Less Empathy, More Kindness

The Difference between Empathy and Compassion and Why It Matters

By Paul Bloom

You are likely familiar with the idea that you can feel too much of the suffering of others. This is sometimes called “burnout,” a word that was coined in the 1970s. But it’s not a new insight; the idea has many origins, including, to my surprise, in Buddhist theology.

I first learned this from a discussion I had with Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk and neuroscientist described by many as “the happiest man on Earth.” Our meeting was by chance—we were checking into a hotel on the outskirts of London for a conference where we were both speaking. I recognized him at the front desk (saffron robes, beatific smile, hard to miss) and introduced myself, and we got together later for tea.

It was an interesting meeting. He really does exude inner peace, and he told me that he spends months of each year in total solitude, getting deep pleasure from this. (It was this conversation that has led me to adopt meditative practices myself, however unevenly.) At one point he politely asked me what I was working on. Now it seemed at the time that telling someone like Ricard that you’re writing a book against empathy was like telling an orthodox rabbi that you’re writing a book in favor of shellfish, and I felt awkward describing my project. But I did, and his reaction to my empathy trash talk surprised me.

Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

He didn’t find it shocking; rather, he found it obviously correct and went on to describe how well it meshes with both Buddhist philosophy and his own collaborative research with Tania Singer, a prominent neuroscientist.

Consider first the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the unenlightened masses. How is a bodhisattva to live?

In his book on Buddhist moral philosophy, Charles Goodman notes that Buddhist texts distinguish between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to what we would call empathy, and “great compassion,” which is what we would simply call “compassion.” The first is to be avoided, as it “exhausts to bodhisattva.” It’s the second that is worth pursuing. Great compassion is more distanced and reserved, and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument that I make throughout my book Against Empathy. And it is supported by neuroscience research. In a review article, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe how they make sense of this distinction: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

The neurological difference between the two was explored in a series of fMRI studies that used Ricard as a subject. While in the scanner, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, his meditative states did not activate those parts of the brain associated with empathic distress—those that are normally activated by nonmeditators when they think about others’ pain. And Ricard’s experience was pleasant and invigorating. Once out of the magnet, Ricard described it as: “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate empathy circuits were activated: His brain looked the same as those of nonmeditators who were asked to think about the pain of others. Ricard later described the experience: “The empathic sharing… very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out. After nearly an hour of empathic resonance, I was given the choice to engage in compassion or to finish scanning. Without the slightest hesitation, I agreed to continue scanning with compassion meditation, because I felt so drained after the empathic resonance.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer in which normal people—nonmeditators—were trained to experience either empathy or compassion. In empathy training, people were instructed to try to feel what others were feeling. In compassion training—sometimes called “loving-kindness meditation”—the goal is to feel positive and warm thoughts toward a series of imagined persons, starting with someone close to you and moving to strangers and, perhaps, to enemies.

There is a neural difference: Empathy training led to increased activation in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. Compassion training led to activation in other parts of the brain, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum.

There is also a practical difference. When people were asked to empathize with those who were suffering, they found it unpleasant. Compassion training, in contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others.

In a summary of her research, Singer makes the following point:

When experienced chronically, empathic distress most likely gives rise to negative health outcomes. On the other hand, compassionate responses are based on positive, other-oriented feelings and the activation of prosocial motivation and behavior. Given the potentially detrimental effects of empathic distress, the finding of existing plasticity of adaptive social emotions is encouraging, especially as compassion training not only promotes prosocial behavior, but also augments positive affect and resilience, which in turn fosters better coping with stressful situations. This opens up many opportunities for the targeted development of adaptive social emotions and motivation, which can be particularly beneficial for persons working in helping professions or in stressful environments in general.

This connects nicely with the conclusions of David DeSteno and his colleagues, who find, in controlled experimental studies, that being trained in mindfulness meditation (as opposed to a control condition where people are trained in other cognitive skills) makes people kinder to others and more willing to help. DeSteno and his colleagues argue that mindfulness meditation “reduces activation of the brain networks associated with simulating the feelings of people in distress, in favor of networks associated with feelings of social affiliation.” He approvingly quotes the Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa: “meditation-based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.”

Less empathy, more kindness.

These studies bear on the claims of those psychologists and neuroscientists who believe that compassion and empathy are necessarily intertwined. In critical responses to an earlier article I wrote, Leonard Christov-Moore and Marco Iacoboni claimed that “affective empathy is a precursor to compassion,” and Lynn E. O’Connor and Jack W. Berry wrote, “We can’t feel compassion without first feeling emotional empathy. Indeed compassion is the extension of emotional empathy by means of cognitive processes.”

It’s hard to know what to make of these claims, given all of the everyday instances in which we care for people and help them without engaging in emotional empathy. I can worry about a child who is afraid of a thunderstorm and pick her up and comfort her without experiencing her fear in the slightest. I can be concerned about starving people and try to support them without having any vicarious experience of starving. And now the research we just discussed supports an even stronger conclusion. Not only can compassion and kindness exist independently of empathy, they are sometimes opposed. Sometimes we are better people if we suppress our empathic feelings.

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His has written for Science, Nature, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. He is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, from which this article is adapted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

6 comments on “Less Empathy, More Kindness”

  1. edwin rutsch says:

    Bloom dares not dialogue on camera with anyone knowledgeable about the topic of empathy.

    I’m Edwin Rutsch, the director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Our center is working to make empathy a primary social value. As a leader in this effort, I have also interviewed well over 300 experts on empathy from all fields including education, science, academics, arts, therapy, conflict mediation, interfaith, human-centered design, etc. etc. These interviews are available on our website.

    I read the book and all of Paul Bloom’s related articles. For 3+ years, since Paul wrote his first Against Empathy article, I’ve continuously invited him to a recorded on camera dialogue to talk about our contrasting views, but he dares not.

    As with all critics of empathy, I enjoy reaching out and empathizing with their views, feelings and experiences, it is how conflict mediation, connection, growth and creativity happen. It also demonstrates the power of empathy. However, Yale professor Paul Bloom dares not dialogue on camera and advocate for his viewpoint. I can understand why, since his premises and arguments are exceedingly flimsy, weak, muddled and only work when talking to people not aware of the nuances and distinctions between empathy, sympathy, reason, compassion, etc. It’s easy to set up an empathy straw man and then tear it down with various rationalizations.

    With a few simple questions and distinctions, Paul’s whole rationale falls apart. At it’s core, Paul is attacking sympathy and we actually agree that sympathy has problems. Many people get confused by this important distinction. One of the main problems of sympathy is that it blocks empathy!!!! This is well discussed in the empathy literature and community. I would love to dialogue and show how each of the problems of sympathy is overcome and solved by empathy.

    Finally, I do wonder why anyone would buy a book from an author who doesn’t seem to have the courage of his convictions. Maybe I’m wrong about all of this, if so, let’s have an empathic dialogue and work it out.


    1. nina sakun says:

      i wonder whether it is a question of definition, maybe your empathy is what bloom calls compassion.
      i mean not just definition, but that the “activity” that you call empathy is what he calls compassion

      i say this because i assume that our brains do work the same way and if he has proof that empahty is exhausting and you find that empathy is positive then it must be a different thing you are talking about

  2. Catherine Hayes says:

    Mr Bloom seems to misunderstand the powerful and innate process of empathy unfortunately. I suggest a dialogue with Mr Rutsch may be enlightening for him and for others interested in this capacity we all hold that can indeed generate more peaceful and cooperative ways of being at a time when division and fear seem to be on the ascendant. As an assistant professor in counselling in the UK I am frequently encouraged by the evidence of how constructive and growth promoting empathy is alongside the other 5 conditions necessary for psychological change. Together the 3conditions of empathy unconditional positive regard and congruence offer invaluable attitudes applicable in conflict resolution, education and all matters psychological. Mr Bloom unfortunately is revealing an incomplete grasp of an exciting and essential development in human evolution and potential.

  3. Bloom refers often to the same study from Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki. This is certainly an interesting study. I happened to discuss this study with Olga Klimecki on the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference in London 2012. She presented these findings there as new results. The article is now published and can be found here: http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/05/09/scan.nst060.full

    I took a special interest in it because it is one of a kind in showing that empathy training would lead to high levels of distress and uncontrollable emotions. My conclusion is that this study is not training what it says to be training, measuring what it should be measuring and does not really offer an explanation to “empathy/compassion fatigue”. The empathy-training was not training empathy but rather co-suffering and thus logically personal distress.

    A few remarks to explain my point of view for those interested.

    The empathy measurement in this study was done with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) by Davis (1980). This is a typical trait-empathy measurement used often to asses an empathy-disposition in people. I would expect that in a study like the one described here, the measure would have been a state-empathy measure, e.g. the ERQ from Batson. After all, people had a week of training, then were watching video’s and responded to these video’s. That is state-empathy, not trait-empathy. Nevertheless, the IRI also provides interesting data, namelely whether the disposition to be empathic would increase after ’empathy training’. They found that “self-reported empathy and negative affect significantly increased after empathy training. Positive affect only increased after compassion training.” Well… who knows.

    The actual training itself. The empathy training was modeled after the compassion training which in its turn stems from Tibetan Buddhist/eastern meditation methods. From the supplementary data going with this publication:

    “Compassion Training.
    The employed compassion-enhancing technique focused on the practice of loving kindness and is based on an Eastern contemplative tradition (Salzberg, 2002; Singer and Bolz, in press). Previous studies used this method to investigate the effects of compassion training on emotional well-being (Fredrickson et al., 2008), immune function (Pace et al., 2008), prosocial behavior (Leiberg et al., 2011) and neural function (Klimecki et al., 2012; Weng et al., in press). In addition, several cross-sectional studies investigated the effects of long-term compassion practice onto neural and physiological responses to emotional stimuli (Lutz et al., 2008; 2009). The practice of loving kindness or compassion aims at fostering an attitude of friendliness towards oneself and others. After a theoretical introduction, participants were guided to visualize their own past suffering and to relate to it with feelings of warmth and care. Sentences like, “May I be sheltered by compassion” or “May I be safe” aided this practice. This caring affective experience was then sequentially extended towards a close person, a suffering person, a neutral person, and finally towards strangers and human beings in general. The ultimate goal of this training was to foster the capacity to experience care and warmth, even when faced with one’s own suffering or the suffering of others. Both the empathy and the compassion training practices were carried out in silence and participants practiced either in an upright, seated posture or while walking. Guided training periods typically lasted between 15 and 30 min.

    Empathy Training.
    Empathy training aimed at enhancing the ability to empathize with the suffering of other persons. After a theoretical introduction, the teacher guided participants to visualize their own difficult experiences in the past and to get in touch with their own past suffering. Sentences like, “I am touched by my suffering” and “I am in contact with my pain” aided the practice. In the next session, participants were guided to visualize a close person who was not well and to empathize with this person’s suffering. To aid the practice, participants could use internally generated sentences like, “I share your suffering”, or “I see your pain”. This affective resonance with the suffering of others was then sequentially extended towards a neutral person, towards strangers and towards all human beings. To prevent exhaustion and to enable a continuous practice, participants were given the option of modulating the intensity with which they immersed themselves in empathy for suffering.”

    The point: the researchers were not training empathy but rather co-suffering. Agency is the awareness of oneself as an agent who is the initiator of actions, desires, thoughts and feelings (Decety & Grèzes, 2006) and is a crucial aspect of empathy. Agency is the process by which the self does not loose its own identity in the experience of empathy. In other words, Agency enables us to differentiate the self from the other and thus the emotional experience of the self from that of the other in need. Whereas agency is absent in emotional contagion, it plays a crucial role in empathy. I believe that the training provided here as empathy training is failing to train agency as part of the process. Emotional contagion, distress and co-suffering (negative affect apparently too) are the consequence.

    I could go on but I think that sums up the main points. The question might be why I am trying to make them in the first place. Well, because empathy is my scholarly specialty and if empathy would not be beneficial to humanity, I would go and do something else in life! 😉

    I am not trying to say that compassion training is not good or does not benefit. I am of the point of view that both empathy and compassion go hand in hand and that we need both to keep walking. So let’s practice compassion training and measure the effects of real empathy training.

    And thanks for hanging in there with me!

  4. Lou Agosta says:

    Short take: the author knows the difference between empathy and compassion (the average person on the street often confuses the two) and attributes to compassion the best aspects of empathy and to empathy the worst aspects of compassion. Empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing and one’s ethics and morals (and compassion!) tell one what to do about it. This book is clever contrarian move; but ultimately poorly serves both empathy and compassion or people who strive meaningfully to expand their work in each. What makes the author believe that one has to choose between empathy and compassion – the world needs both expanded (rational) compassion and empathy.
    The reader has to ask:
    Why is it an Either / Or choice between empathy and compassion? This dichotomy is the rhetorical flourish – indeed sophistry looms large here – of a celebrity academic (no?) – who knows very well that empathy is NOT compassion, though the average person on the street tends to identify the two. The push back? The world needs both expanded empathy and expanded compassion.
    For example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan’s empathic receptivity enables him to experience the suffering of the survivor of the robbery whereas the other two would-be helpers experience only empathic distress, and so they pass on by,not helping. But this does not reduce empathy to compassion (or vice versa). Empathy enables one to get access to the other person’s experience via a vicarious experience (in this case, of the suffering); ethics and compassion tell one what to do about it (in this case – get involved, help out). Simple as that.
    There are lots of researchers and scholars [e.g., Decety, de Waal, Wyman, Gallese, Agosta, Iocoboni, Baron-Cohen, Farrow and Woodruff) doing fundamental work on empathy that one may usefully studying prior to engaging with this work. Check them out first.
    In the final analysis: there is nothing wrong here and reasonable people may disagree; but there is one thing missing: empathy!

  5. Joe C says:

    Don’t switch off empathetic feelings – hold them in wise equanimity.

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