I’ve been reading The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s amazing 2011 landmark study of violence and its decline. Among numerous insights I’ve gained from it are two aspects of empathy I hadn’t really considered. I knew them subconsciously, but understood them more clearly from this reading.
One is that empathy has what Pinker calls a “dark side.” Our feelings of empathy with someone in a painful or unfortunate situation may temporarily incapacitate our sense of fairness, so that we favor the person we know over others equally or more deserving. For example, one study acquainted participants with a seriously ill child awaiting medical treatment. Those who empathized with her wanted to move her to the head of the queue, ahead of other children who had been waiting longer or who needed the treatment even more. Participants who received the same information about this child, but didn’t empathize with her, treated all children fairly.
A second consideration is the way that empathy can be increased and spread by print and broadcast media. Those who read or see a news program about another culture may develop empathy with the unfamiliar culture. Once I stopped to think about it, I realized that for me the process had been life-changing. It was because I read about the treatment of factory-farmed animals that I became a vegan. Although subsequently I saw slaughterhouse footage and other persuasive images, and spent a little time with actual farm animals, my original decision came entirely from reading. Now that I see this empathic potential of the media, I am more kindly disposed toward them than when I thought of television, for example, as broadcasting mostly noise, countless advertisements, violence in word and action, competitive sports, and adolescent- level sitcoms. (Except PBS, which I sometimes watch). Furthermore, it is not only factual material that may increase empathy. A correlation has also been shown between empathic sensibility and the reading of fiction, although it is not known whether this is causative, or whether empathic people are just more likely to read fiction.
In any case, it gives me another reason to justify and continue my reading habit. Not that I needed one.