Sabine Jontofsohn Anruf/whatsapp: +491769913 9425 Wilhelm-Busch-Str.41 60431 Frankfurt

Select your language

  archColor logo   no background

Dangerous Empathy

What? Empathy can be dangerous? That's right - this is the conclusion reached by scientist Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale and author of the book: "Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion." 


But let's start from the beginning. What exactly is empathy? When Paul Bloom talks about empathy, he means "I feel what another person feels," affective empathy, so to speak.

Affective Empathy

When the topic of empathy comes up, a couples therapist or psychotherapist refers to this form. More understanding and empathy should be shown between partners, compassionate behavior should lead to a more loving relationship and strengthen the bonds between partners. That's true. It can bond people together and be a source of shared joy. On one hand. But if one of the partners is going through a deep emotional or physical crisis, too much of it can be burdensome.

Bloom highlights the downside of empathy - the tunnel vision prevents us from seeing the complex reality, he believes it's unsuitable for developing long-term solutions when it comes to helping others.

When the suffering of others captivates us, it's difficult to see the situation clearly, he argues. We absorb distressing negative emotions like hopelessness, pain, suffering, or sorrow to an extent that threatens to block our ability to act.

Affective empathy leads to empathetic stress; its intensity depends on the sensitivity of the person and the circumstances. If the distressing situation persists, for example, in close relationships with depressed or dependent family members, this can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout in extreme cases.

Empathetic stress also leads to less willingness to help or even to aggression:

An experiment by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences demonstrated how affective empathy affects mood.

One group of subjects was sensitized to emotional empathy for a few weeks. The control group was instructed to practice cognitive empathy along with a friendly attitude.

The reaction of both groups to films featuring people in distress was then observed. Indeed, the emotionally sensitized subjects empathized more strongly, leading to a more negative mood. The control group was better able to think solution-oriented.

There's another danger that Bloom believes arises from the "empathy reflex": Groups and group belonging work in the same way. However, here lies a catch. Since the nature of affective empathy is based on emotional impulses rather than reflective opinion-forming, it is exactly this: unreflected. An empathically highly sensitized person who neglects the cognitive side can be easily manipulated through this type of empathy. Significant individuals, group opinions, or media can provide one-sided emotional information with images, sensational headlines, and (pseudo-) moral appeals that 'empathy-prone' people succumb to. This mechanism is not only eagerly used by authoritarian states to secure the power of the rulers, but also by populist groups who try to gain sympathizers especially through the emotional spectrum.

Usually, this revolves around the exclusion of others, dissenters, minorities. Another perspective suggests that the problem lies less with "empathy" itself, but with the dynamics of the authoritarian system. The


Other Form of Empathy

The good news is: There is another form of empathy that is less burdensome but still promotes and enables helpfulness, known as cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy refers to another way of empathizing with others. It's less about feeling and more about understanding the intentions, feelings, and motivations of others. This type of perception also differs neurophysiologically: while affective empathy is linked to the amygdala, cognitive empathy is located in the prefrontal cortex. Unlike empathy, there is no identification with the other person; instead, the cognitively empathetic person adopts an attitude of friendly acceptance.


When Affective Empathy is Beneficial

The great strength of affective empathy is that by identifying with the other person and emotionally empathizing, a greater closeness to a partner is created, the relationship is strengthened, and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is released. For maintaining a good relationship, it is very important to understand the feelings and needs of a person from their perspective. This creates and maintains emotional closeness. Only in this way are we able to recognize what is important to the other person and act accordingly. People who suffer from social isolation for a long time lose the ability to properly assess others and interpret their behavior and needs correctly. Sometimes positive social contact is enough, sometimes support through psychotherapy is helpful to regain more empathetic eloquence soon.

Dosage is Everything


What do we learn from this?

Both forms of empathy can be actively trained. And both are important. However, we must decide depending on the situation which one is more favorable. Just as estranged partners can learn to feel more emotional empathy and resonance in their relationship through training in couples therapy, it is possible for emotionally highly sensitive individuals to learn to dose their compassion in favor of better mental hygiene, greater ability to act, and better considered solutions.

We use cookies

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.