In times of pandemic, global economic crisis and political instability on the planet, anyone would agree that empathy becomes a fundamental quality to get through these stormy times. But what is empathy, is there a correct one?
Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to put themselves in the other’s place. While empathy may seem good in itself, researchers Brendan Gaesser and Zoe Fowler of the University of Albany, New York, highlight that empathy can lead to certain injustices.
As strange as it may sound, empathy may not be a good thing when you have to weigh up people who are alike and who are different from you. In this regard, in an article published on The Conversation portal, Gaesser and Fowler cite a study carried out in 2017 by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that concluded that people tend to have more empathy with similar people — that is, of the same race or nationality — than with individuals from other regions and cultures.
Seen this way, the researchers looked for a way to determine what are the forces that limit our empathy, whether it is moral – people are more empathetic with what they think is right – or loyalty – empathy is reinforced over similar people.
With this objective, during 2020 they carried out a particular study. The researchers consulted 300 people from different areas of the United States. Each of them was presented with a story that describes a person learning about the world’s food shortage. In the story, the person reads about the difficulties faced by two people, one “socially close” like a friend or relative, and the other “socially distant” like, for example, someone from a distant country.
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The exercise presented to the participants had several versions: in one the protagonist felt empathy for the close person, in another for the foreigner, in another for both in the same way and in a last one he did not show empathy for either.
After reading the story, the participants had to score each version according to how morally good or bad each attitude was.
When analyzing the results, the researchers found that most of the participants considered it “morally better” to feel empathy for a friend or family member than for a stranger. Anyway, the version with the highest score was the one that shows empathy for both in the same way.
Indeed, according to the study, feeling empathy equally was considered 32% better than feeling empathy for only one of the people.
A similar result was obtained with a second experiment involving another 300 people. There were also two stories presented, although in this exercise the two people were close, a friend or relative and an acquaintance. The change did not make a difference, since again those consulted considered that feeling equal empathy for both is the right thing to do.