Empathy training: valuable enterprise, or basic misunderstanding?

Chris Timms argues for a different view.

08 June 2021

The Australian politician, Andrew Laming, was recently instructed to undertake a six-week empathy training course. It made headlines everywhere. An article in The Guardian mused about whether empathy training could be effective if a patient (patient?!) had no base level of empathy to begin with. A contrasting newspaper article, heavily quoting another Australian politician, Barnaby Joyce, argued that such training to ‘redesign people’s brains’ is unlikely to succeed; much more important, Joyce argued, was to create ‘the environment where people feel protected at work’. So… what does empathy training actually teach? If it is empathy, can that turn us into better people?

Empathy is usually defined as the innate ability to detect and vicariously experience other people’s thoughts and emotions. We do this by metaphorically putting ourselves in their shoes – identifying their thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy) and vicariously experiencing their feelings (emotional empathy). When empathetic people detect suffering and distress, it is hypothesised, they feel compassion, pity and an urge to help. Those who don’t feel compassion in response to suffering are hypothesised to lack empathy or be ‘empathy-deficient’. 

Not everyone sees empathy in this wholly positive way (a useful critique is summarised in Diana Kwon’s January 2017 article in The Psychologist). Daniel Batson, for example, highlights the selfish motives behind compassionate responses to suffering: if seeing other people suffer makes us feel bad (by sharing their suffering), behaving altruistically enables us to reduce our suffering. Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, argues that skilled orators can manipulate empathy to create anger by attributing suffering to the actions of hate groups.

But such reservations have made little impression on the almost ubiquitous view in western cultures that empathy is a ‘good thing’ that should be increased. ‘Centers for Empathy’ have sprung up. Sir Peter Bazalgette’s book, The Empathy Instinct, calls for a national Charter for Empathy. And there are countless online and residential empathy training courses. 

Undoubtedly, some confusion lies in our almost irresistible tendency to think of empathy synonymously with sympathy. But the empathy-positive viewpoint is rooted in other faulty conceptual premises… among them that empathy is one or more of the following: (a) an emotion in its own right; (b) quantifiable and normally distributed; (c) amenable to increase; (d) a phenomenon that can be voluntarily ‘tuned’ up or down by an individual (Jamil Zaki cites doctors; Simon Baron-Cohen cites Nazi concentration camp guards); and (e) concerned almost exclusively with emotional responses to suffering. 

In my view, these conceptual problems can only be resolved by understanding empathy differently: as empathetic perception. But before exploring that, let’s consider whether empathy leads to good social outcomes: the logical basis for empathy training.

Empathy only causes compassion?

When we empathetically perceive emotions in others, it often causes us to feel emotions – and one of them is compassion. But, as Bloom notes, the emotions we feel when we perceive suffering are not limited to compassion. The George Floyd case offers an example of multiple and consequential emotions. When people empathetically perceived (and vicariously shared) his suffering, it undoubtedly caused great compassion – and anger. 

But in other circumstances, the empathetic perception of suffering causes non-compassionate emotions, directly. When Harvey Weinstein’s victims heard that he was going to suffer a long prison term, they whooped and high-fived in delight (and it would be a brave psychologist to tell them that their reaction to his suffering meant they lacked empathy). Indeed, it is arguable that without empathetic perception such ‘schadenfreudic’ delight could never exist.

Empathetic perceptions also cause emotions without suffering being involved in the equation at all. Hearing about someone else’s success, and empathetically ‘tasting’ their happiness, sometimes causes us to ‘share’ their joy. But it often causes tortured jealousy. Again, one can argue that without our capacity to perceive and feel other people’s emotions, the emotion of jealousy would barely exist.

These paradoxical realities, which flatly contradict empathy-positive narratives, make good psychological sense – so long as we accept two premises. First, empathetic perception was not installed by evolution just to make us perceive suffering and behave nicely to each other. And, second, although our capacity for empathetic perception of emotions is innate (we detect and ‘taste’ emotions such as suffering, anger, indifference and joy everywhere we look), everything we do with those perceptions is learned

And often that learning is idiosyncratic and hierarchical. We can all empathetically perceive the suffering of animals, for example. But not all of us have learned to respond to that suffering by becoming vegan or, more extremely, attacking scientists and farmers. Other people empathetically feel the suffering of their gods when those gods are blasphemed by ‘evil’ cartoonists – and react with shocking violence. Sometimes the targets for our empathetic feelings of pity are inanimate… people feel the ‘suffering’ of neglected cars, aeroplanes and ships – anthropomorphising them. Yet others empathetically perceive feelings within abstract entities, like their nation state, and will defend them violently against learned threats. In Nazi Germany many people were taught that their beloved Fatherland was threatened by Jews and communists. Today, people around the world still perceive real or imaginary emotions in (to quote Mrs May) ‘the nation I love’. And we are still taught that, in response to those emotions, killing is appropriate.

What does empathy training train?

So where does this leave empathy training? If empathetic perceptions do not always lead to compassion and an urge to help, should we stop doing it? 

This might be an arguable case – if empathy training courses were training people to ‘have more innate empathy’. But when you examine the curricula of empathy training courses closely, what they actually offer is, first, coaching in basic social skills and, second, more awareness of currently prevailing social values. 

There is nothing wrong with coaching people in social skills, of course: learn people’s names when introduced; pay attention when people are talking (rather than zoning out). Listen rather than hear; attend to non-verbal cues in order to better read emotions. Ask questions and ‘smile with the whole body and actively engage all the senses to resonate with another person’. These are valuable social skills. And alongside the benefits that these social skills can bring to individuals, there are corporate benefits too, which course organisers are not shy to point out. 

One empathy training provider, for example, offers to ‘provide tactics for connecting with customers’. Their empathy course is explicitly promoted as offering guidance for those who ‘must communicate empathy as part of their jobs’ and who must show compassion for ‘disgruntled customers’. There is nothing here about learning to feel compassionate – the course objective is teaching trainees how to appear compassionate.  

The second common objective of (some) empathy training courses is to make participants more aware of the suffering of others. Awareness is taught within a framework of prevailing western values, with legal compliance and enhanced corporate image at centre stage. Awareness of diversity, the suffering of minorities and disempowerment feature heavily. But few empathy courses seem to advocate compassionate responses that will require personal sacrifices to help people we will never meet – say, joining charity groups, or campaigning against the squalidly dangerous factories in Bangladesh that produce our £2 t-shirts. Rather, promotional material emphasises the personal gains that empathy training offers: ‘The Power to author your ultimate life’ and ‘instant clarity on what you really want in life – and have it all’.

Whichever way we slice it, there is little reason to think that empathy courses are training participants to feel more empathy – even if increasing empathetic perception was theoretically possible. Rather, empathy courses increase basic social skills, draw participants’ attention to prevailing socially desirable values, and coach participants in how to avoid legally compromising gaffes.

A clearer view

This returns us to the core conceptual question. If empathy is not comparable with intelligence – a normally distributed, measurable, quantitative phenomenon of which more is always better – then how should we conceptualise it? In my view, a much clearer analogy for empathy is our sensory perceptions, and vision offers a good comparator.

We are all born with an innate and universal blueprint for visual perception. That’s probably why psychologists do not try to quantify it or create Visual Perception Quotients. But we all learn different things during the course of our lives that determine where we will orient and focus our visual perceptions. Accordingly, when shown a landscape, some of us will notice the mountains; others will notice the cloud formations or the trees. Yet others will notice the people or the vehicles – all depending on our learned interests/prejudices.

Empathetic perception is similar. Depending on what people have learned, the emotional outcomes of their empathetic perceptions will vary towards any given ‘object’. But here’s the thing: it would never occur to a geologist to think that a person’s failure to respond enthusiastically to the mountains in a landscape meant that that person lacked Visual Perception. And yet this is equivalent to what people are told when they fail to feel ‘appropriate’ emotions in response to suffering (determined arbitrarily by social scientists). They are ‘empathy deficient’: maybe even psychopaths, with something amiss in their brains.

Even if such moralistic dogma about appropriate emotional responses made any logical sense, it would still invalidate every individual’s entitlement to feel emotionally according to their individual experiences. The delight felt by Me Toocampaigners at Harvey Weinstein’s long prison sentence was probably not shared by his immediate family. Does the family’s desolation mean that they lack empathy for Harvey’s victims? Or does the delight of the Me Too campaigners mean that they lack empathy for the innocent family? Similarly, what is a parent’s ‘appropriate’ emotion when their child wins a gold medal – but the losing child is crying in grief nearby? Are they allowed to feel uninhibited joy for their child? Or does uninhibited joy signify empathy deficiency, because they are not feeling appropriate compassion for the loser? 

The answer, of course, is that all moralistic notions about ‘appropriate’ empathetically-produced emotions are psychologically absurd. With very few exceptions, all adults can detect and vicariously experience others’ emotions when they are broadcast clearly. But how we react to the emotions we perceive – that depends on our lifetime’s learning. 

A blessed accident?

In summary, empathy is much more coherent if we regard it as being like sensory perception, rather than IQ. Empathetic perception is innate, universal and morally neutral. How any individual responds emotionally to the empathetic perception of (say) suffering is determined by learning… sometimes we cry, sometimes we are indifferent, sometimes we burn with anger and sometimes we are delighted about suffering. And sometimes we experience a combination: the emotions we feel because of our empathetic perceptions can be sequential, conflicted and hierarchical. 

So why did empathetic perception evolve? 

Empathetic perception has immense adaptive value (particularly for improving survival rates during child rearing). For example, when we empathetically perceive distress in our children we react with care. And when we perceive threats to them (or ourselves), we anticipate the possibility of suffering and react protectively or violently. That’s pretty straightforward evolutionary theory. But why would people have empathetic perceptions about cars, football clubs, nation states and pets?

The answer is probably that detecting and understanding emotions is so adaptive and valuable that perceiving them in a hundred wrong places is better than failing to detect them once in the right place. Thus ‘perceptually set’ to detect emotions, it is little wonder that our ancestors perceived them (and intentions) in seas, trees, forests, rivers, and animals. Analogously, we apply our innate sensory blueprints (such as visual constancy) equally liberally. And when we apply them ‘wrongly’ – to 2-D images, for example – it causes visual illusions.

Described like this, the functioning of empathetic perception seems rather chaotic. But psychological processes aremessy, because they rarely operate in clean isolation. Empathetic perception interacts with countless other inbuilt psychological processes: including the disposition to classify and stereotype people and objects, our propensity for stimulus generalisation, attribution theories, higher-order conditioning and – always – our capacity for social learning. 

It is only possible to sketch empathetic perception as a sensory process here. But, in my view, empathy becomes a much more coherent psychological construct when regarded as sensory processing: innate, morally neutral and largely immutable. Empathy training can coach people in social skills and show them how to respond in ways that are culturally acceptable. But it cannot ‘increase empathy’. 

Our empathetic perceptions bring us jealousy, joy, guilt, schadenfreude, anger, vigilantism – and sometimes they bring us compassion. And on those occasions when empathetic perceptions do result in compassion and kindness to strangers, we might appositely borrow the phrase that Richard Dawkins often uses to describe altruism – a ‘blessed accident’.

-        Dr Chris Timms is an independent writer. [email protected]

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