Empathy: Does it Lead to Right Action?

Much has been made in art therapy of the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain as confirmation that empathy is real and that creative work with others engages those neurons and hence creates empathy. Implicit for many of us is that empathy leads to care, compassion and perhaps even right action. Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks discusses the limits of empathy. Brooks makes the case that  feeling the pain of others does not lead automatically to appropriate action on their behalf or even to any action. He cites Nazi guards who wept while shooting Jewish mothers and children and the participants in the Milgram experiments who experienced anguish but continued to administer  what they believed to be painful electric shocks because they were told to do so. What is it that disconnects an empathic feeling response which, in Brooks' words "..orients you toward moral action"from actually acting? Self concern. It seems that if we sense ourselves to be at risk or if we are unaccustomed to taking action and the thought of it arouses fear, we move along. It's one thing to get an email about a cause, be moved and make one more mouse click to sign a petition. It's another thing to wrestle with a code of conduct that we consciously live by. In fact, Brooks contends, feeling empathy has become a shortcut that allows us to feel virtuous while doing nothing to make change.
This discussion is relevant to art therapy because being with suffering people and seeing their art certainly arouses empathy, most of us would agree. When, if ever, does the art therapist go beyond being a witness and compassionate fellow traveler? At what point does he engage the causes not only the results of suffering? Or is that someone else's job? If the art therapist is doing good work in the context of an unjust system, a hospital that exploits its workers, a clinic where shady business practices keep things running, a non-profit where an unreasonable amount of donations go to support overhead rather than programming, does she have any obligation to act? And if so, what is right action? A colleague was recently hired for a consulting job with an agency that sends contract therapists into different programs and schools in the community. It seemed like ideal part time work to augment her private practice and give her a chance to have contact with other therapists. After coming on staff and running her first group, she learned that one of her boss' expectations was that she would sign insurance forms for work done by trained but unlicensed staff whom she would be supervising. The argument made by the agency was that they could only afford one licensed person but this way could serve far more children. They saw their actions as virtuous in an imperfect system. My colleague saw insurance fraud.
A researcher cited by David Brooks says that not only does empathy not  usually impel right action, it actually can lead to wrong  action. The staff of that agency are no doubt brimming with empathy. My colleague certainly agreed that it would be great to offer as much service to kids in need as possible, just not by breaking the law. She has an internal code of conduct that prevents her feeling of  empathy to override her capacity to make moral judgments. It is the latter than allowed her to name the behavior she saw and refuse to participate.


  1. I am consistently amazed at how community art making changes my perception of the other in positive ways. Occasionally in the studio it may be the only activity that forms a fragile bridge between diverse worlds. Over the years, I would say that this experience of empathy for another through shared art making, is a first step towards choosing a higher road. Without empathy, there's much less chance. I also think that repeated and consistent experiences of empathy increases the chances of right action. Our brains dig familiar routes, consistent with our experiences. For me, this first step is a big one!

  2. I agree with you about the experience in studio, the shift in perception is always astonishing. But I do question if it really is the "first step of choosing a higher road" and challenge you to cite some examples, if for no other reason to cheer me up ;-). Again, no one is against empathy but I know that starting out I had the expectation that the studio experience would naturally lead to action. I envisioned the studio eventually becoming a support place and re-charge sanctuary for activists out there changing the world once they had been in the studio and 'heard their call'. I cannot personally point to any examples of this. Our brains do dig familiar routes and some are ruts. I have seen folks act in new ways in the studio but even by the report of the artists, some carry the new perceptions into their lives outside the studio door. Many more never learn to generalize what they know into other more contentious areas of their lives. More on this soon, you've inspired me for the next post.

  3. This is really interesting stuff. I'm an art student considering how art /creativity helps develop empathy. Cn you suggest any reading for me.
    many thanks.


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