This recent research isn't so much revelatory as confirmation of what I've been discussing and what I write about in my book. (The Kindle version will be available next week if you're interested.) Here's what I had to say, which this new research supports.
When you role-play, you act how you believe the other person would, and all that does is create the illusion that you know how someone else thinks or feels. At best, it’s a performance wherein you’re being yourself making assumptions. Do you see how this might not be helpful?
As far as affective empathy goes—feeling the feelings of another—the combination of self-knowledge, clarity, and calm that mindfulness practice cultivates, sets the stage for it if it has a chance of occurring. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “The more sharply attentive we are, the more keenly we will sense another person’s inner state: we will do so more quickly and from subtler cues, in more ambiguous circumstances. Conversely, the greater our distress, the less accurately we will be able to empathize.” In other words, at best, we might be able to sense someone’s state if we are sharply attentive. However, just as with cognitive empathy, our ability to accurately assess the feelings of others has been profoundly exaggerated and is frequently based on what we are experiencing emotionally at the time.
Compassion, on the other hand, is less fraught. It’s wanting the very best for someone and acting from that desire. You want them to be happy, healthy,safe, and at ease. You’re in a state of care for them. Compassion activates your reward circuitry and is a positive, healing experience. It’s boundless. Compassion heals, while empathy hurts. They’re connected, though,in that it’s the capacity for empathy—the ability to feel suffering with another, that, as Matthieu Ricard writes, “allows us to open ourselves with compassion to those who suffer as we do, or even more than we do.” In other words, compassion springs from empathy,and whether we’re actually good at empathy isn’t as important as this idea that we know something about the suffering of others because we know something about our own. Full stop.
I see so much focus on empathy, and I ask everyone who advocates for it to sit with precisely what it is they think they're advocating for. People are in pain. They are suffering, sometimes profoundly. And you want to . . . feel as much of that pain as acutely as possible? Is there some kind of moral righteousness in that? What's the purpose? I feel like I've lost the plot.
Compassion is CARE. It's the act of caring for someone. We can talk about this and do some practice around it at the next Drop-in, which is NOT this Thursday, as I'll be at The Institute for the Future's 3-hour Reimagining Learning event. (Register here.)
Drop-ins will resume next week. There are three remaining: