Lost empathy: what to change to change the world

Lost empathy: what to change to change the world

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on the influence of misinformation on public health. He explores strategies to enhance public resilience against misinformation, with a strong emphasis on risk and crisis communication, trust-building, information and media literacy. Federico is the founder and director of Culturico.

Empathy drives us towards actions that relieve the suffering of other people. However, in a world full of information, empathy acts as a negative selective force that pushes us either towards irrelevant or complete inaction. If we wish to change our world, we should highlight information and feel apathetic towards everything else.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is defined as follows:

“Action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

At first glance empathy is definitely a positive feature of human beings, as understanding and experiencing the sorrows of others suggests us to do something good for someone else.
But how good is empathy for our society? Expectably, the lack of empathy is generally seen as a negative feature, often associated with a derangement of our society. In the end, if we do not care about others’ feelings, why should we do anything good for them?
In line with this, apathy (or the lack of empathy), has been described as the root of all evil.
Notably, Paul Bloom – a professor of Psychology at Yale – raised a dissenting voice on the topic (1).
He claimed that:

“The main problem with empathy is that it works like a spotlight, highlighting certain people in the here and now, making their suffering salient to you”.

In other words Bloom is suggesting that our empathic feelings are directed towards someone specific, somebody we “highlight” more than others. To give a practical example, if we decide to help a homeless person by providing food and clothes, we are at the same time excluding all the other homeless people in our reach.
Empathy is therefore a very selective action. If one removes the selective component from it, empathy ceases to exist.
Bloom, on this regard, adds that:

“The world is not a simple place. One problem is that empathy is innumerate, favoring the one over the many”.

The problem of empathy is that it does not help to solve the problems of our society. An apathetic person might be acting more – or simply more effectively – to reduce the suffering of others than the most empathic person in the world.
One can for example imagine a medical doctor feeling empathic while conducting a serious operation. It would surely work better if the doctor does not empathize with the patient, since the seriousness and stressful nature of the procedure may negatively affect the performance of the doctor.
When we talk of charity, ideas and policies, we often draft strategies based on our gut feeling, whereas we should rationally investigate how many resources and possibilities we have at our disposal to help improve the life conditions of people, reduce poverty or protect the environment.
We tend to contribute more to those situations that remind us of something we have experienced, or that we can better imagine happening to us. We help the homeless person that smiles at us, but not the one that smells of alcohol, or we help disabled children more than others.

Empathy, help. Photo: lalesh Aldarwish

Our decision making, however, is purely natural, and logical. We are not meant to come into contact, originally, with the entire world. Today’s technological revolution brought each individual – in the Internet era – closer to one another.  Empathy works very well if we think of smaller groups of individuals that care about each other. This mammalian trait helped humans to forge stronger groups, in which each individual makes big efforts to defend and help other individuals within the same group. However, in a dramatically larger world, this trait becomes a destabilizing feature if we consider the innumerable interactions that every single person has.
When feeling empathic then, we must select the people towards whom we want to direct our emotional energies, and, unsurprisingly, we generally select family members and close friends. When these people are safe and no longer need our help, our empathic feeling can be relocated to meet the needs of individuals that are outside of our preferred niche of people.
Psychologists explain this human way of thinking using two terms: the “false sense of inefficacy” – which is the choice to act and help only if you think this will make a substantial difference – and the “identifiable victim effect”. The latter effect is based on the aforementioned fact that we feel more empathic when events involve victims whose stories we understand and feel closer to. As Salley Vickers mentioned in “The Guardian”:

“There is sustained evidence that we empathize more with those that either resemble us or those we find attractive”.

The identifiable victim effect is also strongly linked to another concept, called “psychic numbing(2). Basically, our empathy and willingness to act decreases as the number of victims increases.
For example, public opinion has been strongly affected by the publication of pictures of a dead Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, who was lying face down on a beach in Turkey in 2015.

Alan Kurdi

A recent paper (3) shows that after the publication of such pictures, the number of Google searches about “Syria” and “refugees” increased exponentially. On a similar note, another paper shows that charity is larger when a single child is in need (4).
To summarize, we use our empathy to do something good only to selected people, the ones we associate the most with us, when they are small in number – ideally a single person – and only when we think this will make a substantial difference.
If you want to know more on this topic, read our article entitled “Why are we becoming insensitive to human tragedies?

What should then be done to increase the positive impact of individuals’ actions?

Media outlets propose news and stories to the general public. To reach a larger audience in their competitive field they must utilise simple and effective strategies. One of these, if not the most important, is to make news sensationalistic*. When we hear the narrative of local and international news sources, almost everything comes to our ears as extremely important: the bombardments in Yemen, the typhoon in the Philippines, the collapse of a bridge in Italy and the homicide of a teenager in the UK.
However, by making news sensationalistic and without a clear hierarchy, all the information is leveled up. Basically, our innate empathy cannot distinguish the most important information from the less important, and as a consequence we do not take action.
If we think of the war in Yemen, for example, the general audience is completely unable to provide enough pressure on governments to take action, thus reinforcing the status quo. This, in part, is due to the way the public perceives the information: it became almost normal to see images of children dying under bombs. It is not something that shocks us anymore, or that attracts our attention more than other things.
Subtly, the bombardment of information is among those reasons why real bombs keep dropping in Yemen.
The first conclusion, although probably utopic, is that media outlets should revise their communicative strategy and propose a more hierarchical way of providing information: a homicide does not and should not have the same importance of actions of ethnic cleansing such as the ones perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

What can we do as individuals?

To make a difference in this world, the first thing to do is to direct our empathy towards what is most important. To do that we should certainly inform ourselves, but we should also forcibly remain apathetic about all information (and events) that are not on our high priority list. On the other hand, we should learn to value that important information.
Secondly, we should start caring, one by one, about something. But once we care, we should try to make a change.
If we care about Yemeni children, we should do our best to change their situation, without thinking empathically about the homicide of a teenager, or the collapse of a bridge. Last, but not least, we should actually do something even if we think this is not going to be enough. If everybody would apply these principles, the small contribution we give – in any form you might think – will be worthwhile. Incomplete and inefficient solutions still help to save lives.
Or to rephrase it with Mother Teresa’s beautiful words:

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something”.

A note: if you decided, by reading this article, to do something to help stop the war in Yemen, the photographic work of Veronique De Viguerie is definitely for you. It manages to highlight the suffering of Yemeni children. It is worth a look, but keep in mind that these pictures represent a cruel reality, and have a big emotional content.
Look at the pictures here.

*The reader, at this point, should not fall into misunderstanding: news outlets are generally biased. They propose different information to their audience and, by doing this, their narrative differs dramatically. However, the point here is that news is often made bigger than it is, independently of the bias (read “Why all news carries a dose of fakeness”).


Federico Germani



  1. Bloom, P., “Against Empathy: the Case for rational compassion”, 2017.
  2. Slovic, P., “If I look at the mass I will never act: psychic numbing and genocide”, Emotions and Risky Technologies, 2010.
  3. Slovic, P. et al., “Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters”, PNAS, 2017.
  4. Västfjäll, D. et al., “Compassion fade: affect and charity are greatest for a single child in need”, PLOS ONE, 2014.
Received: 18.10.19, Ready: 27.10.19, Editors: ST, RG.

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