Empathy seems like a good quality in human beings. Pure and simple.
It allows us to consider the perspective of others — to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine their experiences. From that empathetic vantage point, only good things can come, right?
Not necessarily, according to author Fritz Breithaupt. “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy,” he writes in his forthcoming book The Dark Sides of Empathy.
Breithaupt, who directs the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, argues that empathy is a morally ambiguous capacity, one that can lead us astray if we don’t understand its many sides.
“Empathy is a riddle,” Breithaupt says. While it can enrich our lives, Breithaupt says our ability to identify with others’ feelings can also fuel polarization, spark violence and motivate dysfunctional behavior in relationships, like helicopter parenting.