Work from graduate student Dorsa Amir and colleagues covered in New York Mag’s “The Science of Us”

November 10, 2016

In a 2011 Sesame Street episode, a monster named Murray learns a new word: empathy. If his friend — in this case, celebrity guest Mark Ruffalo — is sad about losing a favorite teddy bear, and Murray can imagine that feeling, to the point where he feels it, too — well, there you have it. “That was empathy!” Ruffalo says in the video, which has been watched on YouTube nearly two million times. “You could understand how I was feeling, exactly how I was feeling.”

As Ruffalo defines it, “Empathy is when you’re able to care about and understand how someone else is feeling.” It’s the way the concept is typically described, as a prerequisite to concern, which, therefore, leads to action. And it does seem obvious that if you can feel what someone else is feeling,you’ll be more likely to act with kindness toward them. That’s why empathy is typically seen as a cornerstone of a moral life, as it’s understood to motivate prosocial behaviors like cooperating, volunteering, sharing, or donating money. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report led by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit group behind the kids’ show — found that most teachers would rather their students had empathy than basic manners.

All of which helps make a new study, published earlier this fall in the journal Emotion, so interesting. In it, a trio of researchers from Yale University draws a distinction between empathy, or feeling what someone else is feeling, and concern, or caring about what someone else is feeling —what you might call sympathy. (One of the three researchers is Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist whose book, Against Empathy, will be published later this year.) In three experiments, they find that while concern reliably predicts helpful behaviors, such as donating money, empathy does not always do so. In their words, “empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe.” In other words: You can behave kindly toward someone even if you aren’t personally buoyed by their happiness, or dragged down by their sadness. Feeling another person’s emotions is nice, but it may not be as necessary as you think…

Click here to continue reading the full article, “Empathy Is Nice, But It’s Not Exactly Necessary”, in New York Magazine.