Kaitlin Ugolik is an award-winning journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes and edits stories about the law, health, finance, technology and the media.

On empathy

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an editorial by a trio of psychology researchers titled Empathy Is Actually a Choice. The title drew me in immediately. Reflecting on my experience attempting to discuss things like feminism and anti-racism in semi-public spheres (like Facebook), I always come back to wondering about empathy. When someone tells me that if I don't want to be harassed or assaulted, the "logical" thing to do would be to dress a certain way and avoid certain places and people, I wonder about the instinct to choose "logic" over empathy, and whether those two things can ever work in tandem. When I bring this up with people, many tend to view empathy and "emotionalism" as the same (negative) thing, or something irrelevant to the conversation at hand. I have a lot of thoughts about empathy — how we learn it, why so many people seem not to know its purpose, the impact it has on social discourse — but I'm not an expert. So it was interesting to see a piece written by some experts that validated a nagging thought I've had for a while:

we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

The authors reference studies that suggest that when people are told that empathy is a skill that can be improved, rather than an inherent trade that people either do or don't have, they show more of it. Now this piece is a rebuttal to other previously published pieces, and it references research that competes with previous research suggesting various different outcomes. But what makes this idea so compelling to me is that one of the authors of the editorial conducted a study that showed even people with psychopathy and narcissism diagnoses, which would typically suggest they are incapable of empathy, seem to be able to feel it when the result suits them. The generally accepted idea about psychopaths is that while they may seem to be empathetic at times, they've really just learned to mimic what it looks like when other people show empathy. But this research suggests that in the right circumstances, with the right incentive, people with so-called empathy deficit disorders do in fact appear able to understand how others are feeling and take actions that are beneficial to others if they feel some kind of allegiance to them. In fact, that very ability to feel an allegiance might seem like a form of empathy itself. Here's some more information about that study.

I'd be interested to hear what others think about this. I am glad people are studying empathy, and I tend to believe it's something most of us are capable of, but not all of us are properly taught to recognize or use. I see it as sort of an unlocked talent for many people. But what would this mean in practice for psychologists? As always, I'm looking forward to reading more.

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