The Dark Side of Empathy

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   A viewer watches the process of factory farming as part of the 360 VR documentary series iAnimal.  Photo Credit: Laika Magazine

A viewer watches the process of factory farming as part of the 360 VR documentary series iAnimal.  Photo Credit: Laika Magazine

Empathy is a real buzzword in the world of VR. VR filmmaker Chris Milk has said he aspires to build the ultimate empathy machine. The purpose of the iAnimal series seems to be to raise people's empathy for animals in order to activate their moral reasoning that animals deserve better treatment.

However, while empathy has a role in our lives, I don’t think it should be the end goal of any VR experience, because empathy does not necessarily lead to the fair treatment of others. One study on empathy for blind people woke me up to this.  Adam Waytz summarizes in HBR:

Participants were asked how capable they thought blind people were of working and living independently. But before answering the question, some were asked to complete difficult physical tasks while wearing a blindfold. Those who had done the blindness simulation judged blind people to be much less capable. That’s because the exercise led them to ask "what would it be like if I were blind?" (the answer: very difficult!) rather than "what is it like for a blind person to be blind?" 

People are so egocentric that even empathy tasks get reframed to be first person perspective. Humans are not terribly good at predicting how others feel. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom wrote an entire book called Against Empathy that advocates using reason rather than empathy.

Consider learning about a ten-year-old named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment that would relieve her pain. Research participants were told that they could move her to the front of the line. When simply asked what to do, they acknowledged that she had to wait because other needy children were ahead of her.  But if they were asked to imagine what Sheri felt, they tended to choose to move her up, putting her ahead of children who were presumably more deserving.  Here, empathy was more powerful than fairness. – Against Empathy, p. 25

While there is certainly a role for empathy and compassion in life, it can sometimes narrowly focus us on the wrong details. And empathy does not appear to be a reliable way to activate people’s moral reasoning. 

Another example of the underbelly of empathy is its ability to give people a reason or motive to be hurtful toward others.  In a study where people were primed to empathize with someone (Person A), the research participants assigned Person A’s competitor (Person B) to eat more hot sauce as a punishment. It appears that creating an intervention that increases empathy toward Person A increased aggression toward Person B.

Rather than relying on empathy to guide fairness, ask people to make judgments based on logic and reasoning.  Gather data by actually speaking with people about their experience, rather than just imagining how they feel. 

Lastly, here’s a link to Paul Bloom speaking on how empathy blinds us to the long-term consequences of our decisions.

Additional reading:

Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?  The New York Times.  December 29, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/12/29/does-empathy-guide-or-hinder-moral-action.

Waytz, Adam.  The Limits of Empathy.  Jan-Feb 2016.  https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-limits-of-empathy.

Bloom, P. (2017). Against Empathy. Bodley Head Limited.

Shamoon, Evan. Virtual Immersion into the Reality of Farm Animals. Feb 24, 2016.  http://www.laikamagazine.com/reality-animal-suffering/.