When the lockdown first took effect, a feeling of solidarity filled the air. “We’re all in this together” were the words on people’s lips, spoken like an incantation to reassure ourselves, as much as those around us, that things would be ok.

People found ways to connect with each other remotely. My colleagues shared photos of their dogs and kids to the staff email list instead of alerting us to the presence of cake in the office. People mobilized to help the most vulnerable among us. We received leaflets through our letter box from neighbours offering to buy groceries if we were self-isolating. Radio programs reported on people dusting off their sewing machines to make face masks and scrubs. Breweries shifted from making beer for the pubs to producing hand sanitizer. A centenarian did laps around his garden to raise money for the doctors fighting in the hospitals. Applause for the NHS filled the streets every Thursday night at 8 PM. Even those of us who couldn’t do much at all were helping too, simply by staying home.

We’re all in this together. But who is ‘we’?

In March, ‘we’ felt large. It seemed, even, to transcend national boundaries. We could feel the pain of Italian doctors through their iPhone cameras, could see it written across their weary, mask-lined faces as they faced impossible choice after impossible choice. Never mind that just weeks prior, when Italians were already dying in astonishing numbers, the whole thing still felt so far away, that when it was a distant hum coming from China, it felt just like background to our own political crises. Now it was here. Their eyes had tears in them and ours did too. My heart bled for New York, where I grew up. I called home every day.

We felt empathy for one another. It was large and enveloping. We understood what other people were feeling, because we could feel it too.

It’s difficult to pin down what empathy is, exactly. Researchers disagree about how best to define it and this disagreement matters for constructing studies and applying their findings.[1] Here I’ll use a rough-and-ready definition that tracks contemporary thinking about it, both within the empirical literature and within everyday discourse (although ideas about empathy are heterogeneous there too).

Empathy is the ability to feel with other people — to feel what other people are feeling. That feeling with also breeds understanding, gives us knowledge about the other person’s situation. Empathy, conceptualized in this way, is often distinguished from sympathy, which involves feeling for someone else.[2] To see the difference, consider the example of pain. When I empathize with you, you feel pain and so do I. My emotional state is in sync with yours. Social neuroscientists provided striking confirmation of this in a study showing that the networks involved in first-person experiences of pain are active when people observe others receiving a painful stimulus.[3] In contrast, when I sympathize with you, you feel pain and I feel something a bit different — perhaps I feel sorry for you, or worry for you. Although my emotional state is in some sense congruent with yours — both pain and feeling sorry are in the same key — I am not quite in sync with you. I don’t feel what you are feeling.

Another important difference is that empathy provides knowledge in a way that sympathy does not. Feeling your pain, your sorrow, going through it in some sense with you, helps me to better understand your life, to connect with you, and ultimately to gain knowledge that I did not have before. In this way, empathy is a more powerful engine of connection.

Sympathy is a lot like looking down at a situation from above. You can observe something happening and feel concerned about it but you are not pulled into it and in a significant sense, you do not understand it. Empathy is like being on the ground, in it.[4]

Empathy has been widely touted as a powerful force for confronting our current crisis. A recent BBC headline reads, “Coronavirus: How New Zealand relied on science and empathy”.[5] The article attributes New Zealand’s success in handling the coronavirus to Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic leadership style, as well as her focus on kindness and unity. Emily Boudreau, writing for the Usable Knowledge blog of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, provides advice for combatting isolation by practicing empathy.[6] Good Morning America reported that even social media content, notorious for sowing division, has shifted towards a more empathetic tone in the wake of the coronavirus.[7] All of this suggests that increased empathy might even be another indirect benefit of the coronavirus, much like the clear waters in Venice or the blue skies in LA.

But now, in the dry heat of June, our fleeting sense of global unity is splintering. That is an understatement. It has been splintering for a long while and is now becoming kindling for a fire that continues to grow. Can empathy save us?

The coronavirus laid bare inequalities and deep divisions that have long existed within our societies. Black and minority ethnic people, poor people, and the most vulnerable in society continue to bear the brunt of the health and the economic costs of the virus.[8] It is impossible to deny that health is socially determined and that historical and present stressors influence our very biology. Viruses, it turns out, do discriminate — but only because we do.

Inequality also appears in the responses to the coronavirus, the solutions that people propose. Those solutions are to social distance, to stay home and quarantine, to engage in widespread testing and to develop new technologies such as phone apps that track and trace those who have the coronavirus. But those are local solutions that we mistake for global ones. They work, but only within well-organised, wealthy societies. They require strong trust in government and capable leadership. They require access to healthcare for all. They require strong economic safety nets. They require a populace with the resources to access the (often expensive) technologies that enable them to participate in these efforts. They require space — enough space for people to stay two meters apart from one another. That is nearly impossible in a large council housing estate, section eight housing, a care home, or a prison. It is impossible when extended families live in areas of less than 1,000 square feet.[9]

And then there is the problem of seeing. I live in London and I’ve been struck by how quiet things are outside. That quiet was eerie and strange when the lockdown first took effect. A city this large is never quiet — never should be quiet — and cycling through Trafalgar Square felt like entering a dystopian film in which all of the people had been removed but the buildings had been left there, like pristine artefacts. But the quiet is easy to get used to and in the residential neighbourhood where I live, things feel mostly normal. Families gather outside in the parks. The grocery stores are full. The virus is invisible and things feel calm.

But step inside the doors of a hospital and it is like being in a different world — overwhelming, chaos, a war zone. Without hearing war stories every night from my dad, who is a doctor in the Bronx, it would be hard to comprehend how dire the situation is. It would be easy to forget. Without the journalists who have showed us the chaos through their words and their photos, we would simply never know.[10]

The calm of Trafalgar Square exists alongside the chaos in St. Thomas’ Hospital, just across the Thames. This stark contrast also manifests on a larger scale, at the level of communities. Some communities are living and breathing with the coronavirus, unable to escape. Everyone knows someone who has died. Other communities, even within the same city, hardly feel the effects at all. And then there are people outside the major cities, far from the epicentres of the virus, where the risk is low and the impact has been slight. For such communities, it is difficult to see the imperative need to lockdown, difficult to justify the economic costs. It’s a lot harder to convince people that something is real when they cannot see it.

In the face of these inequalities, who do we care for? Who do we choose to save? The ‘we’ that felt so large and unifying in March seems to have gotten smaller and smaller. Our empathic circles seem to have shrunk (if they were ever so large to begin with). Empathy seems to have failed us.

Significant critiques of the power of empathy have been levelled in recent years. The most prominent articulation of such critiques comes from Paul Bloom. In his book, Against Empathy (2016), he argues that empathy suffers from entrenched biases.[11] It is parochial. We only empathize with those who are within our communities, who are near to us, and similar to us. It acts like a spotlight, highlighting the plight of single individuals, unable to spread outside a narrow range. It is incapable of overcoming the divisions that we face in our societies. Jesse Prinz levels similar criticisms, arguing that empathy is a poor guide for morality.[12]

These are harsh critiques but there is some truth to them. The empirical literature does show that empathy is susceptible to deeply entrenched psychological biases. We are prone to us versus them thinking and retreat into our own, tightly knit communities when things get rough. Empathy is not always capable of overcoming those biases on its own. Empathy does pull us to care more for those who are within our line of sight, who are salient, who are similar, who are already within our circle. This means that it is not good for distributing resources evenly or impartially. Empathy can also be unmotivating. Becoming caught up in another individual’s pain and sorrow is itself painful, and that pain can be consuming. That is why people who work in emotionally heightened situations — doctors, nurses, refugee workers — sometimes experience empathic distress, which is when empathy becomes so overwhelming that it becomes immobilizing.

Empathizing carries significant risks and understanding its limits is important. It is not the panacea that many people think it is. But should we give up on it, as Bloom and Prinz propose?

I suggest that we can find space for empathy despite its shortcomings. To do so, we need to reframe our question and ask: Under what conditions does empathy flourish? This helps us to see what it is good for.

Empathy requires the right kind of environment to function in the way that we want it to. So if we want a more empathic world — if we want empathy to work for us — we ought to focus on re-shaping our environments.

Abundant evidence showing the many ways in which our environments modulate our empathic responses comes from work in empirical psychology and neuroscience.[13] In a particularly illustrative study, Mina Cikara and her colleagues showed that you can get people to exhibit counter-empathic responses to one another simply by dividing them into arbitrary groups and putting them into competition with one another. That is, you can get people to feel happiness in response to another individual’s pain (Schadenfreude) or pain at another individual’s happiness (Glückschmerz) simply by preying on our often overzealous tendencies to identify and align with our in-groups, however arbitrarily those groups are defined. This is a depressing finding. Our empathic tendencies cannot even overcome arbitrary groupings. But in a further study, Cikara and her colleagues showed that you can break down those groupings and re-establish empathic connections by getting people to visualize themselves as part of the same network, by getting them to do tasks that re-establish some form of commonality.[14] This work shows that environments that make salient the features we share provide fertile ground for empathy.

Empathy, that is, is not the starting point for re-establishing commonality; it follows from it. We need to begin by figuring out techniques for breaking down barriers. Only then can we let empathy in. Breaking down such barriers is a difficult problem, and I don’t purport to solve it here, but as a first step, I suggest that we return to the problem of seeing.

The problem of seeing is ultimately about being stuck in our own perspectives, unable to enter into other worlds. How can we solve the problem of seeing? Exposure helps us here — in particular exposure in the form of story and narrative. The contributions of writers, photographers, videographers, and first-hand testimony are invaluable. Without those, we would have no way of entering into the war zone that doctors experience on a daily basis, to understand the pain of isolation, or the many pervasive ways in which racism affects every facet of the lives of black and minority ethnic people. Such narratives and testimonies are powerful. Start talking to one another, start seeing, and empathy will follow.

Once put into motion within the right environment, empathy can then function as a catalyst for further connection, motivating us to learn more from one another, and deepening our understanding of other people’s lives. By building up our store of narratives, we widen our sense of humanity, of different perspectives and ways of living.

Within the medical and phenomenological literatures, there is a concept of empathy that emphasizes this openness: empathic curiosity. This way of thinking about empathy highlights that empathy is for learning about other people. Feeling with fosters understanding and gives us knowledge. This is the kind of empathy that we need for our current moment.

The understanding empathy facilitates makes way for deepened forms of care, the kind of care that involves listening to people’s individual needs and responding in tailored ways. Far from looking down from above, we stand firmly on the ground and draw on our feelings of connection to learn to care in the right kinds of ways.[15]

So what, then, is empathy good for? Empathy, when placed in an environment that fosters connection, is for deepening understanding of other people’s lives. It is good for generating and sustaining an ethics and a culture of care — a culture that we sorely need now. Far from doing away with empathy, we ought to create the conditions for it to flourish.

[1] For a review of the many concepts of empathy, see Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L. & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy: A Review of the Concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144–53.

[2] It’s worth underscoring that there is a lot of inconsistency in people’s ways of carving up these concepts and thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume, who put sympathy at the centre of their sentimentalist moralities, used the term in much the way that we use ‘empathy’ today. I am not saying that this is the be-all and end-all way of defining empathy — just that it seems to track a common way of using it today.

[3] For the key study demonstrating this, see Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2004). Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain. Science, 303, 1157–1162.

[4] There is a huge body of literature showing the connection between empathy, concern, and helping behaviour (see Batson, 2011 for extensive coverage).

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-52344299

[6] https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/03/cultivating-empathy-coronavirus-crisis

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CHiVUIEON0

[8] Evidence for this claim is mounting but see the report from Public Health England for an example: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/890258/disparities_review.pdf. See also the CDC report on these effects in the US context: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.

[9] Alex Broadbent has written eloquently on these issues for the LSE blog: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/03/27/coronavirus-social-distancing-covid-19-lethal-consequences/.

[10] Particularly powerful examples come from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/15/magazine/new-york-hospitals.html), from CBS News (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KUJTr8Bz58), and from frontline testimony (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/08/icu-doctor-covid-crisis-hospital).

[11] Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy. London: The Bodley Head. See also his article in the New Yorker for a short summary of his argument (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/the-baby-in-the-well).

[12] Prinz, J. (2011). Is Empathy Necessary for Morality? In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 211–229). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] For a review, see: Lamm, C., Nusbaum, H. C., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2007). What are you feeling? Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to Assess the Modulation of Sensory and Affective Responses during Empathy for Pain. PLoS ONE, 12 (1292). Since then, a significant body of further evidence has emerged. See also Weisz, E. & Zaki, J. (2018). Motivated empathy: a social neuroscience perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 24, 67–71.

[14] Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., Van Bavel, J. J., & Saxe, R. (2014). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 110–25.

[15] Empathy is intimately situated within an ethics of care (see e.g., Slote, M. (2007). The Ethics of Care and Empathy. London and New York: Routledge).