Monday, September 1, 2014

Against Empathy?

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, recently wrote a thought provoking (and emotion provoking) post on Boston Review, entitled, Against Empathy?. He writes about the downside of relying on empathy, particularly "emotional empathy", as a guide to action. Emotional empathy, he argues, is biased, clouds our thinking, and promotes moral errors, which may have dire consequences. He writes:

"Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data." 
"Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction."

Too much emotional empathy, he notes, can also produce "empathetic exhaustion", particularly among those who try to apply empathy as a clinician or aid worker. Some may also experience "pathological altruism" and seek to heal or soothe others at their own expense.


Bloom concedes that it is appropriate for clinicians to respond to a patient's pain or angst, though he argues that too much clinician empathy will generate burnout and promote ineffective and even unwanted clinician behavior. 
Bloom contrasts emotional empathy with compassion, which he describes as "concern and love ....., and the desire and motivation to help" which need not involve mirroring or experiencing the anguish of others. Compassion, he argues, is a more effective, and more sustainable response.
Personally, as I read his blog, I found myself arguing against Bloom and for empathy. When I think about the application of empathy in clinical settings, I have trouble seeing the cognitive and emotional components of empathy as separate processes. 
Though there may be distinct neural pathways for these 2 aspects of empathy, clinical empathy is a therapeutic interactive process that integrates eliciting, exploring, listening, observing, perceiving, imagining AND responding to others' expressed emotions, values and needs. 
As I noted in a previous EmpathyWorks blog post, Brene Brown has described empathy as having 4 critical elements:
  1. perspective taking
  2. staying out of judgement
  3. recognizing emotion; and
  4. communicating what you notice
In another EmpathyWorks post, I cite others' conceptualization of clinical empathy as a relational process that includes both cognitive and emotional elements. See: Suchman AL, Markakis K, Beckman HB, Frankel R. A model of empathic communication in the medical interview. JAMA: 1997;277(8):678-682.
Jodi Halpern, another clinical educator, emphasizes the relational process of "emotional attunement"  that comes from perspective taking (the cognitive aspect) together with exploring and responding to the "meaning" of the feeling. 
For those interested in learning more about clinical empathy, I also recommend the book, Empathy Reconsidered, New Directions in Psychotherapy (Eds: Arthur Bohart & Leslie Greenberg. American Psychological Association, Washington, 1997) which provides further perspectives on the role of empathy in clinical encounters, particularly in psychotherapy. 


In my own experience, empathy happens when I:
  • allow myself to be fully present,
  • listen generously,
  • seek to fully understand the meaning of the patient's feelings,
  • respond with genuine reflections about what I am hearing and experiencing, and
  • allow the patient to correct, refine or elaborate upon my attempts to understand.  

This process may continue for a bit, as the patient elaborates about the meaning of their situation or feeling. More often than not, the patient eventually responds by saying, "Yes, that's it, exactly".  Afterwards, some will indicate that they felt better being heard and responded to.

In previous posts on EmpathyWorks, I have shared the evidence for clinicians' use of empathy and a wide variety of positive outcomes, including enhanced patient satisfaction, increased patient follow through, positive health behavior change and even improved illness outcomes. For just 1 example, see: Hojat, M., D. Z. Louis, et al. (2011). "Physicians' empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients." Acad Med 86(3): 359-64.

Whether or not you agree with Bloom's arguments, the post is worth reading, as are the many insightful and often brilliant responses written by a broad spectrum of commentators, including: Marco Iacoboni,  neuroscientist; Peter Singer, ethicist; Barbara Fried, law professor and public policy expert; Maryanne LaFrance, psychologist and women's studies expert; Nomy Arpaly, philosophy professor; Christine Montross, physician/poet; and Leslie Jamison and Simon Baron-Cohen, writers/commentators with  strong interests in empathy.

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