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September 30, 2014

When Empathy Leads to Scapegoating

A study points out that empathy can make those who feel it more willing to hurt third parties who have done nothing wrong:

A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behavior. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: You also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.

University at Buffalo psychologists Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin found empathy can provoke such behavior even absent “traditional predictors of aggression” such as feeling threatened, or a tendency to act impulsively.

Participants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for.

What’s more, it can be activated even “in the absence of wrongdoing or provocation from the target of aggression.” That party doesn’t have to be doing anything wrong; he or she simply has to pose a problem for the person you empathize with.

Kind of puts a whole new spin on the "us vs. them" rhetoric of the income inequality debate, doesn't it?

... participants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. This occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The results should put a damper on what the researchers call “recent enthusiasm for interventions that involve administering caregiving-related neurohormones or empathy training.”

“Just as the self-esteem movement was not a panacea leading to happy, successful, and well-adapted children,” the researchers write, “oxytocin and/or empathy interventions may not stop problems such as bullying and other forms of aggression and violence, because aggression itself may result from empathy.”

There's a reason justice is traditionally depicted wearing a blindfold.

Posted by Cassandra at September 30, 2014 07:45 AM

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Finally! A study of what Ms. O’Conner had osmotically surmised.

“In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” – Flannery O’Conner

Posted by: George Pal at September 30, 2014 09:48 AM

Thought-provoking quote. In searching for the context, I found this piece at Althouse.

The quote, the Althouse piece, and Cassandra's post all seem to me to have something to say about the idea that human beings can be perfected. Even if we knew what "perfect" looked like we can't achieve it. And even if we can achieve it in one sphere (making people "perfectly" empathetic) we and our societies are so complex we will inevitably end out of balance in some way.

Posted by: Elise at September 30, 2014 02:45 PM

This is a bit OT, but I was just reading about research on juries. Jury-selection experts say that it's a good idea for the defendant in a civil case to include jurors who have experienced a loss similar to that of the plaintiff. If they haven't, they tend to let their imaginations run wild about how horrible the plaintiff's experience was and award crazy, lottery-style damages. If they've suffered something similar, they'll empathize, but they'll also be a little more realistic about how hard it is to get on with one's life in the face of a similar loss.

Posted by: Texan99 at October 1, 2014 07:14 PM