Guest Author Blog: The Dark Side of Empathy by Barbara Oakley, the author of Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping that Hurts.
Imagine that each of us has a secret button that could be pushed to make us do horrific acts that we would never normally dream of doing. A button that would make us throw away our money, sacrifice our friends, our families, and even ourselves.
A button that could even make us kill.
That button does exist—it is our care, compassion, and love for others.
Empathy, altruism, and caring for others has become the mantra of modern American culture, but as the Greg Mortenson scandal over his three cups of deceithas revealed—empathy has a dark side that has remained unexplored.
Imagine—tens of millions of dollars of donations, ranging from school children pennies to part of President Obama’s Peace Prize money, was largely frittered away. Often, it appears, the cash was used to support Greg Mortenson’s first class lifestyle. The empathy and compassion Mortenson was able to arouse in us led us to waste our money, or so it has been reported, on him instead of on the impoverished, uneducated girls he claimed to be helping.
Neuroscience has shown that we can teach ourselves to turn off our empathy—and that we are able to do this because sometimes we need to. Physicians, for example, would never be able to remain cool and collected while performing surgery if they weren’t able to turn off their feelings of empathy for those under their knife.
"Even in our jobs, the more sinister of bosses (and there are many such), can play on our feelings of empathy and caring to hurt us and to make us feel guilty for our boss’s own flawed actions.""
It seems people turn off their empathy in two ways.
First, we can exert conscious control over our emotions—as with the little voice within that says steady now and forces you to pick up the phone to call an ambulance instead of simply standing there screaming when your neighbor is involved in a lawnmower accident. The second way we turn off our empathy is by ramping up the part of the brain that says that person is physically separate than me. It’s as if the old adage of the importance of setting limits and boundaries is echoed in the way our brain operates.
In our culture, we have placed empathy and caring for others on a pedestal—those who claim to be helping the unfortunate, like Mortensen, are often given a free pass. Even in our jobs, the more sinister of bosses (and there are many such), can play on our feelings of empathy and caring to hurt us and to make us feel guilty for our boss’s own flawed actions. This misuse of empathy plays out in many other places. In the caring professions, for example, the emphasis on empathy—instead of more dispassionate compassion—can cause us to burn out and leave jobs we once loved. And empathy undergirds cults, groupthink, and the slavish devotion of the masses in personality cults.
If there is a lesson from all of this for school children, the President, and ordinary people everywhere, it is that people can play on our sense of caring for others.
It’s time to say enough to a secular religion of empathy and caring as the perfect panaceas. Sometimes it is important to be able to turn off empathy—not only in order to avoid con-men, but also to avoid the purposeful pain that others try to inflict on us, to avoid burnout on the job, and to avoid being drawn into the dangerous groups that linger in life’s shadows.
Empathy’s dark side has been too long neglected. To truly help others, it’s time to shine a light into the darkness.
Barbara Oakley is the author of Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping that Hurts (Prometheus Books, April, 2011); Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend (Prometheus Books, 2007), and the forthcoming edited volume Pathological Altruism (Oxford University Press, August, 2011).