What Stops Us From Acting Empathetically?



A recent conversation about empathy surfaced in a group I was working with.

One of the group members  described  an experience he had the previous night.  While eating dinner with his friends, a homeless person specifically approached him and asked for some money.

He shared that he did not give the person money at that time, because he was not sure how it would be spent. But, he said, “if the homeless person had asked for food he would have given him food immediately.”

His story generated interest and a fruitful conversation that eventually led to the question, “ Does empathy have to lead to action?”

This question got me thinking about what prevents people from acting empathically – especially since there is strong evidence indicating that we’re neurally wired for empathy.

A brief overview on the neuroscience of empathy might be useful at this point.

In the 1980s and 1990s the work of a group of Italian neuroscientists from the University of Parma, Italy led to the discovery of mirror neurons. Brain cells that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal perceives the same action performed by another.

As they apply to humans, neuroscientists Marco Iacoboni and V.S. Ramachandran have speculated that the mirror neuron systems in the human brain helps us understand the actions and intentions of other people and may provide the neurological basis of human self-awareness and empathy. If this is so, and we’re all “wired” for empathy then why do we so often fail to act?Empathy requires our attention. It requires self-awareness. We have to notice what we don’t notice – which includes noticing that most of the time our focus is self-absorbed.

From a Buddhist contemplative perspective this suggests that unconsciously our focus of attention is on preserving our self-identity to feel safe in a world where things are constantly changing. Clearly, the role of impermanence  is a powerful force in shaping our lives and compelling the choices and decisions we make.

While our cognitive processes play a significant role in blocking empathic responses, so do our physiological states. The work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Illinois, has found that unless we turn off our defenses, our physiology will blur our perception of the world with different psychological experiences.  Our emotional state at any time (anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, overwhelm, anger, annoyance, impatience, calmness, etc) sets the physiological stage for perception. It is impossible to empathize when we feel threatened, whether physically or psychologically; our body is simply not designed to operate that way.

The Good Samaritan 

There was an interesting study done a while ago at Princeton Theological Seminary focusing on the cognitive elements of empathy. They were interested in exploring what prevents people, at times, from acting empathically.

Two different groups of theological students were told that they were going to give a practice sermon.  Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the other half were asked to talk about careers for seminarians. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, they had to pass a man who clearly appeared in need.

Prior to carrying out their respective sermons both groups were, in a way, primed for action by three statements expressed by the experimenters that created three conditions: high, medium and low hurry. Both groups were presented with these statements.

“Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.”

“The assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.”

“It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over.”

On average just 40% of the seminary students offered help. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in and their personal investment in what they were going to talk about. Here is the percentage of participants who offered help by condition:

  • Low hurry: 63%
  • Medium hurry: 45%
  • High hurry: 10%

The type of talk they were giving also had an effect on whether they offered help. Just 29% of those asked to give a sermon about careers for seminarians offered help, while 53% of those asked to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan, offered help.

There is point of view, put forth by David Brooks, in his article “The Limits of Empathy,” that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take place. In his words, “ Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.” People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.”

I’m very weary of Brooks’ idea of being ”compelled to act by a sense of duty” and “sacred codes.” I agree with Brooks that the problem is turning feeling into action. But I disagree on the issue of causality. Our need to belong and connect socially is embedded in our evolutionary history, formed millions of years before the development of language and a consciousness of a sense of duty.

Empathy is an intrinsic, organic response rooted in our biological evolutionary history and wired in our brains. A “sense of duty” to be sure has its place within any societal structure, but what it actually means is vulnerable to psychological distortion.

In her blog, the Fearless Heart Miki Kashtan speaks to the question of “duty”, My investigations lead me to think that “a sense of duty” is part of the problem, not the solution. A sense of duty usually gets instilled in us through fear and shame, leading us to act based on external considerations while doubting our own intuitive heart response. If we believe that humans are fundamentally evil and unruly, or at best plain old selfish, a view which still underlies most of the institutions we have in place, we will naturally want to control, shame, and punish our children into being “good” and insist on obedience to a strong code of behavior, thereby prolonging human suffering on this planet.”

If you look behind every strong anti-empathy feeling – fear, anger, rage, frustration, resentment, disappointment, hurt, and hostility – you’ll find beliefs. What my empathetic group member experienced in his response to the homeless person was influenced by his constellation of beliefs about the homeless, needs, giving and a whole host of ideas from his personal moral code.

Beliefs activate feelings – they drive our behaviors and decision-making and in the case of empathy, can impede or enable our natural empathic flow towards others. Unearthing the beliefs you hold about empathy is a critical first step in the process of expanding your empathic skills.

While we recognize that the immediacy of living in a wired, connected global world is impacting our natural empathetic tendencies in unimaginable ways, it’s our own internal shut-off switches such as thoughts, judgments and beliefs that tamp down our inclinations towards understanding and helping others.

Without action, the best of intentions have no meaning.

If not backed by thoughtful action, intentions stay closeted in our thoughts.  And so it is with empathy.


Thanks for reading.

George Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants

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