Recommended books & reviews, Social commentary

Head over heart: the case against emotional empathy

Against EmpathyIn the mid-1990s, I worked in a large hostel for 140 homeless people.

One resident (lets call him Brian) had incredibly strong body odour. His lack of personal hygiene and reluctance to wash his clothes became a real issue. It led to snide comments from other residents and frustrations grew among those who shared the TV lounge or canteen area with him.

All the staff agreed that something should be done about the issue. But none of my colleagues were prepared to speak with Brian because they felt it would be too awkward and upsetting for him. They said ‘How would you like it if someone told you that you stink?’


I disagreed. I felt it was our responsibility to speak to him about it because it could lead to far more serious problems. In the end, I did it.

The conversation was difficult. Brian did get angry, embarrassed and upset. But he did take it on board and agreed a simple plan to address the issue.

Even afterwards not all my colleagues agreed with my approach. They said things like  ‘You are so harsh’ and ‘I could never have said that to anyone.’

I thought about Brian when I read Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion by Paul Bloom.

Criticising empathy

To be critical of empathy is not easy. My wife (a counsellor) got annoyed by just reading the title.  As Bloom puts it ‘being against empathy is like being against kittens – a view considered so outlandish that it can’t be serious.’

This is because ‘some people use empathy as referring to everything good, as a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion’. So to be clear – this is not a book against kindness or compassion.  Bloom says

‘I am writing this book because I am for all those things. I want to make the world a better place. I’ve just come to believe that relying on empathy is the wrong way to do it.’

Rather, it is a critique of ’coming to experience the world as you think someone else does’.  Bloom disagrees with the many who believe empathy is the most important thing we need to solve world problems:

‘The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to a lack of empathy. Actually, they are often due to too much of it.’

It is a thought-provoking thesis.

Does feeling the pain of other actually lead to good forms of help?  In the case of Brian, I felt my colleagues showed a form of empathy that did not lead to a compassionate response. Their response was too affected by the thought of ‘how would I feel if someone said this to me?’ rather than what was right in the circumstances we faced.

Head over heart

Bloom’s central point is that we need to use our heads more than our hearts and adopt a more rational approach to intervening positively in the world.  Emotional empathy gives too much sway to our feelings, which our prejudices and inconsistencies easily cling to:

‘Those who are high in empathy can be too caught up in the suffering of other people. If you absorb the suffering of others, then you’re less able to help them in the long run because achieving long-term goals often requires inflicting short-term pain.’

A good illustration is parenting. Loving your children often means bearing the pain of the tantrum because you know, cognitively, that you are doing the right thing:

‘Any good parent, for instance, often has to make a child do something, or stop doing something, in a way that causes the child immediate unhappiness but is better for him or her in the future: Do your homework, eat your vegetables, go to bed at a reasonable hour…Making children suffer temporarily for their own good is made possible by love, intelligence, and compassion, but yet again, it can be impeded by empathy.’


Emotional empathy can leave us vulnerable to manipulation by those good at pulling our heart strings.  Bloom gives examples of how this distorts our sense of proportionality and plays into our inherent bias. People tend to help one person with a story which moves or connects with them, even when they could help many more with the same resources.

This is especially connected to my experiences of helping people with addictions and those begging.  Emotional empathy can lead us to prioritise what makes us feel good, rather than thinking clearly about will really help.

Often it is those with the best boundaries – rather than those over-flowing with empathy – who provide the best forms of help.  To be effective is to recognise manipulative behaviour but continue to offer care and consistency.  As Bloom states:

‘Doing actual good, instead of doing what feels good requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation from competing, sometimes malicious and greedy interests. To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not one should not give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye towards consequences.’

And this same dynamic is at work in managing staff. The best managers do not over-identify with those they are responsible for but are able to rationally assess performance and be clear-headed enough to take required action. I know that for myself, most of my poor decisions as a manager have been rooted in being too empathetic about those I manage, and not the other way around.

Being effective

In the UK today, many people desperately need help. We need more than ever to think about what it means to be effective in our kindness and compassion.  This is why I believe so much in the balance and fusion between grace and truth as shown in this chart:

Grace+TruthEmotional empathy can lead us to simply focus on the ‘grace’ side of this chart. And this tendency needs managing because positive change and transformation almost always involves both sides of this tension.

Against Empathy will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I think its a helpful provocative which challenges us about how kind and compassionate our empathetic feelings really are.

12 thoughts on “Head over heart: the case against emotional empathy”

  1. You mention people’s reticence to tell him about his body odour because of how they would feel themselves, but we do need to think how we would feel if we weren’t told. You didn’t just tell him, you offered practical support.
    When I was at work we called it “Duty to Care”.


    1. well exactly Cathie – I thought of this small example again after so many years as providing care and support also means challenging people. I think in the context I was in (it was a very chaotic and challenging hostel) it was a hard conversation but I made the point that if he got beaten up, then how would we feel? We had to go through the short term pain to a better place.


  2. Hi Jon,

    As always, you challenge me to do better! I do wonder if sometimes our refusal to “speak the truth in love” (e.g. pointing out to someone that they smell awful), is actually not done out of empathy, but out of a form of cowardice. If they become angry, their anger is likely to be directed at us, and we don’t want that, so we say nothing to the person who smells (or whatever the issue is).

    But we may well continue to comment to each other about it – which is (at the very least) colluding with gossip. By not speaking directly to the person with whom there is an issue, we make it easy for others to despise them secretly, which is colluding with scorn and mockery.


    1. Hi John – you challenge me back, so maybe its mutual! Yes, I think you are right. In many ways I think there is a link between cowardice and emotionalised empathy – as managers or in difficult pastoral situations its so easy to duck the harder conversations. And then its so easy to talk about those hard things with other people rather than the one with whom they should be had. None of this is easy but somewhere in our hearts we know what the right thing to do is.

      I find this in conversations with people begging – it is easier to give some money but its better (I think) to sit down and talk and show kindness but with a boundary about not colluding with them but compassionately advising them on what to do.


    2. I must confess to probably having a similar response to Nikki when I first saw this title when it came out a few years ago. I occasionally see books coming out with a deliberately provocative title, that uses shock tactics to sell books. What the book emphasises, it seems to me, is the truth end of the grace-truth polarity. From the little I understand of the world of homelessness, in which you have so much wisdom and experience, with the complications that many have of addiction and varying degrees of mental ill-health, I can imagine the need for boundaries and clarity and a weather eye on whether or not you are being manipulated by those you are trying to help, is strong. I can understand that empathy can go too far and can potentially lead you to making the worst decisions for the individual concerned. In a similar vein, I’ve given up watching comic relief now, and think David Lammy. MP may have a point. He suggests that all we are watching is ‘poverty porn’ manipulating us to give on an emotional whim perpetuating a ‘White= rescuer’, ‘Black=helpless victim’ stereotype. Surely a more rational and planful approach to distributing wealth responsibly, through regular support of development projects or individuals, is preferable? In your world of homelessness, I can imagine TRUTH and Grace needs to be the emphasis. It’s the Myers Briggs emphasis on T (Thinking) rather than F (Feeling). In my world of management and leadership development, where far too many psychopaths rise to very senior positions, I often find myself needing to bring the opposite emphasis of Truth and GRACE. But with any polarity, like breathing in and out, overemphasise one over the other for too long and you’re in trouble. I guess what we need is a dynamic movement between the two, and perhaps we’ll be getting it right. To be continued over our next pint…!


      1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts Adrian. I think you are right that it always needs to be a dynamic movement between grace and truth rather than a polarity. I have very little experience in the business sector but in the church/charity sector there is often a context of grace being emphasised – this is why truth is so needed as a balancing corrective whether in front line care or in management. But of course the two go hand in hand – grace should enable truth and truth should be communicated gracefully.

        I think this book challenges the idea that our ‘emotional feelings’ of empathy are the most significant thing. When Christians say (as we both heard them say this week) that ‘God cares most about the heart’, I know what they mean, but there is a danger that feelings are emphasised more than concrete action. I think this leads to all kinds of mess and pain. I think the ‘heart’ in scripture is the core of ourselves – not just our ‘feelings’. I think that charismatic Christian culture can thus end up being too emotional with songs and practices which elevate feelings above all else.

        As we have discussed ‘we judge ourselves by our motives but we judge others by their actions’. I think this all incredibly relevant to the issues we have faced locally in recent months. See you soon for that pint!


  3. Fascinating implications for the whole debate on does God suffer?The classic answer was a very definite no (Jesus suffered as a human being but not as God) and it is only in comparatively recent times, through books like Moltmann’s ‘The Crucified God’, that this orthodoxy has changed. At its basis, I think, is the view that love has to be empathetic to be genuine. But I remember my doctrine tutor at college (an Anglo-Catholic whose name I can’t remember) suggesting that it shows how far human love is from God’s that we can only see humans as able to love if they suffer first (he used the example of thousands of people phoning a redundant line to support Live Aid when the clip of the song they used with the phone number was reshown in an end of year review). Another of my tutors – Tom Weinandy (who taught me Patristics) argued something similar and set it out in his book ‘Does God Suffer?’. My instinct (and this itself was instructive) was to say yes but the arguments against this are very convincing and seem similar to those in this book.


  4. Hi Jon,
    I enjoyed and fully agree with your post…. It’s a tension that has been quite foundational in my work as a humanitarian. Someone wisely gave me the advice that we have to keep on feeling with our hearts, but make decisions with our heads…. if just with our hearts (or empathy) we’ll be swayed by whatever the immediate need is before us…. if just with our heads (or ‘truth’) then we can be cold and not compassionate. But that means that we know that we will face the tension/hurt when we make those hard choices. And we intentionally need to walk that path of suffering knowing there’s no easy way out.
    I’m encouraged by Mark 1, where Jesus has healed a number of people and the disciples assume that he’s going to stay and, presumably, heal more the next day. Yet Jesus says no, and chooses to walk away, because he understands the bigger picture. For me, that relieves some of the responsibility from my shoulders and it’s ok not to be superwoman!
    Thanks for writing this,


    1. Thanks Anna – glad it was helpful and thanks for giving your thoughts from working in contexts which must be so tough that holding onto such boundaries must both be so hard and so important. God bless you


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