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Empathy is not always good.

Whenever we use empathy to provide caring and compassion to others we must use it correctly. In some situations, empathy causes emotional distress, and it is naturally biased toward those closest to us and away from others.

Empathy can, in fact, be learned through training as a means to help resolve disputes. But teaching it needs to be done with care. When the emotions experienced are stressful or painful, empathy is painful—an explanation for why we sometimes avoid such feelings.

“If I empathize with everyone who is in a worse state than I am, I might be motivated to donate 95 percent of my income to charity,” says psychologist Jamil Zaki of Stanford University. “Rather than being put in a moral double bind between guilt and poverty, I might just choose not to think about people who are less fortunate than myself.”

In certain professions, such as medicine and law enforcement, where exposure to human suffering can be constant, too much personal distress gets in the way of doing the job. Physicians, for example, suffer from excessive burnout and are at higher risk than others for death by suicide.

A more universal problem is that empathy is biased. “It evolved so that we have more empathy for our family and friends than anybody else,” says de Waal, who has extensively studied the evolution of empathy. That makes sense: group living is designed to protect against predation, and individuals with strong social bonds live longer and have more reproductive success than others. Thus, we are drawn to kith and kin and naturally avoid outsiders.

Considering motivational empathy rather than compassion (although they are essentially the same thing) a person's mindset can affect performance. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that people with a fixed mindset about, say, intelligence believe they are powerless to change how well they perform, whereas those with growth mindsets—say, a “can-do” attitude—believe performance can be improved with effort.

In a 2016 study, a Berkeley Psychologist examined and sought to change teachers’ mindsets about discipline. They randomly assigned teachers to read one of two brief articles: One reminded them of the importance of good teacher-student relationships in helping students learn self-control. The other stated that punishment was critical for teachers to take control of the classroom.

When teachers were subsequently presented with examples of disciplinary incidents and asked how they would handle the situation, their responses were less punitive if they had read the empathetic mindset article.

Participants were asked how levels of respect for the teacher were affected by whether a teacher responded by assigning detention (punitive) or by asking questions (empathetic). As predicted, the students reported more respect for empathetic teachers.


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