Thursday 27 April 2017

The school research lead and the case against empathy

In a recent post, I argued that evidence-based practitioners need to display empathy if they are to act with what (Paul and Elder, 2014) describe as intellectual fair-mindedness.  Since I writing that post I have come across Paul Bloom’s recently published book Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, in which Bloom argues that empathy can lead to poor decision-making.  As empathy can lead us to be be biased in favour of people we know or are like us - and biased us against the needs of others who are not like us, or we don’t know.   So with this in mind the rest of this post will examine the following:
  • What do we mean by empathy and are there different types of empathy?
  • How can some types of empathy lead to poor decision-making?
  • What are the implications for school research leads and champions seeking to become conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioners?
What do we mean by empathy and are there different types?

(Bloom, 2017) defines empathy as : … the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does (p16)

Bloom then goes onto cite Adam Smith who - using the term sympathy – describes empathy as the ability to think about another person and ‘place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person as him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something, which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.

However, this form of empathy – known as emotional empathy -  is not the same as cognitive empathy, which is the … capacity to understand what’s going on in other people’s heads, to know what makes them tick, and what gives them joy and pail, what they see as humiliating and ennobling.p36  In other words, with cognitive empathy we are not talking about feeling your pain, but rather the ability to recognise that the other person is in pain.

So for the purpose of our discussion about the relationship between empathy, evidence-based practice and intellectual fair mindedness, we are interested in cognitive empathy and the ability to see someone else’s point of view, rather than trying to feel how they are feeling.  And it is cognitive empathy, which contributes to (Paul & Elder, 2014) and their notion of intellectual fair-mindedness.

How can emotional empathy get in the way of good decision-making?

So what is the case against emotional empathy.  Bloom argues Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now.  This makes use care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts as well as to the suffering to those we do not or cannot empathise with.  Empathy is biased, pushing us in the directions of parochialism and racism.  It is short sighted, motivating actions that might makes things better in the short-term but lead to tragic results in the future.  It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many.  I can spark violence; our empathy for those close to use is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.  It is corrosive in personal relationships, it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the forces of kindness and love (p9)

Bloom backs up his claims with references to appropriate research, which I leave you to check out for yourself, as the purpose of this blog is not to provide the definitive empirical discussion about emotional empathy, but rather consider the implications for the evidence-based practitioner of emotional empathy.  For setting aside whether or not you agree with Bloom’s argument, a core tenant of being an evidence-based practitioner is to make explicit your assumptions and then explores the implications for being a conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioner and school research lead.

What are the implications for school research leads and champions seeking to become conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioners?

Given the claims Bloom has made about the downsides of empathy – be it whether empathy be a cause of war and racism – this is probably one of the most difficult ‘discussion’ sections I have written.   That said, I think we can draw out a number of implications which arise from Bloom’s analysis.

First, just because something seems intuitively that it is a good thing – does not necessarily mean that it is.

Second, given the distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy, when discussing research and evidence with colleagues, you need to be in command of your terminology.  Otherwise, discussions may become unfocussed as colleagues have different understandings of the terms being used.

Third, given that emotional empathy shines a ‘spotlight’ on the needs of certain individuals in the here and now. It may be that emotional empathy will steer your attention in the direction of current problems and the individuals who are experiencing them.  On the other hand, given the scarce time and resources available to the school research lead, it may be that there are other activities which may be more beneficial, particularly for pupils who have yet to join the school.

Fourth, in working with colleagues you are more likely to empathise with colleagues who are like you.  You may have been in teaching for say 5- 10 years and have vivid memories of what it is like to be an NQT, so you may cut NQTs or recently qualified colleagues some ‘slack’ in participating in knowledge-building activities.  On the other hand, you just might not ‘get’ the colleague who has been teaching for thirty years, and who has no apparent interest in research.  As a result, you are more willing to spend your time with the NQT rather than the more experienced colleague.

Fifth, there is a potential danger that when looking for problems of practice on which to focus your attention, you focus on groups of pupils who may have had the same problems or issues that you experienced when your age.  That said, there may be other pupils or colleagues for whom you have no ‘emotional’ connection, which means that their issues are potentially ignored.

And finally ....

Next week we will be looking at the evidence as to whether coaching leads to improved teaching and increases in pupil achievement.

Bloom, P. (2017). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. London: Random House.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2014). Critical Thinking : Tool for retaking your professional life (Second Edition). New Jersey: Pearson.


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