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Empathy is a Choice

Why does a single crying child or an injured puppy arouse more empathy than a large number of suffering people, e.g. in epidemics, wars or natural disasters? Isn’t it odd that empathetic feelings diminish when they are needed the most? Is empathy a limited resource that we cannot extend indefinitely and is therefore a source for moral failures? Reality seems to be less bleak, according to a new study:

when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

One thing that has not changed is that power corrodes our ability to feel empathy. People in positions of power exhibit less empathy simply because they have less incentive to interact with others. Perhaps that’s the reason we admire leaders who seem to be in tune with the sufferings of others, e.g. Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Although I am not too hot on the latter after her failure to speak out on the Rohingya issue in her country.


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