Tag Archives: empathy

Is your empathy really self-serving?

Empathy, or feelings of understanding or identification with another, seems to be a primary vehicle of human expression of love and compassion. In the world of therapy, empathy seems the foundation for all good counselor work. Sure, we can act in kind, compassionate, yet robotic ways but knowing that someone gets you and helps you is better.

But this begs two questions: Are empathy and altruism connected and parallel? And, is our empathy really self-serving? Taking the second question further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so (short video of his contra empathy point of view). While I think his argument against empathy is seriously flawed and really merely an argument against naïve, superficial, and self-serving do-gooderism–a significant problem in our society where we solve problems on emotion and often without taking the time to understand either cause or consequence–the bigger question is whether or not we ever really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the Christian virtue of self-denial and voluntary submission to others?

What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?

We all have numerous instances where we have witnessed self-sacrificing behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more run-of-the-mill expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. Your church is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?

Josh Litman’s paper “Is Empathy Ultimately Just Narcissism?” seeks to summarize the research literature about whether empathy and altruism are positively correlated and whether empathy is really about the other or about self-interest. His answer? Empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. Empathy is better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy and do self-sacrificial for them.

In conclusion, this paper defends a non-altruistic, egoistic strain of empathic concern. It might be heavy-handed to call it narcissism, but evidence has shown that empathic concern is certainly motivated by self-interested factors rather than selflessness.

Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images to a French flag after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the most recent airport bombing? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?

Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?

So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19, NLT)

Oneness and love in the created and the Creator

I think empathy can be self-serving (I care for you because I want to be cared for) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it could feel like to lose my home to a flood I am moved to donate time and talent to help rebuild a home. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.

Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as love. True love, as an action verb, requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. True love moves beyond simplistic understandingfile-nov-02-12-21-19-pms with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our infirmities as his own.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:5-8, NIV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.(Heb 4:15, NIV)


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Filed under counseling, counseling skills, love, Psychology, Uncategorized

What if your spouse acts the part of empathic listener (but really isn’t)?

You’ve had a bad day. Your spouse comes home and you proceed to tell them about your difficult, frustrating day. When you finish telling your tale of woe, your spouse says the following (with appropriate feeling)

Wow, that really was a tough day. I’m sorry it has been so hard for you. Why don’t you take it easy and I’ll handle…[whatever menial task you would normally do right now]

Normally, this validation would feel quite nice. But what if you knew that your spouse didn’t really feel the warm fuzzies they were trying to send your way? What if they were only saying what they thought you wanted to hear?

Would you still feel loved because of the effort they made? That they wanted to “fake it ’til they make it”?

A recent This American life radio episode covers this very issue. The fifteen minute episode tells of a man with Aspergers who needed to learn how to love his wife and did so by observing and mimicking others who had better social skills. At one point in the show, the interviewer asks his wife if it matters to her that her husband doesn’t feel the empathy he is trying to convey.

Her answer? No.

What would your answer be?


Filed under love, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

Benefits and liabilities of a benign dictator

I have been thinking about the value and danger of a benign dictator. No, I don’t have secret plans to take over the world. Well…maybe I do but I am well aware of the fact that no one will let me. The real reason I am thinking about this is the result of a book I am reading, called, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen (Basic Books, 2011). In addition, I have been thinking about a couple of situations where systems revolved around one person, a cult of personality. These systems worked well and though no one would have referred to the leader as a dictator, the leader held the vast majority of the power and control of the system and, in fact, did dictate how others would function.


When you think of a dictator, few positive images come to mind. Maybe you think of Hitler or one of the recently dead world leaders. Not too many warm fuzzies, right? However, dictators or system controllers do have positive value.

  • Things get done. When you don’t have to rely on a committee or a popular vote, you can get things done. The person in power decides something should happen…and it happens. No need for it to get balled up in red tape. If you have ever watched good ideas die in committee you probably fantasized about being given the power to make stuff happen.
  • Legalism can be avoided. We’ve all seen times where  the strict application of a law doesn’t make sense. One law-breaker should get leniency and another should receive the maximum penalty. Statutes and rules rarely give us the kind of wise latitude to make these decisions but a person in power can make decisions that are in the best interests of individuals and communities.
  • A little fear may motivate. Knowing that you serve at the pleasure of the president (or leader) may help you keep alert to slippage. If you know that your leader demands results and if you know that you can’t just lie around and get results, you will likely work a bit harder.

But of course with efficiency, wisdom, and power located in one person, liabilities become obvious,

  • Dictators rarely think their decisions are wrong. If you are inclined to trust your own wisdom, you are less likely to seek out opposing viewpoints. The inner circle of “friends” may not choose to point out when you are wrong for fear of losing status or more. The person in sole power believes they are making the right decisions for the right reasons and will not notice when wisdom fails–as it always does with human frailties.
  • Utilitarianism may not be a good long-term strategy. Powerful leaders may start out with good ideas: raise the status of the poor, achieve safety and stability, efficient production, etc. But finite human wisdom often leads to utilitarian decisions–doing what works or what gets the best result now. So, a president may decide to shut down opposition viewpoints because in doing so people stop bickering and start doing other things that might be more productive. A pastor may decide to coverup a date-rape by his cherished youth pastor. In doing so, he may maintain a sense of comfort for the whole church community. Parents may feel at ease around this leader, the youth group may grow, the media may see the church in a positive light. But, there will be collateral damage. Utilitarian decisions rarely weigh the consequences of those decisions.
  • Empathy erosion will happen. When minority voices are squelched and when groupthink of the inner circle helps a dictator continue to make utilitarian decisions based on short-term goals, the first thing that will die is empathy. The Science of Evil book gets at this issue of empathy erosion. The author explores empathy from biological and sociological perspectives. A worthy read as this author has looks at differences between zero empathy (positive) in individuals with autism and zero empathy (negative) in individuals with personality disorders. He explores how some are able to move from desire to demand and so ignore the impact of our actions on another.


Filed under Abuse, counseling science, Psychology

Comfort is in the eye of the beholder

When you read the lament Psalms are you comforted? Do you feel God’s care for your plight? Over the years I’ve had a number of conversations about this topic. Some find great comfort in reading about God’s concern for his people in the midst of their suffering. Others prefer to hang out in more positive, praise oriented passages in order to meditate on the good things God is doing. Some find more comfort in realism now, others find comfort in expectantly meditating on heaven.

How about you? How about those you might try to comfort in their time of misery? Does empathizing with the depths of trouble being faced (e.g., “Wow, what you are going through is incredibly hard!”) help or does it endanger more depressing thoughts? Does talking of ultimate delivery in heaven help or distance you from your friend? It is key for us to find out as we walk with those going through the valley.


Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, suffering, teaching counseling