Empathy – the magic explanatory bullet?

The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society by Peter Bazalgette (John Murray; Hb £16.99) reviewed by Dr Chris Timms.

09 February 2018

The Empathy Instinct draws heavily from Simon Baron-Cohen’s writing to assert that empathy is instinctive, quantifiable and a good thing. More empathy makes us feel bad when other people suffer; less empathy leads to indifference and underpins genocide.

The book’s keystone proposition is that our empathy instinct requires nurture for it to flourish. Without nurture, whole societies can ‘lack empathy’, for example Hitler’s Germany. So Bazalgette proposes that children should be trained to empathise – thereby reducing their natural prejudices towards outgroups and creating a more ‘civil society’.

Few would dispute Bazalgette’s view that ‘bad’ parenting can end with ‘bad’ adults. And his view that excessively bad parenting (as with Harlow’s monkeys and in Romanian orphanages) will damage developing brains is also entirely credible. However, Bazalgette’s boldest proposal – that by tackling ‘lack of empathy’ we might resolve social problems ranging from unsympathetic dementia care to genocide – surely endows empathy with the status of a psychological ‘magic bullet’.

Unfortunately, sustaining this magical status requires Bazalgette to fudge conceptual issues (especially the difference between empathy and sympathy) and ignore alternative explanations for the phenomena he wants to attribute to ‘lack of empathy’. The genocide issue is illustrative here… Bazalgette could have explored the learning processes that determine how we ‘choose’ targets for our individual stereotypes, prejudices and intolerances (particularly social learning and stimulus discrimination/generalisation). Similarly, he might have explored the decades of experimental research into conformity, perceptual bias and cognitive dissonance. But all are ignored – even though a combination of inbuilt psychological processes with learning and socio-political circumstances offers a compelling explanation for the ‘ubiquity of evil’.

The Empathy Instinct identifies many social challenges that training people to be more thoughtful might help to resolve. But people hoping to understand how and why such training works (and sometimes fails) need to know where to look for useful answers. My money is on social learning, rather than empathy.

- Reviewed by Dr Chris Timms, who taught psychology at colleges and universities for 25 years