Almost exactly ten years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed that the “empathy deficit” is a fundamental problem in our society. Empathy is our ability to step into the shoes of others and see the world through their eyes. Obama suggested that empathy could potentially provide a way to a better and more just world, where we can “love our neighbour as ourselves.”
The science of empathy has been making progress, and we have learned a lot about the underlying brain mechanisms and even how the roots of empathy can be found in other animals. Yet, it has also become clear that empathy is not automatic. We can disregard it when we deliberately choose to ignore others’ emotions to avoid discomfort—the cost of empathy.
Besides his well-known disdain for facts, such as completely denying climate-change science, Donald Trump is either incapable of empathy or has chosen to disregard it: declaring that Mexican immigrants are “rapists”, proposing a total rejection of all Muslims seeking to enter the U.S., showing through his actions and words that he does not respect the dignity of women and their bodies. In his unscripted speeches and rapid-fire 3AM tweets, the unthinkable has become routine, like announcing that he “could shoot someone and ... wouldn’t lose voters.” Trump has dismissed any criticism of his disregard of empathy and lack of compassion as “political correctness.”
As Americans have enigmatically rewarded Trump for his proven disdain of minorities and women, civil liberties and scientific fact, what can we do to avoid a complete collapse of empathy, compassion—and reason—over the next four years, one which could have serious ramifications for everyone’s future?
To avoid such a collapse, we must insist that the scientific method remains central to any effort. A potential reason for hope comes from research showing that there are forms of empathy that do not seem to involve rational cost-benefit choices. This kind of empathy was poignantly demonstrated in September 2015 by the international reaction to the tragic drowning of a cute three-year-old Syrian refugee in the Mediterranean Sea. Our moral outrage led to a groundswell of sympathy for the plight of these refugees.
Note: Kringelbach serves on Scientific American's Board of Advisers.
Research has also shown that we automatically grant cute infants membership in our moral circle, then extend this membership to others in their group—even if it is the out-group. Perhaps cuteness—of infants, kittens, puppies, whatever—can help expand our moral circle. This cuteness-triggered positive response could foster wider social engagement, and perhaps even cultivate empathy and compassion.
In the next four years, we must not despair but harden our resolve and remain engaged. We need to remember that empathy and compassion are still at the heart of American ideals. We must unite and harness empathy as a radical tool for social transformation. Empathy will help us protect what we value in our lives and communities and could even enable us to create a revolution in human relationships.