Here’s Why You Should Choose Empathy, Even When It’s Hard

Being busy can make us forget what matters. Here’s some perspective.

Courtesy of romualdi / Shutterstock
Courtesy of romualdi / Shutterstock

Even when empathy doesn’t feel good, we know it can make us look good. If Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, or Jesus are any indication, compassion and generosity are the clearest signs of virtue. When people must establish their moral bona fides, they turn to empathic actions. Individuals are more generous in public than in private, and also act kindly to convince themselves of their own goodness. In several studies, psychologists have put people under “moral threat,” for instance asking them to remember times they betrayed someone else’s trust. To compensate, these participants help strangers, donate to charity, and advocate for environmentally friendly behaviors more than people who were not threatened.

But for every reason to choose empathy, there is another reason to avoid it. When others are in pain, connecting with them risks our own well-being. One friend of mine, who is a therapist, does her best not to schedule depressed patients for the end of the day, to avoid bringing their darkness home with her. In the 1970s, the psychologist Mark Pancer tested whether people would literally steer clear of painful empathy. He positioned a table in a busy student union at the University of Saskatchewan, posted information about a charity on it, and tinkered with its appearance. Sometimes the table was unmanned, other times a student sat by it in a wheelchair. Sometimes it contained an image of a smiling, healthy child, other times a sick, sad one. The wheelchair and sad image were triggers for empathy. Pancer found that students walked in a wider arc when it contained empathy triggers than when it didn’t, keeping difficult feelings at bay.

When our own time or money is at stake, empathy feels like even more of a burden, and we avoid it more forcefully. A New Yorker walking the streets of Manhattan is inundated with suffering and need. If he takes it all in, he ends up in a double bind. He can give to others until he has nothing left, or live with the guilt of not giving. People often avoid empathy in situations like this. In one study, people who believed they’d later have a chance to donate to a homeless person avoided hearing a version of his story that included emotional details. It’s not that they couldn’t feel for him; they actively chose not to. 

Even otherwise caring people become callous when they feel overwhelmed. The psychologists Dan Batson and John Darley once asked Princeton seminary students to prepare a sermon on the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. It tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by criminals. Luckily, a resident of Samaria later stumbles upon him. As described in the Book of Luke, the Samaritan “had compassion, and went to him and bound his wounds, pouring on oil and wine… and took care of him.” You might not want to actually treat wounds with wine, but seminarians still got the story’s point, and wrote about the power of caring.

Batson and Darley then instructed them to walk to another building to deliver their speech, but added a twist. They told some students that their sermon would not begin for a while, and that they could take their time. Others learned time was tight. Students ambled (or sprinted) across Princeton’s manicured grounds, and as they reached the building, encountered a man slumped in a doorway. As the students neared him, he coughed and groaned. In fact, he was an actor, secretly recording how they responded. Over 60% of them helped when they were in no hurry, but only 10% did when they felt rushed. The irony here is palpable: students wouldn’t help a man lying on a sidewalk because they were in too much of a hurry to give a speech about how important it is to help a man lying on a sidewalk.

Excerpted from The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki. Copyright © 2019 by Jamil Zaki. Published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House.

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