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Dr. Shannon Spaulding with OSU President Kayse Shrum

OSU philosophy professor studying how much empathy is too much

Monday, December 12, 2022

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Empathy, as most people use the term, is understanding somebody else’s perspective — trying to put yourself in their shoes, trying to feel what they feel — and it is often described as a good thing.

But is it really a good thing?

Dr. Shannon Spaulding, associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Oklahoma State University Department of Philosophy, is focusing her research on just that question.

“Many people think that empathy is a really positive thing. Americans today are so divided and people struggle to understand what the world feels like to somebody else with a different perspective,” Spaulding said. “So, intuitively, it seems like empathy is a really good tool for cutting through partisanship and division because if you can see the world from somebody else’s perspective, it motivates a different kind of response to their behavior.”

You may not agree with their perspective, but you can understand it and respond with compassion, she said.

However, it’s not a perfect tool, she added.

“Some philosophers and psychologists have argued that empathy actually just makes things worse,” she said. “Their idea is, ‘Look at how we use empathy.’ We use it to empathize with our in-group. We don’t actually empathize with the people we disagree with. When we empathize exclusively with people we like and people in our in-group, we make conflict even more intractable.”

Empathy burnout is also a major problem, Spaulding said. “It can be exhausting to empathize, especially when there’s no easy off-ramp,” Spaulding said. “Medical professionals during COVID are a good example. There’s an unending wave of suffering and you are called to empathize over and over again, and it just wears on you. It’s difficult to do that day in and day out and live your normal life.”

Spaulding decided to examine the intersection of praise and criticism of empathy.

“My project is theoretical — understanding how these processes work. But there is a real practical payoff to the project. If you understand how the processes work, you can construct better interventions,” Spaulding said.

First, we need to understand what is actually driving empathetic responses, she said. Usually that is our own personal motivations — what we care about, the resources or competition we stand to lose by empathizing, how this impacts our in-group — and then you can find ways to push on those motivations, she said. You can build better interventions to improve the way we use empathy by targeting the motivations that drive people’s behavior.

“The challenging thing about interdisciplinary theoretical research is that everybody has different ways of using concepts. So, if you do a first reading, it will seem like they’re talking about the same thing and they’re saying very similar things,” Spaulding said. “But when you kind of drill down you realize that, ‘Oh, there’s a neuroscientist who is using this concept in a totally different way and actually meant something really different from what the psychologists are meaning.’”

That means a lot of Spaulding’s research is mapping out what is known in neutral terms, she said. The other piece of her research is engagement and collaboration with experts across many fields.

Historically, there was no real difference between philosophers and psychologists, Spaulding said. Philosophers have always been interested in how the mind works, and the earliest psychologists were enmeshed in these philosophical discussions. Many early psychologists were considered philosophers, in fact. Psychology and philosophy back then were relatively continuous, she added.

“I see my own research in that way,” Spaulding said. “So, what psychologists are really good at — because they’re trained on it — is constructing experiments and measuring the thing that

they want to measure. They’re really good at experimental design.”

What philosophers are trained to do and what they excel at is conceptual analysis, she said. They synthesize information and analyze and evaluate the conceptual assumptions of a problem. Experimental design and conceptual analysis need to go hand-in-hand.

“It is kind of a theoretical puzzle,” Spaulding said. “Trying to figure out what the pieces actually are and how they fit together. I say, ‘OK, so there’s this piece here. That piece actually belongs there.’ At least in my research, that’s how I imagine the philosopher’s role — really trying to synthesize and analyze the concepts and the theory and the background assumptions.”

This is vital for further experiments and interventions.

“You have to get the analysis part right. If you don’t get it right, then your experiments and interventions are not going to be well-grounded,” Spaulding said. “You might not find anything,

or you may find something and then it doesn’t replicate later. It is because the foundations aren’t solid.

“I really think that this theoretical work is not an extra frill or academic flourish. I think it’s really important to understand the phenomenon so that you can construct better experiments and better interventions.”

However, her research is not just borrowing from others; it is evaluating and piecing together ideas and concepts from various disciplines.

“It’s having this dialogue where the psychologists are saying, ‘OK, so this is what we think is going on.’ And the philosophers are saying, ‘OK, this is what we think is going on,’” Spaulding said.

The philosopher’s role in this kind of research is to challenge assumptions and find the coherent reflective equilibrium in these various ideas.

Spaulding was recently awarded a 2022 President’s Fellows Faculty award for her work on empathy research. In the future, Spaulding hopes to continue her work in empathy and other ways people connect, like trust.

“One of the things I want to think about is the relationship between empathy and trust,” Spaulding said. “Most of the time, you don’t consciously decide to trust somebody or go through this rigorous process of examining whether somebody is trustworthy, but most of us are kind of instinctual when it comes to who we trust.”

There is an interesting reciprocal relationship with empathy and trust, Spaulding said. If you trust someone, you’re much more likely to empathize with them. And if we want to improve empathy, we also need to think about how we come to trust others because we often don’t trust those who differ from us.

“I’m not saying that more empathy is always better. I think we can improve empathy. But improving empathy is not the same thing as increasing empathy,” Spaulding said. “I think what we need to do sometimes is empathize less with the people who are like us.”

If you want to use empathy in a better way, find a way to understand a subject from a third-party perspective instead of habitually empathizing with the side you already agree with.

“It is a smarter use of empathy, rather than just more empathy.” she said.

Story By: Harrison Hill |

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