What Is Empathy?

By Leo Gura - March 21, 2023

The following is a wrong explanation of empathy:


This is a sociopath’s definition of empathy!

The balls on this guy!


What this FBI guy describes is not empathy, it is understanding and perspective. Empathy requires that you FEEL what the other person is feeling. It is beside the point whether these feelings help you or not, or whether they are effective in striking deals or not. It doesn’t matter if empathy lowers your effectiveness in the word. Effectiveness, success, dealing-making, pragmatism, survival, etc simply have nothing to do with empathy. Empathy does not mean that you have to agree with another person’s actions, take their side in a negotiation, or take any kind of action. But it does require FEELING. If you feel nothing but you understand another’s position, that’s perspective-taking, not empathy. And, yes, something important is definitely missing in your understanding of that person. You cannot truly understand another person through cold, logical perspective-taking, because their perspective also includes feelings. If you leave out those feelings you don’t fully understand them. This is like thinking you understand a frog by throwing it into a bender and studying its juices under a microscope. That is not an understanding of a frog! To understand a frog you must become a frog.

As an FBI agent, of course this guy does not know what empathy is, because if he truly had it, he would have to stop being an FBI agent. The FBI will ask you to do things which you could not do if you had true empathy for people. That’s just baked into the job.

At it’s core, empathy means this: If you are talking to a mother who lost her child in a school shooting, you put yourself into her shoes emotionally — you experience the hurt and suffering she experienced. Whether that improves or worsens the situation is irrelevant. If you are a police officer talking to the mother, it is probably not effective for you to feel much empathy, because then you would not be able to do your job. A police officer cannot afford to be too empathetic. That would wear out their psyche and they would have to quit their job from emotional distress and PTSD.

There are many situations and positions in life where empathy will be counter-productive. However, by adopting a purely pragmatic attitude to life and rejecting empathy, there will be a cost. You will lose out on the most profound understanding of people and reality. The deepest understanding is not logical, cold, and calculating. The deepest understanding requires that you literally live through another’s experience. To truly understand what a school shooting is, for example, it’s not enough for you to do what the FBI agent does, you must actually lose your own child in a school shooting. THAT is serious understanding! But the cost of such understanding is so great that no sane human would choose it. However, God is crazy enough to choose it! Why? Because God needs to reach Omniscience — complete self-understanding. God cannot achieve that through logic. God must incarnate into the situation and feel/experience it. This is the whole point of LIFE! You can’t understand a thing deeply without living through it and FEELING it in your bones. For example, I do not understand what it is like to be an FBI agent. Because I haven’t experienced it first-hand. All I have are stories and ideas about it.

Notice: everything in life that you understand the deepest, is stuff you’ve FELT and suffered through. It’s deeply personal, not logical. And you know that nobody else will understand it unless they suffer through it like you did. That’s the cost of understanding! Understanding ain’t easy.

Empathy is a subset of understanding. Logic is a subset of understanding. Perspective-taking is a sub-set of understanding. Understanding includes and transcends all of that. Understanding is KING. Everything goes into it. So understanding without empathy is weaker than understanding with empathy. But empathy alone is also not sufficient.

The only way to reach the deepest levels of Love is by living through those very painful experiences which no one wants to live through unless life forces them into it.

Empathy is extremely emotionally taxing on your psyche. It is much easier to go through life without it. Which is why most people have a very short supply of it. But also why there is so much evil in the world. If people were much better at empathy, the world would be a much more peaceful and kind place. Empathy teaches you things that logic never could. Empathy is also a powerful mechanism for changing behavior and learning deep lessons, because emotions are a much more powerful teacher than logic. Emotions chemically sear lessons into the brain while logic goes in one ear and out the other.

If you don’t want to practice empathy because it makes you less effective at your job, that’s totally fine. Just don’t lie to yourself that you are doing empathy when you aren’t.

Towards the end of this clip you can see Lex Fridman push back on the FBI guy by saying that feeling is important. That’s because Lex intuitively understands that the FBI guy is being too heartless and cold, and that something is missing. Lex intuits what I said in this post: You cannot really understand another person through logic alone. Lex has more heart than the FBI guy. Because he can afford it and the FBI guy cannot.

Lex Fridman is too nice and under-equipped to deal with the bullshit that guests spew on this podcast. This is not a criticism of Lex. Lex’s heart is in the right place. I’m just informing you — his audience — of what is going on, so you don’t get misled. The guests Lex interviews can be very persuasive because they have such high reputations and they are good speakers and seasoned professionals. But that is not the same as deep understanding of anything. Most professionals are pragmatic and they don’t have much concern for existential insight into the way reality functions.

This whole case is a good object lesson for you in how survival (in this case, one’s career) can distort one’s understanding of reality. An FBI agent cannot have a deep understanding of reality because his career demands that he doesn’t. This doesn’t mean FBI agents are bad, or that we shouldn’t have them. It just means that if you care about reaching the deepest levels of understanding reality, you have to be very careful which career you place yourself into. The limits of your career will become the limits of your mind.

In general, women are much better at empathy than men. Because men specialize in being effective at hunting and defense, while women specialize in being effective at raising emotionally healthy children. For men, empathy is often a liability. And for women, empathy can make them too emotional to be effective in business and war. It’s all about intelligent trade-offs. As always, you must strike an intelligent balance between empathy and effectiveness.

There is also the notion of a masculine vs feminine compassion. The FBI agent is doing masculine compassion, which does not involve much empathy. Whereas a stereotypical spiritual guru or mother would offer feminine compassion with lots of empathy. One is not superior to the other. They compliment each other and must be applied as appropriate to the context.

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