Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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 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.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

6 Responses

  1. 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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.


  6. […] Now, in the age of augmented and virtual reality, simulations are ubiquitous, raising new ethical and effectiveness questions. A couple of days ago, JD Thorpe wrote a piece on Bustle about disability simulations that broached this issue, and brought up another important point: these things don’t actually work. Some research released in April found that experiences in which people wear goggles that make them “blind” or earmuffs that make them “deaf” or use some other prop or tool to simulate a disability usually come away less with empathy than with “fear, apprehension and pity toward those with disabilities.” And just like sleeping on the street (or on the National Mall) in a sleeping bag when you don’t have to, none of that is as useful as actual empathy, which is shown to lead to action. […]

Leave a Reply

Categories: Author Speaks Series, Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Learn all about the 2017 SharpBrains Virtual Summit in less than 2 minutes

Check out the Summit Agenda and Reserve Your Spot

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.