Empathy seems like a good quality in human beings. Pure and simple.
It allows us to consider the perspective of others — to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine their experiences. From that empathetic vantage point, only good things can come, right?
Not necessarily, according to author Fritz Breithaupt. “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy,” he writes in his forthcoming book The Dark Sides of Empathy.
[NPR:] You write that empathy can actually make us more polarized instead of bringing us together. How can that happen?
[Breithaupt:] People imagine that empathy can help resolve tensions in cases of conflict, but very often empathy is exactly that thing that leads to the extremes, that polarizes people even more.
It can happen this way, be it a family feud or something that escalates to a civil war. Humans are very quick to take sides. And when you take one side, you take the perspective of that side. You can see the painful parts of that perspective and empathize with them, and that empathy can fuel seeing the other side as darker.
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