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Michael Parfit is a documentary filmmaker based in Sidney, B.C., whose next project is called Search for Empathy.


In these anguished times, many people have pleaded for the emotional generosity we call empathy. But what is empathy? Can it make a real difference? Or is it false hope?

After shootings in the United States, terrorist attacks worldwide and growing xenophobia, empathy has been described as a way to fight what an international group of 1,500 parliamentarians calls a "poisonous rising tide of fear and hate."

Barack Obama says we need more empathy. Bill and Melinda Gates promote it. Stephen Hawking says it's the human quality he would most like to magnify. "Empathy is trending now," said Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy in Toronto, a pioneer in the encouragement of positive empathy in children.

But does empathy have the power to fight the poisonous tide? Or is it, as some think, just a sentimental weakness? Is it even real?

Broadly, empathy is our instinctive awareness of others' emotions. But until recently, Emory University's Frans de Waal wrote in his 2009 book, The Age of Empathy, "empathy was not taken seriously by science." Dr. de Waal, who has conducted groundbreaking research on empathy in animals, says that empathy "was considered an absurd, laughable topic classed with supernatural phenomena such as astrology and telepathy."

But these days, in the words of one team of scientists a few years ago, "Empathy research is suddenly everywhere!" This research shows that forms of empathy probably evolved in most mammals, and that it is hard-wired into our brains. It may also be most powerful in social mammals.

For example, the highly social prairie vole has shown an empathetic capacity to console others of its species when they suffer. But its less-social relative, the meadow vole, doesn't seem to console anybody.

Research on humans indicates that empathy's ability to link individuals into groups may be one of the keys to who we are.

"Exciting work in neuroscience, cognitive, developmental, and comparative psychology has [led] … to what now must be recognized as one of the leading theories of human cognitive evolution," Peter T. Ellison, a Harvard University professor of anthropology, noted in Evolutionary Psychology in 2009. "According to this viewpoint, human intelligence rests on a foundation of social cognition reflected in a unique capacity for empathy. … On this foundation rise the impressive superstructures of language, culture, and technology."

So empathy is no bleeding-heart wimp. It's a major force in our lives. But it is also more complex than its warm and fuzzy image. There's a dark side. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer writes that empathy makes us care more about individuals than about thousands, so it can damage our response to wider pain, leaving mass suffering unheeded.

"If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide," Paul Bloom, a Yale professor and psychologist, argued in the Boston Review in 2014. "Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for … those who look like us," wrote Dr. Bloom, whose book Against Empathy will be published in December.

In that way, raw empathy can be manipulated to feed hatred instead of ending it. If you can be convinced emotionally that other groups are destroying the lives of your friends and family, agonizing empathy could even drive you to grab a suicide vest.

Dr. Bloom attacks that kind of raw emotional empathy. He does not attack empathy adapted by reason. Like anger, he says, raw empathy should be "modified, shaped, and directed by rational deliberation."

So when advocates for co-operation say we need empathy, it's not about whether we use it. It's about how.

If empathy evolved to weld individuals into groups to survive danger that would destroy loners, then it's a vital survival tool. Today's angry groups are both the loners and the danger. The urgency now is to take charge of empathy to work between groups as well as inside them.

Yes, when empathy is used to divide people, darkness comes. But if we use our minds to manage it for cohesion and co-operation, it has the power to make us stronger together. It has before.

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