The Case Against Empathy

January 22, 2017

Annie Spratt (CC0)

If people were more empathetic, the world would be a better place, don’t you think?  If people learned how to be more aware of, more sensitive to the suffering and pain of others, they’d be kinder and gentler, treating others with more compassion. Or maybe they’d just burn themselves out.  Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom recently startled a lot of people by coming out with an argument against empathy.



I heard the Against Empathy segment this morning. I'm Edwin Rutsch, the director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy ( We are working to make empathy a primary social value.

For 3 years, since Paul Bloom wrote his first Against Empathy article, I've continuously invited Paul to a recorded on camera dialogue to talk about our contrasting views. As with all critics of empathy, I enjoy reaching out empathizing with their views and experiences, it is how conflict mediation, connection, growth and creativity happen. However, Paul absolutely refuses to dialogue on camera. I can understand why since his arguments are exceedingly flimsy and only work when talking to people not aware of the nuances and distinctions between empathy, sympathy, compassion, etc. It's easy to set up a straw man and then tear it down.

Paul seems to only do interviews with interviewers like Steve Paulson, who are not familiar with the subtleties of empathy. Even thought the whole TTBOOK team are exceptionally empathic interviewers, which is why I enjoy the show, you still need to do some homework on the underlying definitions and meanings. As a regular listener of your show, I'm very disappointed.

As journalists,

1. you could have researched the topic better to ask more penetrating and clarifying question. With a few simple questions and distinctions, Paul's whole rationale falls apart. At it's core, Paul is attacking sympathy and we actually agree that sympathy has problems. One of the main problems of sympathy is that it blocks empathy! This is well discussed in the empathy community. No wonder Steve seemed to be in a state of confusion during the segment.

2. you could have brought other contrasting voices to the dialogue. Creating a mutual empathic dialogue between opposing sides is the core of any conflict resolution process. It leads to clarity, mutual understanding and shared action.

I invite the TTBOOK team to host a recorded dialogue/empathy circle, between myself and Paul Bloom so as to hear the different sides of the issue. It doesn't need to be on your show, but just host it on Google hangouts, Skype, etc. I'll bet Paul refuses to take part.


I'm interested in Bloom's alternatives to empathy in Moral ethical decisions.
I'm interested in the meditation on compassion or rather compassionate meditation. How can I nurture compassion?

During this interview I kept thinking back to my understanding of empathy in light of emotional intelligence. Dr. Bloom's example of a therapist needing to be calm when the patient was anxious seemed mixed up. I want my therapist to understand my anxiousness not to express anxiousness. I work as a librarian and I don't need to express learning difficulties to know that a student who has a learning disability needs appropriate level of help. Dr. Bloom's idea of empathy was contrary to everything I apply in my life. An EMT who is calm in an emergency is empathetic AND able to control his emotional response.

Hi Edwin, I'm the digital producer for TTBOOK. Given the interest in alternative perspectives that you and others have raised here, any chance you can recommend a few voices that we might hear from to offer more varied perspective on empathy? In the case of this interview, Paul's perspective fit the theme of the show we were putting together, but we'd certainly consider looking at other points of view on the subject for future episodes, or even a timely podcast follow-up. 

Hi Mark,
thanks for the response.

Sure, I would recommend myself as the director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. We are advocating for making empathy a primary social value. Empathy is the core of personal and social well-being, healing, growth, conflict mediation and creative innovation. And good journalism. I've interviewed over 300 'empathy experts' which you can see on our website.

You can check out interviews at
Scroll down the page or see them by sub topic here.

We do empathic listening on the streets with the empathy tent.

Example of an Empathy Circle For & Against Empathy
Lori Gruen, Jesse Prinz and Edwin Rutsch
(let's do one with Paul Bloom, and I invite Steve Paulson to take part.)

A few voices list;

Healthcare: Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Education: Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy,

Marco Iacobon, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Marco Iacoboni Lab, UCLA Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Christian Keysers: professor Social Brain Lab at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands.

etc. Let me know if you need others.

I hope you will take some action and not leave your audience so confused about the nature of empathy. In our current political environment this is dangerous.

Another "voice" i would like to add is the work of one of the most influential Psychologists** of the 20th century. Carl Rodgers Person-Centered Approach is fundamentally based on empathy and highly regarded as one of the pillars of psychotherapy.


Manfred, thanks for that reference.

Carl Rogers was found to be the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century and second, among clinicians, only to Sigmund Freud. He was the primary proponent of empathy in therapy, education and in any human relationships. Guess what, Bloom absolutely does not mention Rogers in his book.. I wonder why?

From his paper.
Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being EDEyn

"Over the years, however, the research evidence keeps piling up, and it points strongly to the conclusion that a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent and certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning. And so I believe it is time for me to forget the caricatures and misrepresentations of the past and take a fresh look at empathy."

"The ideal therapist is first of all empathic. When psychotherapists of many different orientations describe their concept of the ideal therapist, the therapist they would like to become, they are in high agreement in giving empathy the highest ranking out of twelve variables."

The more I see of all of this the more angry I'm getting at TTBOOK for giving a platform to the Against Empathy movement and no voice to Pro Empathy side.

this is the link to the paper: Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being

Hi Mark,

Allow me to introduce myself -- I'm an engineering professor at Washington State University, and a researcher in the field of collective intelligence. You're likely to find many researchers in typical psychology related fields who can attest to the value of empathy in healthy human relationships. Their voices are extremely valid, and I am supportive of their work.

But empathy is actually much bigger than that. Evolved states of empathy are actually the necessary condition for an advanced technological society. Why? Because empathy governs the accuracy, and what we call the information coherence of information between designers. Empathetic levels work to create the high tech world, because empathy itself must be present for people of diverse backgrounds to exchange information correctly. The short version? You can't build something with 2.3M parts, like a commercial airliner, without it. You'd never get the parts to fit together.

I am working on a book on all of this -- you can check out many of the ideas on my blog, And as a fun fact -- empathy, and its effects across scales, also is the key reason we never have to worry about aliens eating us. Why? In order to travel to the stars, any society would have to advance in its ability to exchange information between all sorts of different actors, in all sorts of different situations. In short, they'd understand us better, likely, than we understand ourselves. This is a fun angle, and you can contact me for more information.

Emotional connection and moral reasoning are really just the tip of the empathy iceberg. The takeaway? No empathy, no high tech. No advanced society. It's really that simple. Contact me if you'd like to talk:

This is a fine interview, but remember that empathy and compassion are two closely aligned viewpoints along a broad spectrum of human behavior. Lack of either may be more common in our society.

I have followed the discussion on empathy.Paul Bloom has set up a straw man - including examples of how empathy goes off the rails, mis-fires, or fails. He calls that straw man empathy, then refutes it. May I introduce myself? I am the author of three scholarly, academic books on empathy (including A Rumor of Empathy), and would welcome an opportunity to set the record straight. You might say that I have an Alternative Point of View. I am at your service.

As I wrote in The Power of Empathy, empathy is not an emotion but a capacity that allows us to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy is not sympathy, sympathy rushes in to console, empathy uses the thinking part of the brain to slow down and discern the facts, it is objective based. We don't burn out with empathy because is teaches us who to get close to and who to remain distant from, who to choose objectively as friends, business partners and also who to choose in long term love relationships.

When I hear this interview I am puzzled. The empathy Bloom is talking about would not be called empathy by what I have been trained in empathy. I would like common ground in the use of terms. What I would like to hear is a clear definition of empathy, sympathy and compassion. Bloom is saying compassion is good and empathy is bad. My understanding is what he is calling compassion I would call empathy also. What he is calling empathy I would call sympathy, the getting sucked into someone's emotions instead of keeping your own emotional center. If he substituted sympathy for empathy I would be mostly in agreement with what he says. My reference is Nonviolent Communication as developed by Marshall Rosenberg. I have been studying, teaching and practicing Nonviolent Communication on an at least weekly basis for 10 years. I would like to see someone be allowed to offer there version of empathy, sympathy and compassion that is more in alignment with the Nonviolent Communication model. In Nonviolent Communication the emphasis is on the demonstration of empathy not on arguing what it is theoretically. Bloom never gave one concrete example of empathy falling apart. he only talked of general situations. If we knew the observations that led him to his conclusions then we would have a chance to see what conclusions we might come to.

As a proponent and teacher of empathy, I have watched Paul's unfolding popularity since the viral New Yorker article that seems to have kicked of this idea of writing a book against empathy. Unfortunately, what Paul is calling empathy is not what many of us call empathy.

This confusion, I believe, is harmful to the development of cultural norms that lead to a peaceful and healthy planet. I think it's too bad people keep making this stance so popular and I hope you plan on presenting some opinions of people who see empathy differently than Paul does.

Like Chuck, above, I'm not in psychology or therapy, but in the world of User Experience, product management, and software design. There are many ways to employ empathy, and it has become a key differentiator for organizations seeking deeper support, improved products, and innovation, both internally and externally. Design thinking (reference IDEO and Stanford University) contains empathy as a necessary step to reframing the way a team understands the problem space. As Om Malik says in his recent New Yorker article ( about Silicon Valley lacking empathy, "It's not just Facebook. It's time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think." There are many of us who specialize in helping teams learn active listening (reference Marc Wong and Julian Treasure, among many others) so their understanding of the problem space broadens and resulting solutions proliferate. Empathy has substantiated, positive uses. (Note: I am author of the book Practical Empathy)

I'm adding my voice to the conversation over the Dr. Bloom's argument about empathy. It seems to me that a contrarian argument ("You thought empathy is good? Really, it's bad!) is a very catchy way of grabbing media attention. On closer look, though, Paul Bloom gives examples of empathy that many others would simply call emotional contagion. The experts who have commented so far above have a more complex explanation for empathy. I am a bullying prevention, SEL and school climate expert, and I've taught empathy skills to many children. These include: cultivating a non-judgmental curiosity about other people, respecting differences, learning to recognize, express and communicate feelings in healthy ways, having concern for others, active listening, and perspective-taking. I think these all have a role in strengthening our empathy and using it to create more caring and healthy relationships.

I wonder whether Professor Bloom has read the entry “Empathy” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy before writing his book. According to TSEP, we have to distinguish among: a) Emotional contagion, b) Affective Empathy, c) Sympathy, d) Personal distress.
It seems to me that Professor Bloom is either referring to Emotional contagion with automatic personal distress or to Affective Empathy with personal distress, never considering that one can become empathic without feeling personal distress.
I have tried to express what is Empathy for me in the following poem.

Empathy I (Embracing a kind stranger)

I understand your feelings now
because I had similar feelings in the past: 
in the past I was angry, upset and sad
but now I feel no longer so
and if I do, I just step back a little
so that I can feel a vastity in me 
and all around me:
from this boundless state 
I can embrace in you
the stranger who was once kind to me.

By the way, I see the need for empathizers who are strong in practicing empathy to develop a theorethical framework starting from their activism.
Please, mail me at:
if interested in this project.

Thank you for the interview. I am sorry, however, to say that I find it a little concerning, I believe that author's inherent message is about the need for discernment. This is true in general for anyone who wants to raise their emotional intelligence. I would not disagree with the need for discernment. But I find his overall approach rather disingenuous.

His approach effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater. Given the times we live in, I find this unhelpful.

To say you are “against empathy”, shows at best a disproportionality intellectual understanding of it ( little ability to demonstrate it and a lot of ability to describe it) and at worst, a questionable practice of it. This surprises me as he maintains that he has a high degree of empathy.

Perhaps, with all due respect, he himself has had little ability to discern. (Something that he alluded to in his own interview) So it is what he himself needs to practice. A person with high empathy will soon know that they need to do extra things to take into account their empathic nature. I am also an empath and I need to make sure that I stay grounded, maintain a healthy nervous system, as I pick up on peoples emotions very easily. But I would never try to reduce that inherent ability to pick up on those emotions.

I think there is a semantic problem here in terms of the differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion.

As I have always understood it, the difference between empathy and sympathy and compassion, is that with empathy you may sense what the other person is feeling but you Discern. You are able to make decisions without getting lost in that emotion. Sympathy, shows care but does not mean that others will feel it.

E.g if you ring The Samaritans in the UK, there will be sympathy and empathy

Sympathy” Oh… poor you.. Oh that is hard. Very tough… “ You feel their concern and could be fooled by thinking they agree with you on the content of the situation.
Empathy ”I can hear you are angry. I can sense that you are sad.” This will be said in a way that you know they have picked up on what you are feeling. But they do not give the impression that they agree with the content of what you are saying. The only way they could genuinely sense what you are feeling is through the skill of empathy.
Compassion is why they are working as a Samaritan in the first place - their will to alleviate the suffering in others.

I have worked as a mediator, as a therapist, as a facilitator of community workshops and I have practiced empathy for over 20 years in the field. Being able to feel what others feel, and stay calm, discern right action is core to being able to not be drawn into the pure emotional content of a situation - but - to also be aware of the incredible emotional subtleties of the context. Without empathy I could not build the human connection necessary to do this work. I would be emotionally completely ‘off’. The ability to sense where people are emotionally, enables me to take the best course of action overall in any situation. If i relied on sympathy, I would be fooling people into thinking I was in agreement with the content of their plight.

I do believe that saying you are “against empathy” is almost as futile as saying someone is "Against Sadness" or "Against Anger". The emotions are not the problem, it is what one does when they occur - a common understanding of emotional intelligence.

Likewise, with empathy, having the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes is not the problem, it is what one does with this awareness. Empathy, therefore is not the problem. It is incredibly necessary for our society to be cohesive!

If the author truly wanted to improve people ability to discern, then he should have said precisely this. But that would not be to be against empathy. To not be more careful, given the times we are living in, shows, ironically, rather questionable discernment.

I am afraid that this interview is misinformation as it is missing the whole picture. It does not reflect the common practiced understanding of empathy.

We need a world where we can empathise with our fellow humans while ALSO discerning right action.

I would say that compassion has a moral component to it. Empathy is simple one of nature’s built-in capacities that enable human beings to sense accurately the state of another. How we then act, depends on our ability to discern. Compassion is our desire to “reduce suffering”. That has more of a moral component in it than empathy. Empathy is a human skill that needs to be practiced alongside compassion.

Those who have little empathy would to well to practice it more or they risk showing sociopathic behaviour
Those who have high degrees of empathy would do well to practice the skill of discernment so as to be able to better handle the high degree of emotional information they will receive.
All human beings could do well by practicing compassion - the desire to reduce suffering in others.

Please invite other voices of empathy to speak so at to better inform the public of the deficit of empathy (and compassion) that our society is suffering from, in my humble opinion.

Hi everyone, I'm an empathy scholar who carefully read Paul Bloom's work and have written a response to it. It's important to carefully define terms and use them consistently in order to have a productive dialogue about this. There are at least 8 different uses of the word "empathy" in the scholarly literature, and I review a few here. Importantly, there are better terms to use that are more specific and make the benefits or harms of each type clearer. For more information, see:

thanks Sara,
Were are well aware of there being different definitions of empathy.. here is a list of papers about that.. one is yours.

The issue here is about TTBOOK giving a biased one sided view and attack on empathy. Actually supporting a dishonest attack on empathy and not giving the pro empathy voices a hearing.

Also that Steve Paulson and Mark Riechers not doing their homework and asking relevant questions.

here is an article using Bloom's book for political purposes. It's fine everyone having a voice and I'm all for empathizing with that anit empathy voice, but TTBOOK is not giving a voice to the pro empathy side. Let's hear the pro empathy side!!! Suppressing the pro empathy voice is supporting authoritarianism.

article: Trump lacks empathy, but empathetic presidents got us nowhere
By SUZANNE VENKER ""In his book Against Empathy, researcher Paul Bloom makes the case that empathy is an "irrational emotion" that "muddles our judgment." He notes that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations are often motivated by "honest, yet misplaced, emotions." Empathy distorts our judgment, he says. Without it, our decisions would be "clearer, fairer, and ultimately more moral." Last week, we had a president who prided himself on feeling everyone's pain, on being an empathetic president. Where did it get us? Exactly."

As a mother of a young woman who has been denied all empathy at school and was bullied to the point she developed a PTSD as well as an EDNOS I would highly appreciate it hearing a "pro empathy voice".

There is a difference between empathy and pity. Please take action and enhance the best of our knowledgedo about the nature of empathy. In our current political as well as societal environment I feel it is dangerous to confuse people about the nature of empathy.

Thank you for your continuing efforts to increase the best of our knowledge.

Kind regards from the Netherlands,
Diny van den Bout

Hi there, I just wanted to offer a different perspective (not on either "side").

While I agree with most of the comments above, I also wanted to offer some empathy to you, as the producer of this show...

I imagine that when you interviewed Professor Bloom to expound on his provocative ideas, you expected to garner some interest... but you may have not expected it to be SUCH a hot issue! I also imagine you did not intend to create confusion nor contribute to the dangers of our current political climate... thus, it may be feeling quite uncomfortable to encounter the implication that you are supporting authoritarianism, when I assume that this was not at all your intention.

This is not meant as a criticism of anyone's comments... only as a way of saying that whenever we engage in an empathy-based process, a basic principle is to consider the perspective of each participant as part of the ongoing process -- and you, as the producer, get to receive empathy as well, not just receive our concerns.

And of course I am not a mind-reader -- I have no idea of how you may be feeling at the moment. I am only doing my best to hazard a guess, primarily as a way to let you know that your voice and your perspectives are welcome here, and also as an invitation to respond further, should you wish to do so...

as, from my perspective as an empathy practitioner, it's the _process that happens between us_ that generates empathy, NOT any particular thing that I might say or do, from my end of things.

Anyway, in closing, I greatly appreciate your comment above, above the possibility of creating future episodes, or possibly a timely follow-up to this episode. I hope that the material you have received in the comments offers lots of useful resources for this. And if there is anything specific that would be helpful, I'm sure people will respond... there is a rich community of both researchers and practitioners in this area, who would be willing to help.

with all best wishes,


Hi Rosa (and all others),

Mark (TTBOOK's digital producer) here again. This discussion has been highly informative. I want to thank all of you for weighing in and for your insight into what makes empathy valuable in a whole host of aspects of life—I particularly find the idea of empathy in design and human factor engineering fascinating.

Our show is frequently about confronting counterintuitive ideas that defy conventional wisdom. We entertain ideas on the fringes and engage with them, rather than rejecting them without thought. Professor Bloom's argument in this piece is very much a "dangerous idea" in that sense. One that we considered, but clearly only represents a single viewpoint.

In that context, it's unlikely that we would simply present the idea that "empathy is good" in a single interview counter to this one with Professor Bloom—instead, we would do more research and offer a deeper, multi-viewpoint episode related to the general idea of empathy as a positive force in the human experience. We've touched on that idea before, in talking about photojournalism and the power of film to promote deeper understanding of our fellow humans.

But clearly we could go deeper. Give us some time, and we most certainly will. 

Hi Mark

thanks for the response. Seems to me a deeper, multi-viewpoint episode on the benefits of empathy would be a very informative and helpful episode. If could help create some clarity, fairness and deeper understanding. Listening to, hearing and acknowledging all points of view is what an empathic way of being is about.

Since you are interested in empathy in design, here are more links on that.

In the design community, the basic idea is that anything you design, you need to empathize with the felt experience of people that will use your product, service, program, process, system, culture, etc to make it work for them.

Also, for example, one of the top medical facilities has this conference centered around empathizing with the patient experience so as to constantly improve it. This is a yearly conference by the Cleveland Clinic.
The Eighth Annual Patient Experience: 2017
Empathy + Innovation Summit
Cleveland Convention Center
The theme of this year’s two-day, inter-professional conference is Empathy by Design

for more on Empathic Design: Human-Centered Design, Design Thinking

This process is moving into the education field in a big way. see

I don't want to repeat so many excellent comments, showing how Prof. Bloom does not seem to grasp what he is against.

His battle is an ethical one. He says that empathy is a feeling and invariably leads us astray, so we need to choose reason to guide us in our moral actions. He then surprisingly agrees with Hume, who has just decapitated the philosophical tradition of pragmatism Bloom seems to draw from. Hume says that "reason should be the slave of passions." Bloom accepts that feelings should rule over reason, but goes on to say we should be against empathy and be guided by reason ("non-sentimental compassion").
His main thesis for reason lacks logic.

If our goal is to be a complete, competent moral person, then Aristotle suggests that we are the best version of ourselves when reason and feeling, mind and heart are working together and educating each other (Nichomachean ethics, book 7).

It is concerning that an incompetent false statement is gaining such huge popularity, because it comes from a place of authority (Yale), meets basic irrational passions (fear and hate) and is repeated often by trustworthy sources (the list is too long, unfortunately).

Let us not take part in the de-humanizing of our society.

Another voice you may want to hear from is Dr. Brene Brown. She's given a few TED talks and also written books about compassion. Here's a short excerpt from one of her talks put to animation, defining the difference between emotional/affective empathy and sympathy. (Google Brene Brown empathy video)


I just wanted to thank you all again for inspiring this follow-up episode. 

Thank you for startling the academic community into debate. I have enjoyed this thread immensely and have become cleared in my own mind between empathy, compassion and sympathy. And thanks Indi, I too enjoy Brene Brown's research on these subjects. It has all been fascinating and helps me apply it to my work as a clinician.