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Empathy + Thinking = Wise Action

Most people consider empathy—the ability to share and understand the feelings of others —a good thing.

Teachers often reach out to us at the Institute for Humane Education for help educating their students to be more empathetic. They recognize that academic education isn’t enough to produce healthy classrooms, let alone to prepare youth to be motivated and engaged citizens who contribute to a kinder and more sustainable future.

So it’s counterintuitive to hear an argument against empathy. But in a video from The Atlantic, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom argues that empathy is a fundamentally bad thing that makes the world worse. Bloom believes empathy leads us to make less rational decisions. For example, if a child is trapped in a dangerous mine, our empathy compels us to harness great sums of money and effort to save her. A more effective way to spend limited resources, however, might be to provide life-saving water to thousands of children in a drought-stricken area.

My own experiences of responding to suffering emotionally, rather than rationally, support Bloom’s argument. For example, I’ve given money to save a single child, a single family, and a single pig, chimp, and dog more times than I can count, even when I knew that my money would be better spent on systemic change.

Despite this, I don’t wish that I had less empathy.

psychology today