When Empathy moves us to Action-By Daniel Goleman

Daniel Gole­man requires no intro­duc­tion. Per­son­al­ly, of all his books I have read, the one I found most stim­u­lat­ing was Destruc­tive Emo­tions: A Sci­en­tif­ic Dia­logue With the Dalai Lama, a superb overview of what emo­tions are and how we can put them to good use. He is now con­duct­ing a great series of audio inter­views includ­ing one with George Lucas on Edu­cat­ing Hearts and Minds: Rethink­ing Education.

We are hon­ored to bring you a guest post by Daniel Gole­man, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Enjoy!

- Alvaro


Hot To Help: When can empa­thy move us to action?

By Daniel Goleman

We often empha­size the impor­tance of keep­ing cool in a cri­sis. But some­times cool­ness can give way to detach­ment and apathy.

We saw a per­fect exam­ple of this in the response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, whose dev­as­ta­tion was ampli­fied enor­mous­ly by the lack­adaisi­cal response from the agen­cies charged with man­ag­ing the emer­gency. As we all wit­nessed, lead­ers at the high­est lev­els were weird­ly detached, despite the abun­dant evi­dence on our TV screens that they need­ed to snap to action. The vic­tims’ pain was exac­er­bat­ed by such indif­fer­ence to their suf­fer­ing. So as we pre­pare for the next Kat­ri­na-like dis­as­ter, what can the sci­ence of social intel­li­gence espe­cial­ly research into empa­thy teach pol­i­cy mak­ers and first respon­ders about the best way to han­dle them­selves dur­ing such a crisis?

This brings me to psy­chol­o­gist Paul Ekman, an expert on our abil­i­ty to read and respond to oth­ers’ emo­tions. When I recent­ly spoke with Ekman, he dis­cussed three main ways we can empathize with oth­ers, under­stand­ing their emo­tions as our own. The dif­fer­ences between these forms of empa­thy high­light the chal­lenges we face in respond­ing to oth­er peo­ple’s pain. But they also make clear how the right approach can move us to com­pas­sion­ate action.

The first form is “cog­ni­tive empa­thy,” sim­ply know­ing how the oth­er per­son feels and what they might be think­ing. Some­times called per­spec­tive-tak­ing, this kind of empa­thy can help in, say, a nego­ti­a­tion or in moti­vat­ing peo­ple. A study at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Birm­ing­ham found, for exam­ple, that man­agers who are good at per­spec­tive-tak­ing were able to move work­ers to give their best efforts.

But cog­ni­tive empa­thy can illus­trate the “too cold to care” phe­nom­e­non: When peo­ple try to under­stand anoth­er per­son­’s point of view with­out inter­nal­iz­ing his or her emo­tions, they can be so detached that they’re not moti­vat­ed to do any­thing to actu­al­ly help that person.

In fact, those who fall with­in psy­chol­o­gy’s “Dark Tri­ad” nar­cis­sists, Machi­avel­lians, and sociopaths can actu­al­ly put cog­ni­tive empa­thy to use in hurt­ing peo­ple. As Ekman told me, a tor­tur­er needs this abil­i­ty, if only to bet­ter cal­i­brate his cru­el­ty. Tal­ent­ed polit­i­cal oper­a­tives can read peo­ple’s emo­tions to their own advan­tage, with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly car­ing about those peo­ple very much.

And so cog­ni­tive empa­thy alone is not enough. We also need what Ekman calls “emo­tion­al empa­thy” when you phys­i­cal­ly feel what oth­er peo­ple feel, as though their emo­tions were con­ta­gious. This emo­tion­al con­ta­gion depends in large part on cells in the brain called mir­ror neu­rons, which fire when we sense anoth­er’s emo­tion­al state, cre­at­ing an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emo­tion­al empa­thy attunes us to anoth­er per­son­’s inner emo­tion­al world, a plus for a wide range of pro­fes­sions, from sales to nurs­ing not to men­tion for any par­ent or lover.

But wait: Emo­tion­al empa­thy has a down­side, too, espe­cial­ly for first respon­ders. In a state of emo­tion­al empa­thy, peo­ple some­times lack the abil­i­ty to man­age their own dis­tress­ing emo­tions, which can lead to paral­y­sis and psy­cho­log­i­cal exhaus­tion. Med­ical pro­fes­sion­als often inoc­u­late them­selves against this kind of burnout by devel­op­ing a sense of detach­ment from their patients.

Cul­ti­vat­ed detach­ment in res­cue, med­ical, and social work­ers can actu­al­ly help the vic­tims of dis­as­ter. Ekman told me about his daugh­ter, a social work­er at a large city hos­pi­tal. In her sit­u­a­tion, he said, she can’t afford to let emo­tion­al empa­thy over­whelm her. “My daugh­ter’s clients don’t want her to cry when they’re cry­ing,” he says.

The dan­ger aris­es when detach­ment leads to indif­fer­ence, rather than to well-cal­i­brat­ed car­ing. Today, we face this prob­lem on a glob­al lev­el. “One of the prob­lems of liv­ing in a tele­vi­sion soci­ety is that every bit of suf­fer­ing and mis­ery that occurs any­where in the world is shown to us,” says Ekman and gen­er­al­ly, we can’t do any­thing about it, at least not directly.

This can make emo­tion­al empa­thy seem futile and hin­der the growth of the third kind of empa­thy, which Ekman calls “com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy.” With this kind of empa­thy we not only under­stand a per­son­’s predica­ment and feel with them, but are spon­ta­neous­ly moved to help, if needed.

Com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy was the vital ingre­di­ent miss­ing from the top-lev­el response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na and in respons­es to many oth­er dis­as­ters around the world, includ­ing the slow-burn­ing dis­as­ter of glob­al warm­ing. Ekman calls com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy a skill, the acquired knowl­edge “that we’re all connected.”

This can lead to out­bursts of what he calls “con­struc­tive anger.” In oth­er words, react­ing neg­a­tive­ly to injus­tice or suf­fer­ing can moti­vate us to work with oth­ers to make the world a bet­ter place. Just as empa­thy has its down­sides, neg­a­tive emo­tions like anger can have upsides. Stay­ing cool in a cri­sis might bring some ben­e­fits. But some­times we must let our­selves get hot in order to help.

– Daniel Gole­man, Ph.D., is the author of the best­sellers Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence and Social Intel­li­gence. His web­site is www.danielgoleman.info. Gole­man’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Daniel Siegel can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Con­nect: Dia­logues on Social Intel­li­gence, avail­able through More than Sound Pro­duc­tions.

We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. on July 11, 2008 at 11:14

    I have been think­ing of the ben­e­fits of anger for quite some time. Many ther­a­pists in the field of Psy­chol­o­gy encour­age get­ting in touch with anger with many patients. How­ev­er, it gets con­fus­ing when we read many east­ern tra­di­tions judg­ing anger as a neg­a­tive thing. . “.…. It is anger — “anger” …all con­sum­ing and most evil. Know this to be the ene­my here on earth.” –Bha­gavad Gita (chap­ter 3, verse 37). 

    I think there is a con­fu­sion here between Anger and Aggres­sion or hos­til­i­ty. One is sim­ply an emo­tion that comes and goes, the oth­er seems more like a behav­ioral or emo­tion­al attack. 

    I think Gole­man is cor­rect, Anger can be held mind­ful­ly, and used to help us be aware when some­thing is being wronged and action needs to be tak­en to stand up for its survival. 

    There is a way to express assertive­ness when feel­ing anger. But, first we need to be aware of the anger so we can choose to be less reac­tive and more respon­sive in the most skill­ful and com­pas­sion­ate way.

    Thich Nhat Hanh does a beau­ti­ful job in his book “Anger” describ­ing how to cul­ti­vate com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy in the face of anger.

  2. Mike Kirkeberg on July 12, 2008 at 4:45

    I agree with Elisha. The body of my work is with peo­ple whose angry mind gets the bet­ter of them. When I tell them that anger is not the prob­lem, they are often aghast for a few ses­sions. For most peo­ple (in gen­er­al), I think anger and aggres­sion or hos­til­i­ty are syn­onomous. We some­times live in a hos­tile soci­ety, and if we are wait­ing for the anger to go away so that peo­ple will be less hos­tile, we are going to have a long wait.

  3. Alvaro on July 14, 2008 at 12:35

    Elisha, I haven´t read that book but that´s a beau­ti­ful point. The prob­lem is not Anger itself but let­ting it build inside us and lead us to neg­a­tive mind­sets and actions. We can learn to take it into account and let it go. 

    Mike: how do you facil­i­tate that learn­ing in your clients?

  4. Laurie on July 14, 2008 at 4:51

    Fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle. I agree that it takes a stronger emo­tion like anger to move us to act, but I believe that, gen­er­al­ly, the major­i­ty of us weren’t taught what is “con­struc­tive anger” and how to use our anger in a ben­e­fi­cial way. We’re taught not to be angry and how to sub­due it, not how to align it with empa­thy for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers. What a dif­fer­ent world we would live in if this were the case.

  5. Ken Abrahams on July 16, 2008 at 8:36

    Per­haps it is more about work­ing “in the trans­fer­ence”. Show­ing ones feel­ings with clients has very good results in some sit­u­a­tions. Trau­ma debrief­ing may not be one of those sit­u­a­tions. Longer term styles of coun­selling work can uti­lize “com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy” for very good results. 


About SharpBrains

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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