When you’re walking down a busy street and you see someone drop their phone, do you pick it up and give it back? What about seeing someone with a baby carriage struggle to open a door? Would you help?
Almost all of us would without hesitation, stop and help someone open a door or pick up a fallen item.
The interesting question is: Why do we do it?
Helping a fellow human-being with their daily struggle is an essential quality that has been carefully crafted into us through years of evolution. Being ultra-social beings, we must be able to help and support one another if we’re going to be successful as a society.
Some of us believe that empathy is the driving force behind all of these courteous acts by strangers taking place every day throughout the world. Empathy is the emotional motivator that provides us with a hit of serotonin every time we cooperate or help. Oxytocin is also known as the bonding hormone. Mothers receive huge hits of oxytocin when their baby is born. It provides a euphoric feeling that helps reduce physical pain and increase the bond between her and the baby - which is a good thing because those early days of parenting aren’t easy!
Here’s the trouble with empathy: it’s extremely biased. According to Paul Bloom, we must be very careful not to lead with empathetic feelings because we’ll have a tendency to support those most like us. While this might not seem like a bad idea, Bloom suggests looking at it in greater scope. For example, the Make-A-Wish Foundation spent over $10 000 on turning a terminally ill boy into Batman and parading him around the city in a Batmobile. No doubt it was a very special moment for the boy, his family, and the city. Empathy wins, right?
What if that money was used to purchase mosquito nets used to prevent the spread of malaria in Africa? Hundreds if not thousands of lives could have been saved. Where is the empathy in that endeavor?
Instead of leading with empathy, we’re better to use reason and compassion when dealing with people in need. Compassion differs from empathy in that were not mapping the feeling of another individual on our own. Instead, we support and help one another because it’s the right thing to do.
We should pick up the fallen phone because it will make that person’s day better not just because we’d want someone to do it if the rolls are reversed.
It’s a subtle difference but an important one.