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Actually, We Don’t Need More Empathy

Leading psychologist Daniel Goleman explains why empathy alone rarely leads to action–and proposes a simple meditation exercise to change that.

Actually, We Don’t Need More Empathy
A homeless woman walks along a street in Manhattan on July 24, 2017 in New York City. [Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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“We need more empathy” has become a common refrain in and outside the business world, and it’s no wonder why. With diversity and inclusion efforts lurching fitfully forward, and America’s political divisions spilling into seemingly all aspects of public life, walking a mile or three in others’ shoes just seems like a smart, and urgent, idea. But it may not be enough.

Researchers have long known that empathy does not necessarily lead to action; nor, for that matter, does mere rhetoric about the need to empathize. What we really need to practice are exercises that activate the brain’s circuitry for caring—which can lead to real action. Here’s how to do that.


Related: Brené Brown On Why America’s Crisis Of Disconnection Runs Deeper Than Politics


The Limits Of Empathy

Consider a classic 1973 study in social psychology by Daniel Batson, the field’s most avid investigator of altruistic acts, and his colleague John Darley. Students at a theological seminary were told they would be rated on a sermon, and each was given a Bible passage as their topic. Half received the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a stranger in need by the side of the road while others walked by. The other half were assigned random Bible topics.

After a few minutes to prepare, they walked over one by one to another building to give their sermon. On the way each passed a man bent over and moaning in pain. The big question: Did they stop to help the stranger in need? Bigger question: Did it matter if they were pondering the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: Rarely did they stop, and it made little difference if they were thinking about the Samaritan. What mattered more was if they thought they were late–time pressure overruled compassion. Our espoused ethics and ability to empathize count little whenever they’re superseded by what we actually do.

Consider the spectrum that runs from utter self-absorption (my sermon, my to-do list, my worries), to noticing the presence of another person (lift your eyes from that smartphone), to tuning in and empathizing, recognizing their need, and finally acting to help. That arc tracks neatly on scientific findings showing that by itself empathy–tuning into another person’s feelings and needs–does not necessarily lead to caring action. For actual compassionate action we need more than empathy, which is largely passive and internally experienced: it takes active concern.

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Related: The Google Memo Proves Tech Needs More Empathy, Not Less Emotion


The good news: Both empathy and compassion can be upgraded with the right mental exercises. That became clear when neuroscientist Richard Davidson and I were researching our new book, Altered Traits. We sifted through the more than 6,000 peer-reviewed articles on meditation to find the 1% or so that meet the most rigorous scientific standards. And we found within that body of research that the brain can be primed to actually help those in need, rather than merely feel for them.

Hacking Your Brain’s Social Circuitry

In fact, too much empathy can put the brakes on helping someone in distress. The social circuits of the brain act as an interpersonal Wi-Fi, stimulating the insula and the amygdala, key parts of our brain’s emotional circuitry. The amygdala and its circuits light up when we feel someone else’s suffering, alerting the brain of something important and perhaps urgent. Meanwhile the insula readies the organs to prepare for an emergency response.

The net effect: We feel in ourselves whatever the other person feels. If those echoed feelings run into the upsetting zone–pain or anguish, say–we resonate within the same pitch of pain and anguish ourselves. But to ease this discomfort, our brain typically reacts by tuning out, which of course is a recipe for indifference rather than kindness.


Related: How To Make Mindfulness A Working Advantage (And Not Just Cuddly Nonsense)


It needn’t turn out that way. Extraordinary altruists, people who have donated one of their own kidneys to save a stranger, for instance, also show an exaggerated amygdala reaction to another person’s suffering. And yet they act to help. The key: researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig found that people instructed in a loving-kindness meditation, in addition to that empathy Wi-Fi while witnessing someone’s suffering, also activated a very different neural circuit: the wiring for a parent’s love for a child.

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Would that loving neural activation overcome the tune-out reaction, and actually lead to compassionate action? Actually, yes. When volunteers in a study at the University of Wisconsin did the same practice that activates the brain’s compassion circuitry, participants actually gave twice as much money to the victim of a scam than their counterparts who’d just learned how to rethink events.

In other words, the loving-kindness exercise also boosts connection and activity between the prefrontal cortex’s executive centers and the brain’s circuitry for joy and happiness; the stronger that connection, the more altruistic a person becomes–and the more likely they are to actually step in and help.


Related: Inside The Science Of Gratitude


Meditating Your Way To Compassionate Action

Here are the basics of that compassion-enhancing method:

  • Find a place with no distractions, and close your eyes.
  • Slowly bring to mind someone in your life who has been kind to you and to whom you feel gratitude. Then silently wish that person well–that he or she be safe, happy, healthy, have a life of flourishing. Use whatever words feel natural for you.
  • Then focus on yourself and make those same wishes for your own life. Let yourself really experience the positive energy that comes through making these wishes.
  • Next, make those same wishes first for people you love, like your family members, then for people you know, like your coworkers, and then do the same for strangers–the people you see on your commute, the woman behind the counter at the bagel shop, the customer service rep at the other end of the phone whom you spoke to last week.
  • And finally, aim those wishes of wellbeing toward everyone, everywhere.

It sounds simple, and it is: just a straightforward mental exercise, which you can do at the end of a meditation session (if you already have such a practice) or as a standalone meditation that you can get in the habit of for the first time. Just don’t rush it. Give yourself enough time that you can go through this sequence leisurely, actually feeling in yourself what you’re wishing for others.

Try this every day for a month to decide if you want to continue. Over time, you’ll not only boost your empathy, but–crucially–your impulse to reach out and help, too.

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Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and science journalist whose latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Can Change Your Mind, Brain, and Body, coauthored with Richard J. Davidson, was published in September.