Last week, I heard a phrase that stuck with me: “obstacles to empathy.” The words were uttered by The New York Times journalist Anne Barnard who has been stationed in Syria during its civil war. In a PBS News Hour interview, Barnard noted that – despite the recurring sad, shocking images of children harmed by the five-year-old conflict – fear and prejudice have become obstacles to empathy and subsequent action to protect Syrian men, women, and children.
Soon after, I read articles by Nicholas Kristof and Marc Bekoff highlighting the empathy gap problem. In different ways, both made the point that we “otherize” victims we don’t empathize with. We show empathy for those we identify with but remain indifferent to those we call “them” rather than “us.”
Since I work as a physician in the areas of human rights and animal protection, their articles resonated with me on several levels.
Like Kristoff, I receive messages (though likely far fewer) denigrating vulnerable people – from individuals who are homeless to those who are immigrants. I also get notes asking why I spend time advocating for animals when so many people are suffering.
My answer is fairly simple: I care about suffering in people and animals. I want to end all suffering, and it isn’t a zero-sum game. On the contrary, the more I study prejudice and violence against people and animals, the more I understand how inextricably linked these two issues are. This link is bound by obstacles to empathy.
There are several potential explanations for why people respond with anger rather than with empathy to the plight of other people and animals. As I’ve seen through my work as a physician, and in working in the human rights and animal protection spheres, it’s overwhelming to acknowledge how much suffering there is in the world.
I was reminded of this dilemma while teaching a group of medical students about human and animal research ethics. One student asked me, “Why should I care about animals if I have so much more to learn and do?” During the same class, another student voiced his frustration with not being able to understand the predicament of patients struggling with poverty.
It’s difficult to acknowledge the vulnerability of other human and animal beings without embracing our own vulnerability – and perhaps our own culpability.
In effect, fear, prejudice, overwhelm, and ignorance widen the empathy gap.
So how can we overcome obstacles to empathy?
I’ve been reading a book called UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, by Michele Borba. It’s about how empathetic kids can succeed in a “selfie”-driven world. Borba describes how kids can develop empathy, practice empathy, and live empathically.
Though the book is meant to encourage empathy in kids, I think there’s a lot we can learn from the book as adults.
Here are some of the key messages I’ve taken from the book:
- Emotional literacy is key. Borba begins her book by showing how an infant can teach third graders how to identify signs of distress. Kids develop the ability to read and understand the feelings of others – and their own feelings. When I read this passage, I noted how this technique is similar to how animals can teach children empathy.
- A moral identity is built by adhering to an ethical code. Imagining ourselves as caring individuals – shaped by core values like respect, kindness, fairness, and service – activates compassionate behavior.
- Walking in someone else’s shoes deepens our perspectives. Perspective taking – understanding another’s thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs – helps eliminate unconscious biases.
- Moral imagination should be encouraged, not discouraged. Borba focuses on the power of reading to encourage moral imagination in kids, and she includes books about animals. When I read this part of the book, I was reminded of how important it is for us as adults to confront criticisms about anthropomorphism and avoid anthropodenial – “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals.”
- Practice empathy every day. Kindness – like violence – is contagious. Either can spread quickly. Simple, regular kind acts beget other simple, kind acts, and they can slowly change our culture. It can shift our how we think about other human and animal beings from “them” to “us.”
- Moral courage should be celebrated and modeled. Speaking out and standing up for those in need exercises and builds empathy. Courageous adults – who act as “upstanders” rather than bystanders – model moral courage and make it easier for kids to do the same, now and later in life.
Throughout the book, Borba also points out how empathy is good for our health and wellbeing. It can make us happier and more successful.
What do you do to deepen your perspective, practice empathy, use your moral imagination, and strengthen your moral courage?