Empathy – a cognitive megatrend

Empathy is regarded as the tool par excellence for putting oneself in another person’s shoes. But – what is empathy and – is it really always good for us?

Cognition researchers distinguish two types of “putting oneself in” Strategic thinking or empathy?

In the theory called “ToM” (or mentalizing), which is the abbreviation for “Theory of Mind“, it is considered possible to simply think into another person – without empathizing. This means thinking about the thinking of others – i.e. drawing conclusions about what a counterpart knows, intends or how we can influence it.

Just as one chess player tries to anticipate the moves of another. Or how a poker player reads his opponent. This usually happens without any empathy or compassion.

Other brain regions active

This mental, rather than emotional change of perspective can be distinguished visually in the brain scan: If the poker player thinks into his opponent, regions in the forebrain and prefrontal cortex are stressed, while in the case of empathic compassion, the island cortex (insula) and cingulate cortex are particularly active.

In addition, according to the cognition researchers, the sensation of empathy must be considered in a differentiated way. It should not be confused with the loving and sacrificial feeling, which is often used in everyday life.

Healthy empathy is all about doing good – without identifying with your counterpart.

This is all the more true in the medical professions or in the care of the elderly. There are indications that the emotional boundary with patients must be drawn particularly strictly here. Studies indicate that identifying empathy can trigger negative emotions in caregivers, while distant goodwill brings with it a fundamentally positive attitude.

Why don’t we help all the time, even though we are empathic?

Anyone who lives in the big city knows it: You meet many people every day. Among these there are always some who seem to be in need. Because it is impossible to help everyone on their way through the city, we regularly get into a kind of empathic stress. This reduces our willingness to help in everyday life. Our empathic senses are overwhelmed and we begin to strategically block out the feeling of co-responsibility for the needs of these people.

Empathically distracted from the core of the problem

Guided by the assumption that empathy can even turn into its opposite, the psychologist Paul Bloom published his book “Against Empathy” in 2016

In this he criticizes the common opinion that empathy is the tool par excellence that can save the world from hatred and prejudice. He explains how empathic compassion leads to irrational decisions which harm many people more than help them. Bloom’s basic thesis is that our compassion makes us blind to how we can really help.

A good example of his theses can be found, in my opinion, in the current refugee policy of Europe. Out of a – naturally justified – compassion, we help the refugees: instead of rebelling against the arms lobby, the war industry and a policy that allows and even provokes wars to continue. It is clear to everyone that refugees are literally produced by these very conditions. Unfortunately, our empathy does not change the situation – nothing.

A tool for the psychopath – empathy

The Germanist and cognition researcher Fritz Breithaupt goes one step further. For him empathy can even be downright manipulative.

Those who understand empathy can use it to draw people to their side. Donald Trump is great at relating empathy to himself. He creates a situation that is full of tension. He stages himself as “one against all”. (Fritz Breithaupt)

In his considerations, Breithaupt also refers to Nietzsche, who recognizes that “empathy can lead to selflessness, to loss of self, to self-abandonment” and thus should not be considered a fundamentally positive emotion.

Empathy as a tool

Even more – empathy can become the tool of evil itself. For it is only through his empathic compassion that a sadist can relish the suffering of his victims – precisely because he can empathize with their pain, argues Breithaupt.

He observes negative consequences of praise on empathy in many areas. People have begun to smugly degrade other people into a victim role, who actually deserve to be seen as equals.

Empathy would become a means to rise above others. This form of empathy only enriches the compassionate person himself – he feels wonderful, in the role of the good, giving and just person.

Balance between objective observation and self-criticism

To develop an empathic feeling into a valuable social contribution, a high degree of self-reflection is obviously required.

The motivation for one’s own compassion must be reflected upon – even under possibly painful self-awareness. In addition, an objective view of the situation and the possibilities in general can help to fundamentally examine.

Nevertheless, I think that we should continue to empathize and help spontaneously and emotionally, depending on the situation. It is ultimately our ability to empathize with and think about other people that gives us the feeling of security and security in the social community.

In a compassionate world, both parties are often better off.

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