Thursday, February 2, 2023

How Do We Lose Sympathy and Empathy?


Young Tyre Nichols was laid to rest on Wednesday Feb 1.  I’m certain that more than 99% of us who viewed a part or the entire violent episode in which cops attacked and brutalized young Tyre in Memphis, TN, had the experience of cringing with a feeling of pain that we weren’t in reality being subjected to. What baffled most of us was the ability of these policemen to comfortably ignore Tyre’s excruciating suffering while they boasted about their exploits in catching him, and in one case, one of the cops actually taunting Tyre as he lay groaning on the ground. Heartless, we say--or, as we’ll see later, maybe brainless.

Sympathy vs empathy  

The two words are often used interchangeably but there are qualitative differences between the two. Sympathy is defined by feelings of pity or hurt for another person even if not having the same experience or being in the same circumstance. In empathy, we are able to qualitatively put ourselves in the another person’s situation and understand how it must feel for them. Sometimes one can have both of these, e.g. I feel sympathy for a schizophrenic screaming at a hallucination, but I can also empathize by imagining how terrifying it must be to hear those voices taunting me and telling lies about me.

Sympathy and empathy in medicine

I was thinking through some of the occasions in which, as a doctor, my level of empathy could have been higher. Some doctors lack empathy for a number of reasons:

  • Personality: I’ve observed simple basic levels of bedside manner or caring between doctors, and sometimes it’s striking.
  • Burnout: a syndrome in which exhaustion combines with the inability to care, e.g. too many nights on call, extended shifts, or not enough vacation time.
  • A hardening of the doctor’s psychological armor to avoid making "emotional decisions,” which is why doctors shouldn’t treat friends or family members.
  • A God-like feeling in which the doctor is brought to believe that pain is for “other people,” i.e. his patients. It is a shock when such a doctor falls ill with the very ailments he treats, e.g. an oncologist who gets cancer or a neurologist suffers from Parkinsonism. Now they can empathize with their patients and not just sympathize. 
Sympathy and empathy at work

Often, when someone complains that they have the “boss from hell,” they’re describing a boss who appears unable to put themselves in the employee’s shoes. The best bosses have empathy for their workers and make humane judgements accordingly. The boss may not have a young child at home, but he empathizes with the worker who needs to get home to take care of a sick infant. Here, sympathy is not necessary for the boss to come to that decision, but empathy is.

At meetings, the ability to empathize with coworkers is vital to a friendly workplace. A simple, “Are you okay?” to a colleague whose parent is suffering from distressing dementia shows at least sympathy. If the coworker can put themself in the colleague’s shoes and understand the pain, there’s empathy there as well.

Sympathy and empathy in wartime

Heroic acts during wartime often stem from empathy. The soldier or marine who must go back to get his wounded partner on the battlefield is feeling the pain the partner is, and therefore he is completely empathizing, even though sympathy isn’t essential to commit this act of bravery. In this example, though, other qualities are showing, such as courage and principle.

On the other hand, for a soldier or marine to fight effectively, they must put away any sympathy or empathy for the other side. Other measures could include dehumanizing the enemy or ascribing characteristics to them that justify their annihilation. War crimes all over the world depend on the offenders seeing their victims or prisoners as deserving to be raped, shot, burned alive, or tortured.

Sympathy and empathy in killers

Although it’s customary to call murderers of all kinds “monsters,” they really aren’t. They are human beings who have not only lost the ability to feel their victims’ pain, but in some cases to enjoy it. The wiring in their brains is seriously out of whack in a pernicious way. Most of us don’t kill people, even if we have an impulse to, because it takes a lot to counter what we know to be wrong at a basic level. Many similarities have been found between the brains of psychopathic killers and dictators, both of whom lack the ability to sympathize or empathize.

Sympathy, empathy, and the brain

Neuroimaging is helping us understand one basic component of empathy: the interpersonal sharing of affect, i.e. a common feeling of emotion that comes with pain. A study using functional MRI (fMRI) revealed enhanced activity in the brains of subjects shown photographs of hands and feet put into  positions that were likely to cause pain, compared to the control group shown the same hands and feet in non-stressed situations. The subjects rated their perceived levels of pain. The results revealed that perceiving and assessing painful situations in others was associated with significant bilateral changes in activity in several regions notably, the anterior cingulate, the anterior insula, the cerebellum, and to a lesser extent the thalamus. These regions are known to play a significant role in pain processing. Finally, the activity in the anterior cingulate was strongly correlated with the participants' ratings of the others pain.

It’s clear in the diagram how close these areas are to each other, suggesting that they might even be cross-communicating each other and modifying the response. We could call them the empathy centers. These areas are also where our own pain,
 i.e pain inflicted on us, is processed. So, when these areas light up on fMRI as a result of personal pain, it's very similar to the pattern seen when we see someone elses pain, suggesting that empathy correlates highly to these areas of the brain. That’s why we have an amazing ability to feel the pain of another. So, in Tyre’s beating by the cops, we almost literally feel his pain, which makes the video “hard to watch.”

Plasticity of sympathy and empathy

But clearly, our sympathy and empathy are moldable by the environment, our basic personalities, new experiences and outlook. For example, when we hear about Ukrainians are suffering under the Russians’ merciless attacks, we may feel sympathy, but it’s rather fleeting. But if we were actually on the ground with the Ukrainian people, sympathy and empathy would go up several-fold. So, the input of what we see, hear, and feel in the war can heighten the activity of the empathy centers. In the doctor example above, the experience of cancer rendered them more empathetic to their patients.

On the other hand, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers can’t battle each other with sympathy or empathy. Clearly, there’s a “higher power” in the brain that sends an order to empathy centers that they need to shut down completely: “This is not the time for that.” 

I think the notion of moldable sympathy and empathy is a good one, because it means we can train ourselves to be more caring of others. We can practice sending commands from the brain's “higher powers” to the empathy centers.

For authors, get your empathy centers fired up. The emotion will pour out on the page, enriching the reader’s experience. As a bonus, if you can tap into the reader’s empathy, you really have it made. That’s for us writers to figure out.

Where was the empathy for Tyre Nichols?

The special unit to which these Memphis policemen belonged had a self-contradictory name: SCORPION, which stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. Scorpions, not known for peace, bring pain. These men in a culture of brutality lived in a world in which they had sadistic license to inflict suffering. Someone handed down the message that there should be no “softness” here, giving the cops' testosterone-marinated aggression to shut down the empathy centers. We wonder if any empathy will return to them as they serve their prison sentences. Somehow, I doubt it.




  1. Kwei--Thank you for this fascinating and heartbreaking post. I love the idea of "moldable sympathy and empathy" and the idea that we can actually improve our ability to feel, as authors and people.

    1. Thanks, Wendall, and welcome to our MIE club! Yes, I try to keep my empathy exercised every day, e.g. just watching random people and wondering what they might be going through, even if they might appear just fine outwardly. I think it’s a good exercise for writing mysteries too; after all, what is it that a good detective must do? They must get into the mind of suspects to understand motive.

  2. I was heartbroken when I read about the case. As I was earlier a couple of years ago when I read of security guards witnessing a brutal attack on an elderly Asian woman and laughing. Laughing! I found this article illuminating, and yet I have to wonder, what has happened to our culture? I know U.S. has a checkered history, but it seems to be getting more checkered, despite attempts to correct previous wrongs. Why?

    1. Yes, I’ve been wondering that myself. Why aren’t we emotionally developing instead of regressing?

  3. So very cogent and necessary in these difficult times, Kwei. I could not watch the video. At least not yet. It took me months to watch the George Floyd tape. When I heard what those men who murdered Tyre Nichols had done, it sounded to me like a gang action, as in gang rape. A group of men who have turned into a violent unit, acting as one, not making individual decisions, but feeding in one another’s impulses. It’s an ugly, ugly, ugly thing. And the exact opposite of empathy. It turns the victim into a thing, not a fellow human being. AA

  4. A very difficult video to watch, Kwei, reflecting deeply troubling times. Empathy among many in positions of governmental power is in demonstrably short supply. I understand that. What I don't get is why so many who in my heart I believe are by nature empathetic, nevertheless go along with the antithetical ramblings of those who do not care for anything but their own power. Would you describe that as "moldable empathy" or something else?

  5. What a fascinating post, Kwei. And I agree that the situation with Tyre is both dreadful and heartbreaking. It seems to be happening everywhere.