Is Empathy Overrated?

is empathy overrated?Is empathy overrated? As I posted a few weeks ago, empathy is the greatest creator of human energy; so I don’t believe it to be overrated. Still, there are those who believe too much empathy is not good. One of those people is Psychologist and author Paul Bloom, who wrote a book about the topic. I’ve found it interesting and have been reading and listening to his counter arguments to empathy; the main argument is it’s narrow, biased and therefore puts it ahead of rational thinking.

Watch the video below:

More Compassion Less Empathy

Bloom’s main argument is to choose compassion over empathy. They might seem the same but they’re not. Here’s how Bloom sees the distinction:

By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain — I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings.

A lot of people think this is merely a verbal distinction, that it doesn’t matter that much. But actually there’s a lot of evidence in my book that empathy and compassion activate different parts of the brain. But more importantly, they have different consequences. If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better.

I understand the arguments, it’s all about getting more distance and not letting other people’s emotions affect you. This makes sense, but it also makes me question it. For example, I consider myself to be more rational than most, but I like helping people. Depending on the context, it gives me both intellectual and emotional satisfaction because I’m the type of person who needs to feel someone’s pain. I just can’t discard them as if I’m the most important person in the world!

So experience a bad situation with someone, or personally, empathy can give us a sense of taking action because we don’t want that bad feeling to repeat itself; we internalize it and take action.

What I do believe is technology is making us less rational and empathetic. From a technology point of view, today we have access to information 24/7. Take the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, it’s very probable that you felt compassion but no empathy unless you have family members over there who are affected.

It is said that Virtual Reality, a key technology for the Next Economy, is an empathy engine because it creates the illusion that we are experiencing something very close. For example, imagine watching a VR enhanced version of the Chasing Coral documentary about how climate change is destroying coral reefs around the world.

For me, we need people to care more; not less.

Empathy drives innovation

Innovation is the output of for drivers of human behavior: curiosity, creativity, empathy and satisfaction.

Insights drive innovation, and empathy plays a big part in that: the most powerful tool available to every innovator is direct observation of a person in the domain where a product or service will be used.

Innovators are deeply empathetic, in essence they become the user, get under their skin to understand their unarticulated needs and desires. In most situations, innovators care so much they can’t imagine not doing something to solve the user challenge.  For me, immersing myself in people’s lives works both for understanding but also to getting myself to care deeply about their challenges; it be difficult for me if I didn’t care.

Now, I’m not arguing that you should ask users what they want and then try to give it to them. That’s a recipe for failure. Instead, observe and listen to them but don’t believe them.

No amount of empathy is substitute for vision.

Balancing Logic And Emotion

When it comes to getting people to care more and act, people with high emotional intelligence are more valued than those with raw intelligence. Though rational thinking is highly valued in leaders, people admire them for emotional reasons. It’s emotions that get people to care and act.

You only get that through both empathy and compassion.

So for leaders, the challenge is balancing logic with emotion. We can’t be too rational or empathetic; we need to be both.


The leaders of the future need to have high EQ, not just IQ. But, we shouldn’t ditch empathy and only be compassionate; just understand what it means.

  • Good points Jorge, I saw this recently in the news and was discussing with an entrepreneur friend. He was lamenting that his empathy is preventing him from making certain rational decisions that would lead to more “success” … the counterpoint was it was his empathy that made him a good person to begin with! Why trade humanity for success? 🙂