Empathy Might Not Be the Antidote To Poisonous Political Polarization

Invisibilia empathy 08f5be3ee2f41bfc617bdd59bd38fafe0e825b0f s1600 c85In fact, it might reinforce tribalism:

’Researchers who study empathy have noticed that it’s actually really hard to do what we were striving for in my generation: empathize with people who are different than you are, much less people you don’t like. But if researchers set up a conflict, people get into automatic empathy overdrive, with their own team. This new research has scrambled notions of how empathy works as a force in the world. For example, we often think of terrorists as shockingly blind to the suffering of innocents. But Breithaupt and other researchers think of them as classic examples of people afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.”

Breithaupt called his new book The Dark Sides of Empathy, because there’s a point at which empathy doesn’t even look like the kind of universal empathy I was taught in school. There is a natural way that empathy gets triggered in the brain — your pain centers light up when you see another person suffering. But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.…’


I’m not really surprised at this finding, as I think connections to our in-group are evolutionarily hardwired and empathy is the currency for those affiliations. But it inherently entails excluding the Other. The conceit of universal empathy attempts to force the human round peg into the square hole. 

One thought on “Empathy Might Not Be the Antidote To Poisonous Political Polarization

  1. “The conceit of universal empathy attempts to force the human round peg into the square hole. ” um, incomplete metaphor? “human round peg” : “{what} square hole” ?

    The NPR article is poorly written, imo, and I hope the same is not true of the book. “We can’t return to my generation’s era of empathy innocence, because we now know too much about how the force actually works. ” We do? I’m not sure at all about “how the force actually works” or what “the force” is, for that matter. The last paragraph is badly tangled and maybe the book is, also. 20 years or more older than Breithaupt, I don’t feel that my ..empathy.. is altruistic, although some actions I take because of it may be. I do feel that my empathy expands not only my imagination but my policies and decisions, as well. Yet, according to NPR, that’s Breithaupt’s “ingenious solution”.


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