me which of the 151,600 deaths I should care about and which ones I should not…by sensationalism in the former and through negation in the latter.

If the gorilla were my pet, the child my family or friend, or the nightclub patrons those within my social circle, I most definitely would care.

If I can go all neuroscience on your ass for a brief moment, according to Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, human begins are wired to want to know and empathize with what is going on in the minds of people around them. In fact, this “neuro” feature has been instrumental in our success as a species as we are able to accomplish group goals that individuals alone could not. Empathy and understanding are vital to our survival.

In the context of the above research it was determined that this human aspect of the brain will begin to make us practice empathy with technology and machines as well as human beings. Yet I do believe there is another application as well.

So what happens when our empathic feelings are directed toward events in which we have no stake, nor ability to act? I can only speculate at this point, though it would seem that our empathic infatuation with media inspired events would ultimately work to handicap our personal ability to practice empathy in the contexts that really matter.

A friend recently wrote me an email and here is an excerpt that may demonstrate my point:

What I haven’t posted about but only alluded to is how profoundly affected I have been by what happened in Orlando.  My strong sense of empathy has always drawn me toward watching unfolding news stories like mass shooting and reading the subsequent coverage.  I can recall sitting on the bed in the house in (his city) back in 1999 watching the Columbine massacre and subsequently being engrossed in the news coverage 9/11, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the others.  Jim, I have not been able to watch television coverage or even read an article online without becoming so distraught, I have to turn it off.  I cannot say that some of that is because those killed were young gay men, but I felt as saddened by the deaths of the school children in Connecticut as I do to those in Orlando.  What I keep coming back to is that text that one of the victims sent right before he was killed that said, “Mommy, I am going to die.”  NO ONE should have to send a text like that and NO ONE should have to receive a text like that….NO ONE!  The point of all this (right now) is that I am a huge ball of emotions right now.

This is my point…we are not wired to empathize with the entire planet.

Of course I could be wrong, though I would just venture a guess that my good friend is probably not a lot of fun to be around at the moment and that his strongly empathic reaction to these events is hindering his ability to function effectively in his relationships that matter most to him -on an interpersonal level.

Our brains are now deluded with global sadness that will harm our ability to practice local, effective relationship management.

But, but, but,…..these things that happen are so awful!

Yep, they are. Yet no more awful than the injustices, tragedies, horrific unreported things that happen every day.

From this day forward I vow to be captain of my own empathy ship -a ship with a limited cargo of empathy.

jimmysintension

15 Comments

  1. I disagree with how you are defining empathy. I know it sounds silly to argue about word definitions, but it is important to keep clear the different possible meanings between the terms empathy and sympathy.

    I always viewed empathy as an uncontrolled emotional feeling in response to people suffering under similar circumstances as you yourself have experienced. So if you watch someone trip and hurt themselves, and you feel their physical pain on some level, that is a empathetic response, but if you feel pity for someone who feel that is a sympathetic response.

    As far as I know you have never been a gorilla or shot a gorilla. You where never attacked by an alligator or had a child who was attacked by an alligator. I do not think you ever where on the victim or perpetrator side of a mass suiting. An automatic emotional response that would normally be associated with empathy is unlikely. The fact that you do not want to put in the effort to pity these people is what makes you unsympathetic to their pain.

    I am not judging you for withholding sympathy from most people. That is up to you, and the kind of person you want to be, but in my opinion empathy represents an involuntary emotional response. It is sympathy that is an active response.

    Sympathy and empathy do cross over at times. I believe you made the point when I was in your speech class that when a speaker is nervous the audience feels their pain, because in this circumstance I believe both a sympathetic and empathetic response is being provoked in most people. Empathy from people who have had to give speeches and understand the pressure, and sympathy from people who understand the difficulty of the task.
    I always viewed empathy as an uncontrolled emotional feeling in response to people suffering under similar circumstances as you yourself have experienced. So if you watch someone trip and hurt themselves, and you feel their physical pain on some level, that is a empathetic response, but if you feel pity for someone who feel that is a sympathetic response.

    As far as I know you have never been a gorilla or shot a gorilla. You where never attacked by an alligator or had a child who was attacked by an alligator. I do not think you ever where on the victim or perpetrator side of a mass suiting. An automatic emotional response that would normally be associated with empathy is unlikely. The fact that you do not want to put in the effort to pity these people is what makes you unsympathetic to their pain.

    I am not judging you for withholding sympathy from most people. That is up to you, and the kind of person you want to be, but in my opinion empathy represents an involuntary emotional response. It is sympathy that is an active response.

    Sympathy and empathy do cross over at times. I believe you made the point when I was in your speech class that when a speaker is nervous the audience feels their pain, because in this circumstance I believe both a sympathetic and empathetic response is being provoked in most people. Empathy from people who have had to give speeches and understand the pressure, and sympathy from people who understand the difficulty of the task.

    I know I am just arguing about definitions and it is not really important, but it is just a pet peeve of mine.

    • Thank you Harley….on a side note, just when I think someone was not listening to me in class and they pull out something I said a year later, never ceases to please me 🙂 You brought up the idea of mirror neurons which fits hand in hand with the Harvard idea that all of us are trying to get into each others brains for the purpose of understanding and group cooperation….though I am not sure if I would put this in either the sympathy OR empathy camp as if the speaker’s energy is overwhelmingly positive, I certainly do not sympathize with them nor do I feel THEIR positivity rather the positivity they are putting out into the room. I have a somewhat different take on the empathy/sympathy idea, which, as you mention, are fairly close cousins to each other. If you do a word study, many publications use the terms synonymously (see dictionary.com for example). For my purpose, empathy is a much stronger version of sympathy. I can sympathyize with the victims, feel pity for, though to empathize, the way I understand is “sympathy on steroids”….I feel so much for them that I now shouldering (vicariously) their actual pain and suffering. I can symphathize with world tragedies though I cannot empathize with them…we literally would go crazy. Perhaps we are splitting hairs yet I agree that definitions are extremely important. Thank you so much for reading and responding Harley! It is great to have such articulate and poignant ideas to add to the cultural conversation.

  2. You brought this point up in one of the classes that I had taken with you and I remember thinking on it for the rest of the day. I had never thought of it like that before that day and since then I have avoided watching news and live TV. As a result I’ve noticed that I am less paranoid and less stressed. I feel better all around and I agree with your point on it.
    Although the shooting in Orlando affected me a bit more simply because I am apart of the queer community. It’s terrifying that something like that has happened and seeing people support it also terrifies me. But then again that isn’t empathy for other people, is it? It’s more of an awareness that came with the news. So hey look at that, you’re right again!

    • Thanks JLBV…if that is your real name. Kudos for turning off the damn TV news. If TV news were truly just objective reporting, they would report the incident and move on. Now a tragic shooting becomes their programming for the next several weeks with stories of the victims, families, blah, blah blah. So not only do I become aware of a tragedy, I am force fed into the deepest parts of my psyche. This may sound weird, though the fact that it was a gay nightclub is the first quasi-rational thing I have seem from Islamist radicals…they do not like gays, I get that part. If they blew up a christian church I would get that as well. It is the indiscrimate killing of children, random citizens, hell, even fellow muslims, is so insane. I understand homophobia exists and nut jobs will do nut job things in its presence. Thank you so much for your contribution JLBV!

  3. Empathy only has real value if it leads to actionable behavior. Saving a guy choking is a good example. ‘Awareness’ has led to the specter of slacktivism, and in the long run i think has led to more inaction than action. But even for us doers, you can only take so much before you break down. Empathy is an emotion and you have to control it, or it will destroy you.

    • I love it when jimmysintension gets “Odos’d.” I mentioned to Harley below, it is perhaps “sympathy” we cannot control, it would seem “empathy” is much more of a choice. I actually thought of you when I was writing this blog because, as you have said before, everything is what you make it. Bullshit is only bullshit if we make it that…a brilliant piece of speaking some years ago Odos. Thank you.

  4. I feel your pain, Jimmy!
    Well, not really, but I do agree with you that there are too many “demands” on our feelings. On the other hand, I find myself thinking, sometimes depending on circumstances, “he/they brought that on himself/themselves”. Definitely anti-empathetic, but it happens. (an example would be a group goes sailing during a storm and the boat is swamped and they all drown).
    I find that it social media is a good place to express empathy. There are a lot of “stories” posted and opportunities to say “I feel your pain” and offer consolance to the “hurting” party.

    • And their are a lot of dramatic attention whores on Social media as well. I happen to be one of those whores…just not dramatic. 🙂

  5. Hi Jimmy. I wasn’t sure if I disagreed with you at first. In fact it wasn’t until we got further into the chapters of our book that I found a sustainable argument to rebuke you with. First, the key to understanding empathy for others’ misfortunes is not in knowing the amount of empathy you have within yourself, it’s in understanding you are part of a balance that is being disrupted when someone is, say, murdered. For example, someone getting shot yet again by another police officer is leaving me desensitized to hat is going on with the whole police brutality thing. But when I take that label off, and think about the human life that was just wasted as a result of out forceful culture, I ask what is practice? Are we doing this right? What I’ve discovered is, yes, maybe I don’t have all the empathy in the world for the one man dying. But I do see the families and the protesters on the news every week fighting for equality. It’s as if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself fought for civil rights, but he never got to see equality. And today we still don’t see it. So it’s not about not caring for one another. I would argue that, although it is tough to muster up the empathy for another life, does that mean you stop there and forget him/her. How much empathy do you have? Would you care if you lost someone in your family? But that takes me to my final point. Say you did care when someone in your family died, it’s fair for you to also care about the people dying around the world. Arguing that it isn’t fair is like saying, it’s not fair that we get the freedom that our forefathers fought for. In other words, it’s utilitarian and democratic by nature to give a shit about other people. Thanks for your time!

    • I really hope I am understanding you correctly Daniel…if not, let me know. My point is very simple, really. All kind of events happen in our world everyday. Groups of people, in fact evolving into a very small group of people, determine what we should watch and “care about” everyday. I am certain there are some horrible things, and some wonderful things, that are happening at this very moment that I will never know about. Why do I not know about it? Because a group of people determined that it is not “newsworthy.” If the news media decides to show you 10 police shootings of black people and not show 10 shootings of white people, my emotional empathy is being manipulated and played by the news media and I (we) are no longer in control of our lives. The whole “being part of a balance” thing is misguided in that the “balance” is the cultural narrative directed by the news media. A life lost that I do not know about does not effect my “balance” in any measurable way…even if it somehow did effect me, it is highly probable that I would have no way of knowing. Do not let news media guide your life narrative…we need to think more freely for ourselves. My empathy is reserved for those in my sphere of influence that I love dearly.

  6. I feel I disagree with you when it comes to believing the media is trying to make us empathize with all these deaths. What would they get from having a viewer sitting at home feeling sad? Like your friend, many people will just choose to stop watching media if it creates such an unhappy effect. I feel the media is just trying to spike our interest and keep us interested. I say this because so often in the news they spend only a short time discussing the victims and hours upon hours deciphering why a person would do something like this. In many ways it reminds me of a real life crime show being aired for all to see. It is natural to feel a bit of empathy, I would often be led to just feel sad over the state of our world though. To put it simply, if the medias goal were to just make us feel empathy and sadness all the time they would go into depth about every single victim and everyone that cared about them; but no, they often focus on the individuals who murdered these innocent people. So they do not want our empathy, they just want to keep us unnerved and on the edge of our seat trying to figure out why someone would do this.

    • Thank you Claudia! Not sure I agree with your premise concerning a focus on the perp….stories such as this one are abundant.


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