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Fritz Breithaupt And The Dark Sides of Empathy

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Fritz Breithaupt.


He's a professor of Germanic studies, adjunct Professor in comparative literature and affiliated professor of cognitive science at Indiana University. He researches German literary history from the 18th through the 20th centuries with special focus on authors like Goethe and Nietzsche. Breithaupt writes frequently for the German press, especially Die Zeit. He's written dozens of articles and half a dozen books. He also runs a lab at IU Bloomington - the experimental humanities lab, where he and his students use methods borrowed from the humanities and fuse them with the cognitive sciences to address issues of moral reasoning, narrative thinking and empathy. In his book The Dark Science of Empathy, Breithaupt warns us that even though it is a good thing, empathy can lead to some very bad things. Fritz Breithaupt joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios.

AARON CAIN: Fritz Breithaupt, welcome to Profiles.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Thank you for having me.

AARON CAIN: So even though you are not a psychologist nor a neuroscientist, your background in Germanic studies and comparative literature might actually uniquely qualify you for this deeper study of empathy that you have embarked on. Since the term itself is relatively young - only about a hundred or so years old - and it had its beginnings, if I'm not mistaken, in Germany - as a way of describing how we can connect with art forms by feeling our way into them. So how did you first embark on this journey? How did you get from the study of Goethe and the romantics to deep-dive into empathy?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, thank you. That is a good question. And it's a question of literature. We can actually ask ourselves, why do we have fiction? What do we find so fascinating about people that didn't even exist that someone made up? And I think the reason why we like stories so much, whether it's from Goethe, Shakespeare, or whether it's a recent Hollywood blockbuster, is that we like to slip into the skin of other people. In German, we say we slip into the skin of other people. In English, we say you slip into the shoes of someone else. But we like to imagine how it is like to be someone else, whether they have a hard background, how they are shaped by the environment and what happens with them. So in a certain sense, it's a very short step from studying literature and storylines, narratives, to something like empathy. I would even suggest that we have developed fiction and stories to a large degree in order to have something like empathy.

AARON CAIN: So the art form came first? Or the feeling came first, and the artform was a way of processing it, understanding it, grappling with it?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think they have a co-history. I think our species has experienced an amazing cultural evolution that enhanced its capacity for empathy. And there's some evolutionary psychologists that suggest that man is the animal with empathy. So on the one side, a belief that we have enhanced this empathy ability enormously - but I think this has happened by us developing fiction, which enforces and trains us in understanding other people, in slipping into the shoes of other people and co-experiencing situations that we otherwise might not be able to experience.

AARON CAIN: What's interesting about that to me - just to hear you say it - is that no matter whether you're talking about, say, the low-tech art form of a poem or a story or a painting from the late 18th century, or whether you're all the way in the present day with social media or a 24-hour news cycle or blockbuster Hollywood films, you need an external force. You need something outside of the mind of a person to hone empathy. Am I getting that right?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: What's outside of a person, what is inside of a person...

AARON CAIN: Oh, here we go.



FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think stories are not really clearly inside or outside. I think our mind processes little narratives. We solve problems by stories. Our memories often start in forms of little narratives. So in a sense, I would say these technologies that you describe, whether it's the technology of a poem or whether it's the technology of making a movie, are kind of crystallizing what's already happening in our mind anyway. Otherwise, these things wouldn't respond so well to us, and we wouldn't be interested in them. So in that sense, I'd say they're both inside and outside.

AARON CAIN: You hear the phrase everyone's the hero of their own story. But would you maintain that people don't really always know that they're in a story? And by that, I mean that they're in a narrative - that they focus on the hero part, the me part, the life part, and they're not really acknowledging how much they're working things out through these narratives?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think people notice that or have a feeling for that when they tell their own life story. And I think most of us probably have made the experience that they will tell their story in different ways. So when you tell your life story in one situation to one person, that may be very different even the next day, when you tell it to a different person. And I think in both cases, people will have the feeling, “yeah, that is my life story. These forces have shaped me. This is where I came from, this is where I am now and this is where I'm heading to.” But then they probably have made the experience that they can tell this differently. And then I think people kind of try to grapple with that. They either want to walk through that, they say that they mature, or they realize that they are more than one version. They have different possibilities in them. But I think we have some awareness of this, generally. It's not exactly that one would use philosophical language like the two of us are doing right now. But I think people do know that there's more than one life that they're living, that they are the hero of not just their story but their stories, plural.

AARON CAIN: Like a collective story.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: A collective, exactly. They are part of many stories.

AARON CAIN: But one thing that there might also be many of is definitions of empathy itself. And before we get too far into the weeds, we should perhaps take a few different approaches to defining empathy. Let's start with kind of where we left off. How would you define it artistically? How was it defined when the term was born at the turn of the 20th century with the idea of, is it “in-feeling,” like Einfühlung? Am I getting that right?


AARON CAIN: So how would we define it back in the days in Germany when there is the genesis of this notion of feeling your way into something?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, the notion Einfühlung is indeed an aesthetical notion that was coined already in the late 18th century and then was only translated as empathy in the early 20th century into English. And interestingly, that notion has then been reimported into German, so now the Germans say empathy.

AARON CAIN: (Laughter).

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I mean, they use the English translation of their German term for this as well. So the original notion of Einfühlung was describing a process of someone merging into an artwork and seeing the resonances of every aspect of the artwork with all the other ones. It was described for musical works, paintings, sculptures, but also literary works - finding the center of gravity that would hold it all together. That was the original intention of that notion. And it then migrated in the 20th century to two different notions that came out of this. So there's two different concepts of empathy that we can distinguish. And that actually still holds today. The one is a notion more based on understanding. I understand what you are thinking, or I understand what you are feeling, or I guess you're feeling this and this. So it's a focus on the intellectual understanding of someone else. And the second definition of empathy is one more of sharing emotions, of having the same emotions as someone else. Someone else is suffering, and you feel the suffering. The situation that they're in affects you as well, and you react the same way. We actually now know that both of these correspond to two different routines in our processing. We have separate activations of neurons in our brain that correspond to them, and they are independent from each other. So we can, on the one side, understand other people and their emotions, but we don't have to share their feelings. We may not also have warm feelings for them. We can do this with a competitor. If you're playing a sports game, it may be quite smart to know what your opponent is thinking or planning to do at that point so that you can beat them. The second notion of affect-sharing is the notion that most people in neuroscience tend to call empathy. And they notice how in most strong emotions, most people - not everyone - will have this immediate reaction to activate the same feelings. So when you observe someone who's in pain or someone who's happy or someone who is sad, you will actually in most cases also experience this. And this can be measured by a brain scanner. You will also experience some sadness or some joy and other emotions, too. It doesn't work for all emotions, and there's limits to this. But those are the two key definitions that people nowadays use - understanding others and affect-sharing, or sharing of emotions of others. The notion that I prefer is one that has more to do with experiencing of narratives and fiction or that also includes those, which is the co-experiencing of the situation of another.

AARON CAIN: Co-experiencing.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Co-experiencing - that is my definition, then, that tries to go a little bit wider than just the immediacy of the affect-sharing.

AARON CAIN: It seems like the term co-experiencing is trying to have a foot in each definition, a foot in the idea of knowing what someone's thinking as well as being able to feel what they feel.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Absolutely. And even though we usually apparently have two different processes for both, of the understanding and the affect-sharing, I think there's quite a lot of cases where both of them do go hand-in-hand, where there is an intellectual understanding why we also feel some of these emotions. And that is the case in the moment we experience a situation of another, when we share their narratives. We know where they're coming from and why they're feeling an emotion. It's not just that we see they're sad, but we know why they're sad. So there's an intellectual component of us that gives us the guidance to understand the emotion while we're also feeling it.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Fritz Breithaupt, professor of Germanic studies at Indiana University and author of The Dark Sides of Empathy.

We've talked about this term that has evolved a bit over the hundred or so years since people first started using the term empathy - the more artistic definition, the more philosophical definition, the more scientific definition. And in the last couple of decades, things like MRI and fMRI scans have taught us a lot more about this, as you alluded to - how different parts of the brain are responsible to knowing what someone's thinking versus having an emotional response in kind with what they're experiencing. Nietzsche figures rather prominently in the first chapter of your book, The Dark Sides of Empathy. And considering how much we've learned in the past couple of decades about the brain, about the scientific definition of empathy, what do you think that Nietzsche would make of an MRI scan?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: (Laughter) Now you really have surprised me (laughter).

AARON CAIN: Because he was...


AARON CAIN: ...Not the biggest fan of empathy, suffice it to say. He thought that you lost too much self...


AARON CAIN: And you lose your objectivity if you relate too much to people around you.


AARON CAIN: So what would he make of what we've learned about the brain and its level of involvement and empathy?

AARON CAIN: Interesting, interesting. Let me first briefly recall what I say about Nietzsche and why I'm actually alluding to Nietzsche. And you already summarized that here briefly to say that Nietzsche warned us about empathy and said it made us weak. That was his first starting point to it. But what was interesting for me in Nietzsche is that he also in the sense that we shouldn't just pay attention to the actual process of empathy or something like empathy, like pity, but also what triggers it. And that for me is an important distinction - to say, on the one side, we have a lot of capacities for empathy. But we don't always use them, so we turn them on and off. And then it has certain effects if we are turning them on. But we can also block them, and that, I think, is an important insight there. Now, what would Nietzsche say about brain-scanning and sciences? Nietzsche had a conflicted relationship to the sciences. He, on the one side, was very skeptical about a lot of empirical insights. And his age - I mean, the late 19th century - was rich of empirical insights. And he thought that they in many, many cases were missing the point. I mean, the objectivity and the drive for empirical data was kind of leading people in the wrong way. They would understand details but wouldn't see the connections. So maybe one possibility, one Nietzsche that I know - and there's more than one Nietzsche - would say, “well, it's not bad to know all of these kinds of things. But our task would be to overcome whatever our natural drives are, whatever the neuronal routines that we have in our brain.” Our task would be to be more than that or to say that even though we have a certain tendency or bias, as some people would say, our task would be to jump out of that, to be more than that, to be different.

AARON CAIN: So if I could paraphrase, if I'm interpreting it correctly, Nietzsche would take a look at a result of a brain scan, say, ah, so that's the part of the brain that governs empathy. So what? What do we do with that now?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: That is probably true. Exactly.

AARON CAIN: I mean, he would still be still be looking for dots to connect and for bigger conclusions to draw, perhaps.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Exactly. I think that is very true. And, of course, there's something about that that is important nowadays, too. We have the brain scans, we have the functional MRIs, too, where we see how a process develops in the brain and what is involved. But we don't have so many interpretations of what that actually means then. So, and that's why we need the philosophical perspective of someone like Nietzsche.

AARON CAIN: Well, you are not totally pro-empathy. Neither are you totally against it. You're not Nietzsche. Neither are you Paul Bloom from Yale, who wrote Against Empathy a couple of years ago. But if I'm not mistaken, you are saying that empathy may not be totally a good thing - that there are darker sides to it, hence the title. And in the introduction to your book, you recounted an empathetic experience from your youth when you attended a concert that was not all rainbows and puppy dogs, exactly.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: (Laughter) The experience of my youth was that I noticed that I had a strong tendency to empathize - probably still have - that could lead me into all kind of wonderful directions. But it could also overwhelm me. And the situation that I report is that when I went to concerts as a teenager, I would very often suddenly get affected by the idea that I was now suddenly in the situation off the musician on stage, and it would be now me holding violin in my hand and would have now to play. And, of course, I couldn't play. So I kind of slipped into the shoes of these people, that I over-identified with them, and got enormously nervous. It was so bad at times that I at least one time had to leave the concert hall. I could not stand being there because I was getting nervous. Now, the musicians on stage - I mean, whether they were nervous or not, I do not know. It was not that I was affected by some direct thing that I perceived, but...

AARON CAIN: They weren't giving off signals of...

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: No, I don't think so.

AARON CAIN: ...Anxious or anything.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I don't think so. It was just my imagination. Oh, I can imagine how it is to be onstage. “Oh, no. I am now on stage. What do I do? I don't even play the violin.” So there was a certain kind of aspect of it that is not empathy. No one would really call that empathy. It was kind of an over-identification, involuntary and not fully an emotional contagion but something in that direction. And it showed me there's something interesting about us - that we are porous as people. The other people are open for us. We can be in more than one position. I wasn't just sitting in the chair any longer there in the theater, or so. So there was something interesting that made me interested in this. Would I derive from this to say that we have to be against empathy? Absolutely not. I mean, empathy - and you alluded to my position here - empathy is, first of all, amazing. It's wonderful. It opens the world to us. We don't have to make all experiences ourselves. We are connected. We are part of a group. We help each other. There's a lot of very positive features that have to do with empathy. However, empathy, maybe because it is so powerful, also has quite a few dark sides. And one of the one is the one that is connected to my early experience, which is the possibility of losing yourself in the other, going too far out of yourself. My experience was harmless. This was in a theater, protected space, and was even a deep experience in some way and allowed me to reflect about it later on. But something similar can also happen in a more involuntary way, where you're taken advantage of, where you lose yourself completely in the other. The most extreme case of that is a self-loss that you can't control any longer, as in Stockholm Syndrome, or hostage identification syndrome, where someone who's captive of someone else starts to lose their own sense of self and does everything for the one who has captured them, whether that's in a real crisis like a hostage scenario or whether it's another form of dependency, like certain bosses or certain leaders of institutions also draw this kind of self-loss empathy towards themselves. And that is one of the negative forms - that it can go too far. And we need to learn to block it and limit it.

AARON CAIN: So you use Stockholm Syndrome as an example of one of the dark sides of empathy that you discuss in your book - the idea of losing too much self, over-identification with somebody else. But I was interested in pushing back a little bit on that example of Stockholm Syndrome because, as you yourself point out in the book, it is a rare and disputed concept. Its existence is not acknowledged by everybody. And I'm wondering, if I was in a situation where my life was being threatened, and I was a hostage, am I over-identifying with my captor? Or is this a survival mechanism, a way to visibly identify with your captor in the eyes of your captor?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Yes, OK. You're absolutely right. Stockholm Syndrome itself is disputed, and it's rare. Maybe 10% of hostage cases lead to that. There's some hundred cases that are documented where people have agreed that could be described in those terms. But even then, it's a very rational reaction that you really, really want to know very well what these hostage-takers are about to do and that you want to please them. Let me tell you an anecdote first here from the original Stockholm hostage scenario in the '70s in Sweden. What was interesting there was not simply that the hostages tried to please the two hostage-takers in the bank holed up there. They, of course, did that and so on and so on. But what is interesting also was they couldn't let go of it.

AARON CAIN: Afterward.



FRITZ BREITHAUPT: So the police had overcome the two people. No blood had flown. It went down fairly - I mean, relatively peacefully then. But the hostages kept fighting against the police even though they saw that the two captors were taken down. They refused to speak against them in court later on. And there's a big-time delay. The whole hostage scenario had taken five years. One of the hostages, a female hostage, got into a serious romantic relationship with one of the two hostage-takers. And another person who described herself as a female fan married the other hostage-taker while he was in jail. There was something else going on here. And again, is this empathy? It could be more like a psychotic behavior - that your self was destroyed under the stress, and that people gave up on that. But I believe I'm using Stockholm Syndrome in all of these extreme but also strange and weird circumstances is that I think there is some little kind of kernel of truth in it as an everyday experience - that many people are more willing to subordinate themselves to powerful people, that we see less violent scenarios as well, including the boot camp in the army, where the new recruits are focused on their superior. We have that in graduate school in the universities to some degree, where sometimes - or in lab situation, whether you have the clear boss. And if you go very far with it, we can also compare this to our aristocratic past, where you're the feudal lord, and the underlings identify fully with their lords, their master, their superior. Traditional marriage at some point also had that kind of feature, where the man was the focus of the family, and others had to subordinate and kind of feel the emotions of the boss - or the father or whoever it is - more strongly than their own. So, I believe there is something about this that has to do with empathy - this sharing of the situations and the feelings of one person in particular and thereby forgetting your own wants. And I think people are not so willing to do that any longer, and that's a great thing. I think - so blocking some empathy actually is maybe a very healthy practice in this sense.


AARON CAIN: Fritz Breithaupt, professor of Germanic studies, affiliated professor of cognitive science and author of The Dark Sides of Empathy. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.

In your book The Dark Sides of Empathy, you break things down into five different dark sides. And we've been talking about the first of those for roughly the last few minutes - the notion of self-loss. I was wondering if we could talk a bit about each of the other four - first of all, the danger of empathy leading to seeing things only in black and white.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think for me, the interesting thing about empathy is that we don't always use it, and that we use it selectively. So I am in particular interested in the triggers and the blockers of empathy. Here's a very interesting one, and that is side-taking. One of the strongest mechanisms how we get people involved in anything is to show them some kind of conflict. It can be as simple as a sports game. You see two teams, an orange team and a green team. And very quickly, most spectators will - even if they don't know these teams, they may not even know the sport - they will kind of relate to the one side more than to the other. And then once they do that, they see things through their perspective and then start to share the emotions. And interestingly, they also start to demonize the other side. They kind of are not so interested in the other side that is suddenly the bad side. If they do something, it's not quite as good. Or maybe they attribute more evil intentions to it. Once there's a little conflict presented to us, we are very likely to choose a side. And once we choose a side, that in itself is not empathy yet, but that often leads to something like empathy. We see them as the victims of the other side. We share kind of their situation, where they come from. We want them to win. And thereby, we slowly get drawn into empathy. So what I'm saying here is that once there's a conflict, we are more likely to empathize with the one or the other side and then to see the other side as evil - to demonize them, to reject them. So the conclusion from that is that empathy very often, I believe, can enhance and strengthen conflicts rather than leading to some kind of conflict resolution. Most people, if you ask them, they will always say, so what is needed if there's a conflict? They'll say empathy. You need more empathy, and both sides have to understand each other. Then everything will be good, and they will understand that the others are also only people and so on and so on. But I think that, in reality, the more common case is the opposite case. Empathy increases conflicts because when you see two sides, you're more likely to choose the one or the other side. And once you see the one or the other side, you'll get more wrapped up in that side - more and more so. This can lead to, I believe, terrorism, where the people identify with one side they see as the suppressed side, the victims of the other side. Then they over-identify with that side to the degree that they will potentially violently reject the other side.

AARON CAIN: I was wondering if I could get you to get a bit more specific about exactly what role the empathy is playing in this scenario of thinking in black and white. Is it responsible for the dichotomization, the breaking down into one or the other, into black or white? Is empathy doing that? Or are you maintaining that it's empathy that's carrying it too far and making you vilify the other that you did not choose - that you vilify black when you chose white? Is empathy doing that, or is it responsible for the choice?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think it's more the latter. But it has to do with the choice-making, too. I think it is empathy that leads us to strongly bond with the one side. Once we kind of see things through their eyes and relate to the one side, we are enforcing our feelings for them. We really feel like, “this is our side. I can relate to this. This is my side.” This becomes part of you. And as a consequence, then, the opposing side, if there's some kind of conflict already, whether it's harmless, as in a sports encounter, whether it's in the sense of an argument, like a family dispute, or so, or it there’s a military conflict already or conflict between different cultures and groups, or so. It always leads us to feel a strong alliance with the one side, which then has kind of the side effect that the other side is the bad one. The other one is the one that opposes us. So it's not just it opposes said I, no, it opposes us. And then we defend ourselves. We feel like it's legitimate to do all kinds of things. And we neglect to pay close attention to what drives the other side - what emotions they have, why they're acting a certain way. So we put a blind eye on them as a consequence of our alliance. It can in some cases also be that we want to empathize. I mean, humans - I think we are strongly equipped with empathy. And we want to feel empathy. So it can even be that we sometimes empathize with a group of persons or one person and that can lead us to set them apart from others and to thereby in our mind produce conflicts. But I think that's a secondary aspect.

AARON CAIN: I'm wondering if perhaps there's another factor at work here too, which is basic human insecurity. When faced with these choices, the natural lamentable human tendency to decide rather than think, that it's more expedient to get all binary about it and choose one side over another instead of grappling with the notion that, wow, this soccer is really an intense sport. I'm not sure I identify with either of these teams, but this is really rigorous and difficult. And I probably couldn't do it myself. These things aren't expedient.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think you're right. I mean, empathy here makes it easy for us. And quick side-taking - I mean, we know people love to make quick decisions. We are so fast judgment-makers. I mean, everyone has heard these horrible stories about job interviews that most interviews are decided after 35 seconds. After these 35 seconds, I believe the rate is about 90% of cases people have made up their mind and will stick with that. And in a similar way, you show people a picture for a fraction of a second and they know whether they like or dislike that person. And that sticks. So we like to make judgments and then stick with it. We don't want to change our mind again. And empathy is part of that process. Empathy allows us to carry through with a quick, intuitive judgment. It allows us to say, “yeah, we made the right decision.” Look, you're bonding with that person. We feel like them. So therefore we don't have to think. We don't have to question our decision. We just stick with it and go through with it. So, empathy, here, is part of a potentially diabolic dynamic.

AARON CAIN: So let's move onto another one of the five different dark sides of empathy you discuss in your book, false empathy. What is false empathy?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, false empathy, I need to explain this a little bit and also the term. So usually when people talk to me about my slight skepticism about empathy and my questions, they will tell me, “well, yeah, okay, there's some points. But Fritz, ultimately empathy must be a good thing because it is because of empathy that we help other people. We feel their pain, and then we help them.” And that is so good that thereby, of course, we should accept all the darker grey shades that I describe. And that's what I want to address here with this term false empathy because I doubt that in most cases where we want to help people - in that case of, let's say, of a humanitarian crisis or someone in need in our immediate environment - that it's directly empathy with that person. I think the dynamic that's going on here is a little bit more complicated. I think in most - not all but in many cases, let's put it that way - in many cases, people don't really empathize with a person who's in pain, a person in a crisis, rather they do something slightly easier. They identify with a helper figure - that could be a helper that is actually there, but it can even be an imaginary helper that should be there.

AARON CAIN: ...The ideal.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: The ideal person, exactly. So they identify with someone who then helps the people in need. And that's what I call either filtered empathy - you filter your empathy through this helper figure - or false empathy because you think it's empathy but it's kind of more like a hero identification. Now this is good and bad. It's good because it can lead people to act. That's good - very good. However, once you identify with the hero - the helper hero - you expect praise. You want recognition for what you're doing. And if that doesn't come or you're not satisfied with it - the people don't show you how thankful they are or they don't get better, all of these kind of things - there can be backlashes. There can be resentments. You feel like not recognized for what you are doing. So it can backfire. So one of the examples from this dynamic, just to describe that, would be something like the movie Schindler's List, that maybe some of the listeners have seen, where you have an account of the concentration camps of the Germans. The movie presents a lot of that and is able to show you scenes from the ghetto and from the concentration camps itself, including the gas chambers. But it does so by offering you a hero figure, Schindler, who is a German industrialist who - true figure who actually managed to help a very significant group of people to survive in all of that. For viewers, this is so easy to watch this movie because you can identify with Schindler. You don't directly empathize with the mostly Jewish people there in that movie that in the concentration camps. So it's a little bit filtered. In that case, of course, it's ultimately - I mean, this is harsh but it's more a feel-good movie than anything else because of that vehicle of identifying with the helper figure.

AARON CAIN: So since we have Oskar Schindler as a character, it feels less like an indictment of the evil that humanity is capable of and more like a story where there is a good guy that we are like.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Yes. Yes, exactly. It is ultimately it's an uplifting story for us. We feel like there is hope, and we can do things. And that's a good thing. I mean, I'm not saying that is in itself evil. But it can lead to bad behavior and bad expectations because we may expect that things always are like that - that we relate to the good figure, the helper and then everyone will see us as the hero like Oskar Schindler himself. I mean, he's really lionized by the movie. So by you, in other cases, identifying with the hero, you expect to be lionized, too. You want to be seen as a hero. And that has very dubious consequences.

AARON CAIN: I don't mean to be Mr. Pushback here today, but I think that there is a potential alternate viewpoint embedded in the movie itself because, you know, here you have Oskar Schindler - a character we can identify with - and maybe that's filtered empathy, maybe that's false empathy, but a line of dialogue that comes to mind in the movie is when Ben Kingsley's character says, “the list is life.” The list of people that are being saved is, "an absolute good." In other words, the motivations don't really matter here. Let's not focus on them. But the point is that something good is being done at a time when forces are arrayed against something good being done. And so the motivations of Oskar Schindler were certainly less than 100% pure. I think the historical account as well as the movie bear that out. But the list is an absolute good. So is the result more important than the motivation when it comes to empathy?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: First of all, I would actually - I like that statement in the movie, right? I'm happy that you called that. The list is good. I mean, there is something about that, so in that sense I agree. And we should cherish that, too, that good things can happen there. But I wonder whether there was empathy involved for that, actually. Do you need that for that? Not really, or only in a very indirect way, so in that sense, yes. Luckily, people do things. And sometimes they do things with murky kind of intentions, and good can happen. That's something that I accept, too, of course. I mean, in a much more pragmatic way. And that the list itself was in that circumstance basically a real positive, something that ethically rises about everything else. It's very important. Another hidden cost in that movie is that it portrays the leader of the Nazis as a psychopath. And while that is, again, a moment that makes you feel good that this person is absolutely evil and needs to be executed at the very end and so on, it puts you at a false peace offer to say, oh, yeah, those were some really horrible people at the top who were responsible for all of this. They were psychopaths. They didn't care. And that's it. And you can execute them and thereby it's over. And unfortunately, I think that's more complicated. I mean, for me as a German the reality seems to be much more that a lot of ordinary citizens - a majority of millions of ordinary citizens were involved in making this happen. And then from what I know about this, they were not all psychopaths. They were just willing to be part of a machinery, and that's much more dangerous of course. So there's some understanding blocked by this movie. That's why I want to express my skepticism here.

AARON CAIN: This particularly extreme example brought something up that you touched on which was that empathy is not the same as ethics. Empathy is not the same as morality. Can you sort of help us sort through those? I think that those terms need a little differentiation because for many they might seem to overlap.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Yes. I think for many people empathy has come to mean basically the incarnation of good things, and that's what I question. And this is also where Paul Bloom who was written this book Against Empathy comes into say “no.” I mean, if we would rely on empathy, then empathy would not be a perfect compass for ethical decisions. The philosopher Jesse Prince also comes to the same conclusions, and I agree with that. I mean, empathy guides us in many cases but there's too many cases where it all goes in a different direction. Empathy allows us to relate to individual other people, to co-experience a situation, to know what's going on. I think the evolutionary benefit and benefit for cooperation today lies in a very different area, which is that it expands the range of our experiences. So people who feel empathy live a richer life. They will know more as to be like other people. They are then because of that also more likely to help. They won't automatically help. They will not be perfect in their actions. But they will do all kinds of things. But first of all, their world is much more complex. They don't have to go through all life experiences themselves. They're better prepared for life and then can react to other people better too because they have already either imagined a situation, they have experienced that through books in some cases or through their own experiences in the past. So we live in a much thicker social network. We have better bonds because of empathy. So I call this ultimately an aesthetical advantage - aesthetics in the sense of experience and clarity. We know the world better because of empathy. That often will lead to good moral behavior too. But it can also be leading to bad behavior.

AARON CAIN: But that also makes me think of what we were talking about at the very beginning which was the idea of deepening our understanding of ourselves and of our lives to the level of a narrative or a tale. I'm reminded of the opening of Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, where he has kind of an indictment of his fellow neurologists where he says that the problem is that we are defining people by the things that they lack rather than talking about what they are. And he charged them with deepening every diagnosis to a narrative or a tale instead of leaving it at a case study or leaving it at a symptom or leaving it at a quality of which a patient is deprived.


AARON CAIN: And so am I interpreting correctly that we make our worlds bigger by joining the narrative?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Yes. Yes. And of course Oliver Sacks' book is so good in that the respect that you hear about cases that at the surface often look awkward and strange and you would summarize it in a sentence. You feel like, oh, that's odd. But then once you get into Sacks' wonderful prose there, you imagine how it would be like to live a life that is shaped by different factors and different senses than your own where certain perceptions just don't work the same way. And you don't see these cases any longer from the outside as a number, patient that has a certain ailment but rather you start to see more and more how it feels to be in that situation yourself. And that's a wonderful kind of gift that Oliver Sacks gave us to make that available, exactly. But that's I think something that happens to us with empathy in many other cases too because when you hear from a friend where they come from, you hear about their childhood, or you hear of moments that have shaped them, or when you read a book about this too, you suddenly realize, “oh, wait a moment. My background and this and this place and this and this financial situation shaped how I perceive things. Now I suddenly see how these people came out differently because of their own background.” You start to understand how things can be different and how differently people process situations - things that make me happy can make someone else sad. That's a wonderful lesson - seeing that, learning that, experiencing it.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Fritz Breithaupt, professor of Germanic studies at Indiana University and author of The Dark Sides of Empathy.

I can't wait to ask about one of the other dark sides of empathy you describe in your book. You don't call it the darkest, but I can't help myself. I'm going to call it the darkest one of all and that is vampiric empathy. So what is vampiric empathy?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, a vampire draws blood from others and lives through the lives of others. So vampiristic empathy is doing something very similar. Empirical vampires live the life of others and enjoy that as their own life. That can be very harmless in a certain sense if you think of certain fans. A fan lives through the star and reads the tabloids and follows their life and really gets a lot out of that and learns life lessons from the crises or the wonderful moments of triumph of his or her hero. That's fine. But there are forms where this vampiristic empathy really starts to suck out the blood of the real other, where the fans becomes stalkers - get too close to others and become threatening - or and this is the case that I'm getting to here, in the case of helicopter parents. I believe that quite a lot of parents get too close to their kids partly because they want to relive their own childhood through their kids. They mean well. They want to protect them from harm. They want them to be successful and have their life. I'm not accusing parents here of having bad intentions whatsoever. But it's rather that in many cases they want to re-experience in life and then they start to manipulate the kids so that they can co-experience the life that they would have liked to live themselves - a life with fewer problems, with better grades in school, with more success in sports, maybe better choices of partners. This goes very far nowadays - with good choices for future professions and all of those kinds of things. So suddenly, the parents become the drivers of the kids because they want to co-experience things. Because of their empathy needs, they start to manipulate the kids to make decisions and so on and thereby rob them of their life, thereby rob them of their own decision-making, rob them of their blood, and leave the kids basically half bloodless.

AARON CAIN: ...Drained.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: ...Drained, drained.

AARON CAIN: Wow. What's the good news?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: (Laughter) Well, this is – now, now I'm a parent too. Sometimes you feel like you notice, “well, my child may be making a bad decision here or maybe the school teacher really didn't understand what was going on.” So I see the urges to jump into these kinds of things. And I'm the last one who can tell you where to draw the line of over-involvement, and kind of leaning back to say “no, no. The kids should make their own experiences.” So here's the weird, strange news that is probably troubling for a lot of parents. So we know that the children from helicopter parents suffer from a lot of potential conditions. They suffer from higher levels of anxiety. They stay in dependency much longer. They have a harder time making decisions and so on and so on, yes. But at the same time, the system also kind of favors these children from helicopter parents to some degree. They end up having better grades. So knowing this means these are difficult decisions for parents to make and, of course, also for schools to deal with that as well to try to find a good balance. So I'm not having easy answers here. I'm just saying this is what I've learned about this in studying.

AARON CAIN: The fifth and final dark side of empathy that you define in your book is empathetic sadism, which, well, it's going to make helicopter parenting look pretty tame by comparison. So what is empathetic sadism?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, it is radical but I also would like to maintain that there is a dose of it in everyday life. The idea of empathic sadism is that certain people want to bring about the pain and suffering of others so that they can feel their pain, so that they can empathize with them and share their feelings. This sounds like a contradiction because most people assume that when you feel empathy with the pain of someone else, you want to help them. But I think what empathic sadism can also show is that people just want to feel empathy for the sake of empathy. They may want to feel aroused by the pain of others so that they feel something. It may be people who are tend to have lower levels of emotions or so that they need that simulation there. But the ideas that people go so far as to cause that suffering of others - and that can be physical but it can also be psychologically, mentally in some more slighter ways too - where people are put into a bad position which allows someone else in to share those feelings to understand the feelings. Someone is suffering or is in a bad spot, we know they're feeling. They're feeling bad. And that is an entry point for some people then to understand and relate to those feelings. “Yes, I know you feel bad and I can feel it. And that's good because I can feel it now.” That's all. It doesn't lead to positive actions then. This is, on the one side, something that we associate with serial killers who were horrible sadists, and so on. And that I believe to be true. At the same time, I also think some doses of this can be part of everyday behavior where people manipulate you so that you suffer a little bit so that people can relate to you. I remember from my childhood we had some teachers who would often call on the weaker students in class, call them to the blackboard and had them do some kind of math problem, or Latin was also a hard subject in my school. And then, of course, these kids in front of the class would fail and would feel very embarrassed to stand there and not know the answers and so on. And the teachers knew this upfront. We were all pretty certain that teachers were calling on these students just to embarrass them to make them feel bad. And I wonder about that. Why were they doing this? Well probably because of that they knew they would feel bad and they wanted to make them feel bad to some degree because they could understand those feelings then. They could relate to that. So I think there may have been a dose of this empathic sadism going into this.

AARON CAIN: Was that for the benefit of the student or for the teacher?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: I think in that case it was definitely not for the benefit of the student. I think it actually probably - I mean I don't know that that traumatized them but it certainly left a bad imprint on these students. I don't think it motivated better learning for them but rather made them fear school even more. I don't think it was a benefit for the rest of the class to be in terror that we will be the next ones up there. I think it was more a benefit for the person in control the teacher on the one side to be affirmed in his or her power but also in the sense of kind of seeing that they could manipulate the emotions of the students too and not just manipulate them but also then understand those feelings. Because, of course, in the moment if someone feels bad the situation is very readable. It is clear. And that clarity is a point of access to feeling something like empathy too.

AARON CAIN: As we discussed at the beginning of our conversation, your background is in Germanic Studies and Comparative Literature and your work exploring the darker sides of empathy represents something exploding beyond its boundaries in terms of subject matter. It’s kind of testing the elasticity of the academy, to some extent. And I would love it if you could talk about something that you direct here at Indiana University - the Experimental Humanities Lab, which seems to be kind of an outgrowth of that exploration of the boundaries of subject matter. You wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back about how a chance meeting with a highly motivated student started you on a path that - I'm not sure if it led to your work with empathy but I'm pretty sure it led to the Experimental Humanities Lab. So could you tell that story?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: (Laughter) Yes. Well, one of the wonderful things of the academy and Indiana University in particular is that it provides students, professors, learners a space of exploration. This is something that I've come to love at the academy and especially here is that once you have a question, you can go through with it in all directions. There's a good reason why we have disciplines for particular fields where you have a certain kind of methodology that is re-established and explore things within that. But certain questions just go across these things. When you have a question, sometimes you need to cross boundaries of disciplines to just go with it as far as you need to go until you have an answer. And you may have to define your own discipline. You may have to come up with the limitations of this. And so this is something that happened with me indeed with my student Kevin Gardner who was interested in narratives just like me and wanted to know, “how do we know what narratives do with people? How do they direct our behavior? How do we think narratives through? Do we change our life stories or not?” And we noticed very quickly that these are questions that are not well discussed in one discipline, so, partly, cognitive science, which ultimately is a very good place for this for me, but it's also a question that doesn't concern the humanities and concerns other fields as well - I mean disciplines that have to do with behavior like psychology as well, to see what actually is happening now. So what we did at that point something like 10 years ago is that we tried to figure out how can we even study that? What methodology should we use? And we went back to a methodology that had been developed 100 years ago by Cambridge psychologists which is called Serial Reproduction - or put more simply in lay terms - telephone games, where we discovered that a good way to study narratives is repeated retellings; playing telephone games not just with one person but with lots of them. We now have a study of 25,000 retellings, probably the largest of the kind that was ever undertaken by anyone.

AARON CAIN: So it's sort of an oral history under laboratory conditions.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Yes exactly, exactly. People in folklore have also done this at some point where they tried to figure out exactly how does oral history - how do myths emerge? How do things - transformations come about? So, in the lab we started with that is there was a starting platform for us to use other kind of as well where we try out what happens if you do these things and which narratives stick, which ones guide us and which ones we drop, which ones we modify. So a lot of the examples we just have talked about in the last half an hour here fit into that category. Side taking - if you have a story where you have two sides, when people retell it, how much do people polarize this? They do polarize it a lot. Emotions - which emotions stick? Are they've transferred well? Yes, emotions actually typically passed on better than most facts of a story. People really want to preserve the emotions of characters but also story emotions like surprise while a lot of facts are adjusted to bring this about. So there's a lot of things that we study that way. But it's one of these kinds of things where we'd say we started out with a couple of questions that we couldn't answer. And then we noticed, well, at the university we have this space where we can explore all these things. So I still describe that as the wonderful sandbox - a playing place. We can play. We can figure out things. We can raise questions that we don't know the answer to and maybe no one else knows the answer to. And that's why we're here. The freshman student can do this much as well as the senior professor. We want - once in a while need to come together, get our hands dirty in the sand and start to play again and then of course develop methodologies and do this in a responsible way and also in a way that can be confirmed or fortified in some way, or so. So the university has a lot of methods then. But the key ground of all of that is still exploration - asking questions.

AARON CAIN: One of the aims of your book The Dark Sides of Empathy seems to be making the reader aware of some of the unintended consequences of empathy. Some of the costs - not a self-help book, nor is it a guide. It asks us to, as you say, ask questions and appreciate behavioral nuance. But that said, if I could put you on the spot, how do we do this right? How do we empathize enough but not too much? How can we steer clear of some of the unintended consequences of empathy?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Well, what I would invite listeners to is to observe themselves, to think about when they feel empathy. When they really feel like, “oh, now I know how it is like to be you,” or, “I feel so much what you went through.” And I think there's a lot of individual differences on that level, that some people react to people in one situation more than another one. And so the first consequence of that observation can be to see, well, interestingly, “I seem to react to these in these situations but then to realize, ah, in some cases I don't feel empathy.” Why actually not? Is it just because the other person is not showing his or her emotions strongly and I have to kind of guess them or they are not forthcoming in telling me their life story? Or what is it and why do I not empathize with another person? So I would say the first thing is to sort of manage one's empathy to feel like, “OK, I may have a certain kind of tendency to empathize in these situations. Can I expand that range? Can I be more conscious of other people so that I kind of learn to expand the range?” Even though I talk about all the dark sides of empathy, I am mostly saying that we need empathy. We need not less but more of it. But then of course we also need to be aware of it where we get manipulated, where we go too far, where we get carried away. So second learning point is to say. “where do we need to monitor ourselves?” It can be with our own children. Where do we get overinvolved as parents? The question of the helicopter parents and what are our motivations in that? Do we really want to just help the kids, or is it secretly something else that we're getting out of it - self-recognition and co-experiencing it? The same thing with side taking. OK, if you watch a sports game and you get carried away and you feel like you get angry at the other side, that should be an interesting wake-up call to see, “well, interesting. I'm getting carried away here.” There are two teams. They're all professionals. They are not good and bad, or something like that. You just feel more strongly for your home team, which is fine. And you should. I'm not against that. But to observe yourself, do you maybe get carried away once in a while? I've been seeing a lot of behavior by fans in sport where I felt like, “wait a moment, this is maybe going a little bit too far.” And then once you see that, that may be fine as a spectator from the distance. But are there other situations we use the same way too where you demonize some other side without really realizing that? Is that a pattern that you use elsewhere? So these are good moments for wake-up calls to caution yourself a little bit.


AARON CAIN: Fritz Breithaupt, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Thank you very much for having me.

AARON CAIN: Fritz Breithaupt, professor of Germanic studies, adjunct professor in comparative literature and affiliated professor of cognitive science at Indiana University. Fritz Breithaupt is also director of the Experimental Humanities Lab at IU Bloomington, and he is the author of The Dark Sides of Empathy. You've been listening to Profiles. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.


MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling (812) 855-1357. Information about Profiles including archives of past shows can be found at our website: Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.

Fritz Breithaupt

Fritz Breithaupt (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Fritz Breithaupt is a professor of Germanic Studies, adjunct professor in Comparative Literature, and affiliated professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University.

He researches German literary history from the 18th through the 20th centuries, with special focus on authors like Goethe and Nietzche. Breithaupt writes frequently for the German press, especially Die Zeit. He’s written dozens of articles and half a dozen books.

Breithaupt also directs the Experimental Humanities Lab at IU: Bloomington, where he and his students fuse methods borrowed from the humanities with the cognitive sciences to address issues of moral reasoning, narrative thinking, and empathy.

In his book, The Dark Sides of Empathy, Breithaupt explains that empathy is a relatively new concept. The term only emerged in 1909, when it was translated from a German conception of "feeling yourself into a work of art." Since then, it's become a core psychological concept, and part of what scientists of many disciplines think makes us distinctly human.

But in this conversation with host Aaron Cain, Breithaupt warns us that empathy can also lead to some very bad things.

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