If we are deciding that certain groups, problems or countries are less deserving of our empathy or more difficult to relate to, that then calls to question whether our own bias affects whether certain issues get their air time when it comes to reporting, word of mouth discussion, and support.
It’s a scary thing to consider, whether our own selective empathy might be limiting the help and attention certain issues and people need. GLAMOUR delved deep on this subject with two experts.
How come we can’t empathise with everyone and every disaster we read about?
First of all, it’s not natural to be able to empathise with everyone, according to Dr Sam Richards, sociologist, TedTalk speaker and expert researcher on empathy. “The average person has a relatively limited capacity to empathise with others,” he explains. “Empathy involves imagining ourselves living the lives of others and those ‘others’ are not just people who have experienced some sort of horrible tragedy.
“It takes a lot of emotional, intellectual, and psychological energy to do this, and even more energy when empathising does involve tragic circumstances.”
Why does selective empathy happen?
“It makes sense that some people, groups, and populations are closer to us and more known to us than other people, groups, and populations,” Dr Richards explains. “Because of this we’re better able to empathise when we encounter that which is nearby.
“Maybe I have a dog and I read stories about the pets left behind in Ukraine when people had to leave to escape the violence. And because I have a dog, I look down at my dog and easily imagine that I had to leave my dog to roam my neighbourhood on its own when I fled in the middle of the night.
“But I’ve never met a refugee and cannot in my wildest dreams imagine having to leave my home – and so my empathy starts and stops with my dog and not Ukrainian people. There is nothing inherently wrong with such selective empathy.”
Does selective empathy reveal our own bias?
There may not be anything inherently wrong with it, but selective empathy may perpetuate existing divisions and prejudices.
“Often what or who we choose to empathise with can indicate our sense of preference, or of who or what we value or see as important to us,” chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang says. “We cannot care for everyone, but if we are obviously selecting to put more effort into one person over another, we may need to ask ourselves why and what the difference between them is.”
She adds that selective empathy can “restrict our own learning”, leading us to “remain in our own echo chamber”, and only helping one or a certain group of people also leads others to feel marginalised.
So, reflecting on why that difference may exist, and what we can do to better understand their situation, and therefore empathise, is important.
Dr Tang adds: “In reflecting on this, we might even learn that our views are not ours but those of our parents or a culture which may no longer apply in our current day-to-day life.”
Could we also be suffering from empathy fatigue?
Alongside our selective empathy, it’s worth acknowledging the overwhelming situation we find ourselves in, in terms of the modern cycle we live through daily. This may cause us to be fatigued, and unable to get our heads around empathising with disaster.