People tend to stereotype psychological phenomena. It’s tempting to think that stress is always bad, resilience is always good, and so forth. Like other stereotypes, these beliefs help us neaten the world and extract signal from noise. Also like other stereotypes, such beliefs are misleading and often harmful. Call me pessimistic, but whenever the media breathlessly praises a practice or trait—meditation and grit come to mind—I always wonder about its downsides. Jogging is great for you, but not always, and not in every way (ask my knees). The same goes for happiness.
My own favorite human characteristic, empathy, is no different. Recently, empathy has gotten lots of good press. Books like The Age of Empathy, The Empathic Civilization, and The Better Angels of Our Nature suggest that empathy is on the rise, and might provide a cure for many of our social ills. Barack Obama is likely the most empathy-positive president in history, often suggesting that curing our country’s “empathy deficit” is mission critical.
But empathy is not always used in the service of good. Two papers last month highlight this idea through evidence that people use empathy to use other people, manipulating them through a savvy understanding of emotions.