Human Centered Design ········· 2020

The Case Against Empathy
I’ve always been a very big proponent of practicing empathy, but Paull Bloom brings up quite a few good points for the case against it.

I’ve never taken much thought to the negative aspects of empathy. I’ve only considered it as a beneficial tool when helping others. While Bloom doesn’t disagree that it is a helpful tool, he suggests there are better, unbiased tools that serve us better in the long run.

“But actually there’s a lot of evidence in my book that empathy and compassion activate different parts of the brain. But more importantly, they have different consequences. If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better”

Bloom brings up a very interesting point about the differences between empathy and compassion. Empathizing with others can be painful, exhausting, and lead us to avoidance. Compassion, on the other hand, fuels our desire to create solutions.

Bloom’s example of empathy gone wrong in everyday life put these ideas into perspective for me.

“In many states, not all, there are victim statements, and these victim statements allow people to talk about what happened to them and what it was like when their family member died or when they were assaulted; these often determine sentencing.
I could not imagine a better recipe for bias and unfair sentencing decisions than this. If the victim is an articulate, attractive, white woman, it’s going to be so much more powerful than if the victim is a sullen, African-American man who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. You suddenly turn the deep questions of how to punish criminals into a question of how much do I feel for this person in front of me? So the bias would be incredibly powerful”

While I still believe that empathy has a place in design practices, Bloom presents a strong argument against it. I think keeping Bloom’s perspective in mind moving forward will be important when considering the impact I’m trying to make as a designer.