Empathy May Be Overrated in an Election, and in a Leader

Is empathy an essential virtue for a presidential candidate?

The conventional wisdom is that a good candidate must be able to feel your pain. Bill Clinton was hailed by pundits as a virtuoso of empathy, supposedly riding that quality to triumph over George H.W. Bush, who was so often said to be short of empathy that he felt compelled to tell an audience, “Message: I care.”

Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 was blamed, in part, on his emotional frigidity, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012 on the “empathy gap” with Barack Obama.

But there are a couple of problems with the conventional wisdom. To begin with, it’s not clear that empathy actually matters much to voters.

In the Republican primaries, Donald J. Trump, who brags that he’s so rich he feels no pain at all, has trounced Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who emphasized his family’s financial struggles, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, known for comforting rally attendees with hugs.

Some political scientists say that empathy is not a crucial factor in presidential races, noting that personality traits don’t correlate well with the results on Election Day. A candidate often wins despite an opponent who receives higher marks in polls asking how much each “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.”

The voters’ indifference could reflect another problem with conventional wisdom: Empathy may not be such a great quality in a leader. Although the capacity to sympathize with others’ suffering is widely hailed as an essential virtue — Mr. Obama has said the world is suffering from an “empathy deficit” — there’s a downside that has inspired a lively debate among social psychologists.

The most prominent critic is Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, who gave a talk at this year’s meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology titled “Does Empathy Make Us Immoral?” He readily acknowledges that empathy can inspire altruism — that once you “broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others,” in Mr. Obama’s words, “it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.”

But whom do you end up helping? Often the wrong people, Dr. Bloom says, because empathy is biased and parochial. It favors vulnerable children and animals, and discriminates against unattractive people. You’re more likely to sympathize with someone in your social group rather than an outsider, especially one who looks different.

Empathy is also innumerate, Dr. Bloom notes, which is why you may care more about one girl stuck in a well than thousands of war refugees or millions of people who will be affected by climate change.

Moreover, empathy can be manipulated to inspire aggression. In one experiment, when people were induced to empathize with the personal problems of one player in a game, they became more willing to punish the player’s opponent, even though the opponent had nothing to do with those personal problems.

In his current research, Dr. Bloom and a colleague are finding that the more empathic people feel toward victims of terrorism in the Middle East, the more they favor taking military action.

“If I want to do terrible things to a group, one tried-and-true way is to arouse empathy for victims of that group,” Dr. Bloom said in an interview. “Often the argument for war is rooted in empathy for victims of the enemy.”

Dr. Bloom concludes that empathy is overrated as a guide for personal morality or public leadership. “Sob stories are not a good way to make public policy,” he said. “The best leaders have a certain enlightened aloofness.”

“They recognize the suffering of victims of terrorists, but they also recognize that going to war will create future victims. They make policy by taking into account numbers and cost-benefit analyses. They use rational means to achieve good ends.”

Other researchers, though, argue that empathy isn’t as irrational as it seems. They see it as not just a knee-jerk reflex but as something we can control. Our empathy declines as the number of victims increases, an effect called “compassion collapse.” But maybe that’s because we realize we can’t do anything meaningful to help the larger group.

“Empathy can often be costly, entailing outlay of material resources, emotional effort and physical risk,” said Daryl Cameron, a psychologist at the University of Iowa. “If people recognize these costs, either consciously or not, they may strategically regulate their empathy away to avoid the costs.”

To test this theory of “motivated empathy,” Dr. Cameron and a colleague compared people’s reactions to stories about children suffering in Darfur. When people didn’t expect to be asked for a donation, they responded more strongly to a story about a group of children than to a story about a single child. But if they expected to be hit up for a donation, then their compassion for the larger group collapsed, apparently because they’d regulated their empathy to protect themselves.

In other experiments, psychologists at Stanford have found that people can increase their empathy, too. When nudged to believe they can increase their empathy, they become more sympathetic toward people with different backgrounds and beliefs.

“This type of empathy doesn’t always come naturally,” said Jamil Zaki, a psychologist at Stanford. “It’s work. But choosing empathy affords us opportunities to build more diverse and powerful social connections, and take control of our emotional lives.”

Dr. Bloom, the empathy critic, agrees that this emotion can be goosed to some degree, but he says we are still better off relying on the less emotional strategy described in 1759 by Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Smith noted that “fellow-feeling,” his term for empathy, was a powerful yet limited emotion: An Englishman, he suggested, would lose more sleep worrying about the loss of a finger than about the deaths of 100 million foreigners in an earthquake.

How, Smith asked, could this selfish impulse be overridden?

“It is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love,” Smith wrote. “It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions.

“It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”

That may sound like an overly optimistic view of human nature, especially this election year. Reason hardly seems the arbiter of a presidential candidate’s conduct these days. But voters may ultimately prefer it to empathy.

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