Empathy: What good is it anyway?

Regular listeners to C+V – even irregular ones 😉 – know I’ve got a thing for empathy. To me it’s the indispensable foundation for good communication. But exactly what empathy is isn’t always obvious – nor is it obvious that it’s always a good thing. So I thought we could look back over the 40-odd conversations we’ve had on C+V so far and to see where and how empathy plays a role in our lives.

Empathy came up dramatically in our very first podcast, a conversation with comedian Sarah Silverman. I want to talk with her because of something I’d heard she’d done which amazed me. A twitter troll had called her a very rude word – but instead of ignoring him or firing back, instead she engaged with him over Twitter, leading to her discovering he needed help – and then helping him get it. It was a determination to engage with people she has nothing obvious in common with, indeed the opposite, that was the basis of her television show I Love You America.

Sarah: Right, exactly. That’s why I say like, I’d rather bond about anything, “Oh, you watched the Walking Dead? So do I. I hated Carol in season I know she’s my everything.” It’s doesn’t matter what you’re connecting over but once you connect, your porcupine needles, your defenses come down and then, only then can you be open. It’s the same. As much as I see it another people, it’s because I’m seeing myself in them. There’s some kind of ego involved and maybe part of it is even healthy that if we see ourselves in each other. Then again, do you have to be able to see yourself in someone else to have empathy for them? I don’t know. I hope not.
Alan: Well, I think the idea is you feel what they feel because you … it seems like it’s happening to you.
Sarah: Yeah.

This to me is the basis of what I mean when I talk about empathy – the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. Not always easy to do of course. Which is why I brought up the subject in my conversation with the novelist Ann Patchett.

Alan Alda: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about empathy because it seems to me empathy is at the heart of communicating and relating. And you write these amazingly engaging novels, which fit right into the theory that a lot of people have about empathy, that a good way to develop your empathy is to read novels?
Ann Patchett: I agree with that. I say that all the time, because it really is putting you into someone else’s skin, in a way that non-fiction and history doesn’t always do. That, I think, with fiction, you have a more empathetic experience: it’s almost like acting; you’re going into the character, you’re going into the character’s life when you’re reading or when you’re writing.
Alan Alda: You kind of have to … I imagine you kind of have to allow the reader to take on the perspective of the character, otherwise not only is empathy not going to happen, they’re not going to be very interested in the story. Does that follow what you think?
Ann Patchett: Well, the thing is, you want the reader to have empathy for many different characters, maybe even all the characters, so they’re not necessarily going to be getting into the point of view of all the characters. I don’t know, there’s an interesting way in which empathy is also a real weakness of mine, because I think that my biggest flaw as a writer is my inability to write villains. Because I … It’s really true-
Alan Alda: Really? Why is that?
Ann Patchett: Because I empathize. Because I have characters who I think are going to be the villains and then as I’m writing them and really thinking about their life, I always wind up having a softness or a sympathy no matter how bad they are.

So like Sarah Silverman, Ann Patchett can empathize even with people she may not like – even if they are only fictional. But I also talked with someone who has taken empathizing with bad people to be his life’s work – after being one of those bad people himself. Christian Picciolini was once a neo-Nazi skinhead, a gang leader, and did some very bad things. To earn money he opened a record store selling hate music. But he needed to sell rap and other music as well to make ends meet and people he’d never met in his gang life began coming into his store.
Well, they could have broken my windows, they could have punched me in the nose, but instead they spoke to me and they listened more than anything else. They listened to me, because once I started to talk myself out of the bravado, I started to be real with them. And then over time, it was really their compassion, the empathy for me that they showed me, when I least deserved it. And frankly, they were the people that I least deserved it from. That really was the most powerful transformative experience for me, because I always say that hatred is born of ignorance, fear is its father, and isolation is its mother.
I’d been afraid of these people and I’d hated them because I’d never met them. I’d never in my life had a meaningful conversation or interaction with them. But when I did, I recognized that we were more similar than we were different. And that the differences were the beautiful things, the language, the food, the music, the culture. All the things that I always loved and still love today. Maybe not for those eight years, but it was really their ability to filter out the noise of what I was saying, and listen to the words,
Christian Picciolini now uses his ability to listen and relate – his empathy – to help gang members leave their hate behind. As does another of our guests, Father Greg Boyle, who runs a program called Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to help gang members, as he puts it, “to redirect their lives.” He has a fascinating take on empathy.
Alan: 34:47 This conversation seems to me to be about empathy, tenderness, and letting the other person into your conscious fear, reacting to them. That seems to, if not be empathy, perhaps induce empathy because you’re paying attention to the other person. Do you think much about empathy as part of your work and your life?
Greg: 35:19 Yeah. The word I use is “awe” and so, in the Acts of the Apostles they talk about, “And awe came upon everyone.” So awe is way of keeping … Awe is the opposite of judgment. So awe keeps you tender and attentive, keeps you delighting in the person in front of you, keeps you aware of what the other has gone through. The opposite of that is, you know, what this guy’s problem is? That’s kind of again, the times in which we live. You know, it’s either you’re a … If you’re a stranger to yourself then you aren’t friends with your own wound. If you are not friends with your own brokenness, then you will be tempted to despise the wounded.
Awe, and I use the word awe more than empathy or compassion because I think sometimes people … Because I think it’s more than just understanding, you know, where this person is coming from. It’s, wow, the day will never come when I have more courage or I’m closer to God or what you’ve been asked to carry is really, you know, fills me with awe.
You may have noticed that both Christian and Father Boyle used the word “compassion” when talking about empathy. This is where things get a little tricky. In my mind there’s a clear difference between compassion, or sympathy, and empathy. This difference was expressed most directly by another of our guests who deals with bad people, hostage negotiator Chris Voss.
As an example, we had a trial in New York, a terrorism trial in civilian court, not military court, and the vast majority of our witnesses were Muslims and they testified voluntarily. We got them to testify voluntarily because I’d sit down with them and I say, “You know, you guys feel like there’s been a succession of the United States governments for the last 200 years that have been anti-Islamic.” And, they’d go, “Yeah.” I never said that was true.
Alan: 05:24 You expressed what they were feeling and thinking.
Chris: 05:27 Yeah, I never agreed. I never disagreed. I chose my words very carefully. I said, you guys feel this way.
Chris: 06:01 That’s just empathy. It’s nothing else…
Chris: 12:10 …it’s completely understanding, with no judgment, where the other side’s coming from. Now, that sounds really innocuous, it’s actually a lot harder to implement. When I first learned it on the suicide hotline way back when, they said, “You don’t help people who are in quicksand, by getting into the quicksand with them. It does them no good.”
Alan: 12:30 In other words, you don’t want to get swamped by your feeling that’s similar to theirs. You don’t want to suffer in the same way they’re suffering, but you want to understand it.
Chris: 12:42 Right, yeah. Yeah. Sympathy doesn’t actually help anybody. Sympathy makes us feel good. Oh, I feel bad for you and I go back to my daily life. That doesn’t help them. It’s self-satisfying. It doesn’t help the other person to be sympathetic. Actions help people. Clarity helps other people. Empathy is the clearest vision of what they’re seeing, how they feel about it, not agreeing with them.

I got into a discussion about this difference between empathy and sympathy with psychologist Paul Bloom, who has written a book called Against Empathy – the idea of which, as you can imagine, raised my hackles. Turns out his problem with empathy is that it can be manipulated. Here’s part of my conversation with Paul.
Alan: 04:17 I think probably a large part of the objection, or a large measure of what seems objectionable about what you say about empathy is because we haven’t really defined what we mean by “empathy.” We don’t all agree on the same definition. An awful lot of us think that empathy makes you compassionate, that it is, and some, many people think it is just another form of compassion or another word for compassion. That if you have more empathy, you’ll want to help people. Not necessarily, in my opinion.
Paul: 04:53 Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. People use the term in all sorts of ways, and some of the responses to my book are, ” You moron, you’re not talking about empathy, you’re talking about sympathy.” Or, “You’re talking about concern or identification. Empathy means this.” And then people very confidently say what empathy means, and they all say something different, but they’re all very angry and very confident.
Alan: 05:13 Do you, you got threats?
Paul: 05:39 When you have a book titled “Against Empathy,” you get some cranky people. And what I find ironic is I get these emails saying, “You’re a monster. You don’t appreciate empathy as a source of goodness. I oughta come to your house and beat you up.” And I’m thinking, “There’s something really self-refuting about this sort of reaction.”
Alan: 11:40 Yeah, I agree. And I don’t see empathy as a solution to our problems. In fact, there’s what I call “dark empathy” where I do have a pretty good estimate of what you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, what you’re going through, what your perspective is, and I use it against you. Interrogators do that, the interrogator is not looking out for your best interests, he’s looking for any sign he can to exploit what you’re going through.
Torturers, sales people, unprincipled sales people, many politicians. Just, “What do they want to hear? How can I appeal to that whether I’m going to accomplish it or not?”
We actually had a good example of what I call dark empathy in my talk with Christian Picciolini. Turns out he was originally recruited into the neo-Nazis by a man who had a precise understanding of the twisted ends dark empathy can be used for.
Christian: 01:37 I felt very abandoned by my parents growing up, so I started acting out, and at 14, one day I was standing in an alley, smoking a joint, and a car came roaring down the alley. It was a muscle car, and this guy gets out with a shaved head and boots, and he walks up to me. And then he grabbed the joint from my mouth, and he looked me in the eyes and he said, “That’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.”
It didn’t start out with telling me to hate people. There wasn’t even hateful language at first. It was about after he pulled that joint from my mouth, Alan, he put his hand on my shoulder and he asked me what my name was. And I told him my name, Christian Picciolini, and he said, “Ah, fine Italian name. Your ancestors are great warriors and thinkers and artists and have dominated civilizations.”
Because he knew after just talking for a few minutes that that was the only thing that I knew anything about because I had grown up in this Italian bubble, in a part of Chicago where everybody in my neighborhood was from the same village in Italy. And it was a bubble. And he knew that that’s what was important to me. And he used that small little piece of my identity and boosted it up. And then he would switch it over and say, “Well, you know there’s somebody who wants to take that away from you?” And that’s when the hate started.
One area where empathy plays an especially important positive role is in the relationship between doctor and patient. We hear more and more these days that doctors simply don’t have the time to get to really understand their patients’ problems beyond what the clinical tests reveal. Researcher Helen Riess had a revelatory experience when she took part in an experiment where her interaction with a patient was closely monitored. Both Helen and the patient, who had been unsuccessfully trying to lose weight, were videoed and had their heart rate and skin conductance measured during a counselling session. Here’s Helen.
When we did this study, I recognized that there were times when her activity was far more intense than mine.
Alan: 05:17 There were moments where you were not in sync.
Helen: 05:19 Yeah, where we were clearly not matching. I went back and looked at the video to see what was happening during that time. This person was making subtle movements that I had just not been paying attention to.
Alan: 05:19 Like what?
Helen: 05:37 Like flicking her hair or making a funny sort of chortle like, hah, hah, hah, like that. It was like all these pieces of evidence were hiding in plain sight.
Alan: 05:48 When she was making these gestures that you were missing, her tracings showed-
Helen: 05:53 Activity.
Alan: 05:54 … activity and yours didn’t because you weren’t picking up on what you were seeing?
Helen: 05:57 Right, and so when I realized that there were these patterns to the manifestations of anxiety that I had been missing, in our continued work I would say, “What were you feeling just then?” Instead of this going right by, I would learn that she was feeling uncomfortable or maybe a little ashamed, and we got to a much deeper level. The results were that that year this person who had never lost one pound and only had gained, actually lost 40 pounds that year.
Alan: 06:31 Wow. That really stemmed from your paying attention to what you were seeing?
Helen: 06:38 It was from tuning in at a much more perceptive level, which I believe is the first step in empathy. First we have to open our eyes to what’s there. We can’t empathize with things we can’t perceive.
Alan: 06:53 Is that when you began to realize you could train other doctors to do this?
Helen: 06:57 That’s exactly right. When I saw the tracings and I realized not only how much I learned about this one relationship, but how transferable this awakening could be for other physicians, I realized doctors like science. If you can actually show a tracing that shows when you’re in sync and when you’re not, that is way more powerful than saying, “When you see a patient, look them in eye and shake hands.”
Alan: 07:26 Yeah, yeah, right. You’re not just saying, “Trust me. This makes you more empathic.” You can show them the tracings.
Helen Riess has developed a training program for physicians to help them increase their empathy – and so their effectiveness as doctors – for their patients.
Helen: 12:22 We found 13 very excellent, rigorously done studies that showed that just by changing the level of trust and cooperation between the doctor and the patient, they could get significant improvement in some of our most vexing health problems in our country.
Alan: 13:02 This has been a curious issue for me. What effect does that have? It’s clear it has a good effect on patient. Does it have an effect on the doctor as well? Does the doctor feel better if he or she is able to show empathy?
Helen: 13:18 You know? That’s a really great question. Most people choose medical professions because they want to help people. They’re people-oriented individuals. There is an innate reward when we help people. It’s like a reciprocal experience of feeling good. It’s been described as exquisite empathy, like that moment where what you say to a patient and where they recognize that they are really understood and being helped, that the benefit is both to the patient and to the physician. This is true in any two-person interaction. People love to help. When you feel helpful, you want to help more.
Alan: 14:02 You’re getting signals back from the other person. It’s not just a one-way communication. It’s a real partnership that starts to be established I imagine.
Helen: 14:11 Exactly because our emotions are contagious and most feelings are mutual. If you make another person feel understood and good and that you’re an ally in their journey, that gratitude is just gonna come back and fill you up. That’s the loop that I think has gotten broken by not paying attention to patient emotions.
But it turns out there’s a danger in an empathic bond between doctor and patient – a danger that empathy sceptic Paul Bloom cites as one of the reasons his book is called Against Empathy.
Paul: 21:56 Well, it’s actually, it’s an insight that the Buddhists had a long time ago. But as Buddhist theologians would always ask the question, “How could you be a good person?” And what they say is, “Look, don’t go around with, what they call, sentimental compassion.” Which is what I call empathy. “Don’t feel the suffering of others, because it will burn you out.” They talked about burnout centuries before somebody in the 70s made up that term. It will exhaust you.
Paul: 22:27 I got emails, when I started writing about empathy, I got an email from somebody who worked in the 9/11, the Towers. And she couldn’t do it. She spent a few days and it just killed her, she just felt too much anxiety, too much pain for the suffering of people. And so she wrote me saying, “I now kind of understand, based on what you’re saying, what’s up here. Which is that I thought that I didn’t care or cared in the wrong way. It’s that I felt the pain too much.”
Paul: 22:53 A lot of studies show that if you feel the pain of those around you a lot, you’ll withdraw. You’ll develop physical symptoms, you’ll become miserable. And maybe worst of all you’ll start to focus on yourself.
Alan: 23:05 Yeah, and that happens with doctors now, almost half of physicians are facing burnout where they are emotionally exhausted. They don’t have a feeling of accomplishment, they’re withdrawing from empathic care, and they tend to make more mistakes. Errors are borne of that disengagement, to some extent.
This was a topic I also raised with Helen Riess.
Helen: 20:44 You know, Alan, that’s a very important point. I think it’s important for everyone to understand that empathy has both cognitive thinking components and feeling or affect emotional components. Some people are out there saying, “Let’s get rid of emotional empathy and just use cognitive, because people will get too burdened by other people’s emotions.” I think that’s a real mistake. I think that what we really need is self-regulation skills so that we can manage our own emotions. But if we try to wipe emotions out of a patient-doctor relationship, you might as well be talking to a robot. Some degree of emotional connection, I think, is absolutely necessary.
This was a point that came up during an otherwise completely unrelated conversation I had with social psychologist Sherry Turkle. We were talking about a study that showed a 40% decline in a standard paper and pencil test of empathy since the introduction of smartphones. Sherry told a heartbreaking story about one of the people she interviewed.
Sherry: 01:03:42 Well, I was talking to people about how the change in technology had affected their lives and one guy said, “You know, I think you’re right. I have these two daughters and one was in the pre-iPhone years and I used to love giving her baths. She used to have these little toys, her little guys in the bath and we used to sit and we used to tell stories. Bath time was a time for conversation.
And now I have a two year old and I give her a bath too. That’s my job and the distribution of labor in the house. I put her in the bath and I make sure she’s safe and I put down the seat on the toilet and I take out my iPhone and I just do my email while she takes her bath.
Alan: 01:04:34 It takes the breath out of me to hear that. To have a little kid that you can get a world of pleasure from and you take out your iPhone. But does he at least recognize that that’s something to move away from?
Sherry: 01:04:46 Well, in other words, it was an unfolding conversation in which the conversation did not begin with him on my side. It was more like, “Uh, Sherry [inaudible 01:04:58] again. Are you back? Are you back pitching your woo?” And then he said, “Well, method of interviewing is pretty conversational.” I said, “Well, just what’s an example from your life?” And then he had no trouble.
Alan: 01:05:18 He came right up with it.
Sherry: 01:05:19 Came right up with it.
Alan: 01:05:20 So did you get any indication he saw his behavior differently?
Sherry: 01:05:23 Well, absolutely. He said I think you’re right. But it was interesting. He said the damage is to me and my relationship with her.
Alan: 01:05:23 Yeah.
Sherry: 01:05:32 It’s not just what I’m doing to her. It’s what I’m missing because I remember that those hours we spent together with the girl before the iPhone, with the daughter before the iPhone, really are the basis of our relationship.
The danger the smartphone poses to good old-fashioned face to face relationships is also one of the ten arguments for deleting you social media accounts right now – to quote the title of his book – cited by internet pioneer Jaron Lanier.
Alan: Our conversations on this podcast often touch on empathy because it seems to me that’s central to good communication and to good relations with other people. I was interested to see in your book that you feel that these platforms that we’re talking about break down the ability, they inhibit the ability of people to have empathy for one another. Am I right about that?
Jaron: 01:10:43 Yeah, I did make that claim.
Alan: 01:10:46 How did it happen?
Jaron: 01:10:48 The problem is when everybody is being given different experience feeds and those feeds are calculated to certain ends or try to manipulate them, then people just it follows by definition that people will have less common experiences with each other.
Alan: 01:11:10 We don’t hear from anybody who doesn’t share our point of view so we don’t have the opportunity to take on the point of view of another person, which is one of the functions of empathy.
Jaron: 01:11:20 We don’t know what the other people have experienced. We haven’t been in a common environment and perceived it differently. We’ve been in different environments that are invisible to each other. That circumstance makes it exceptionally hard to gain a sense of sympathy or empathy for anyone else.
Jaron Lanier is one of the pioneers of virtual reality, which has given him an interesting take on the origin of the word empathy.

Jaron: I should say there’s an interesting history to the word empathy, especially in this context because it was originally invented by psychologists about a century ago, approximately in anticipation of virtual reality. This idea that the original meaning of the term was that you could imagine yourself in any place in the universe. You could imagine what it would be like to be a mountain or a leaf.
Then, in the 80s when we were starting virtual reality, I started to use it as a suggestion for the betterment of humankind, that using virtual reality maybe we could project ourselves into the shoes of others to get more of a sense of what their experiencewas, to understand where they were coming from. There are still artists today trying to search reality in that way. The term empathy has entered into the rhetoric of the very companies I’m criticizing, but they’re using it … I don’t think their intentionally being cynical but they’re using it in a backwards way where what they mean is that you can be conditioned in accordance with someone else’s desire. It’s a very strange and twisted evolution of one word that was so well-intended so long ago.
There’s one last point I’d like to make about empathy, and since this is my podcast I’m going to quote myself, from my conversation with Sarah Silverman. We were talking about how empathy needs to be nurtured.
Alan: We probably all come in with some capacity for it but it sometimes needs to be built up and it goes away. I’ve seen it go away in myself. I’ve seen that I’ve gone through a period where I actually tried to build up my empathy. I work on it and then I get good at and get smug and then I think I have it and I realized I’m actually thinking, “This is stupid and schmuck, when he’s going to stop talking?”
Sarah: Yeah. If there’s any hair of condescension in your empathy, people sense that.
Alan: Now, you said it, oh boy, yeah.
Sarah: As a comedian, the audience can smell any fraudulence, any fakeness, any … even if you’re doing a character that’s insecure or nervous, they have to know … there has to be something transcending that tells them, you have this under control and you know what you’re doing so that they can relax. I don’t know what my point was.
Alan: Oh, I wasn’t listening.