Empathy Machines

Fellow feeling as a technologically mediated experience

A few months ago, as I was on my way to see “A Mile in My Shoes,” an exhibition staged by the Empathy Museum as a pop-up outside London’s Migration Museum, a woman walked down the aisle of the train I was on, asking for money or food. I gave her the bag of almonds I had in my tote bag, but I don’t think it was empathy that made me do it. The sun was shining through the window that day, and I was in a good mood as I drank my coffee and ate my breakfast. The shame of being happy and satisfied in front of someone who was turning their unhappiness into a public performance made me hand over my snack. Plus, I remembered that I was going to the Empathy Museum.

The truth is that every time I pass a person sleeping or begging on the streets, I am terrified by the thought of what would happen if I did truly empathize with them: If I, even for a moment, felt the precariousness of their life as my own, wouldn’t I have to offer them more than bag of almonds? Wouldn’t it demand that I offer everything I have?

I could imagine her pain, but I would never actually suffer it, and that made walking in her shoes feel more like consumption than communication

This isn’t because I am particularly generous but because the discourse around empathy portrays it as a moral super-emotion. “Great claims are also made for empathy’s ability to make us good, moral, connected, and civilized,” David Howe writes in Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters. He cites economist Jeremy Rifkin, who calls empathy “the soul of democracy.” Former President Barack Obama also championed empathy’s importance, declaring, “If we hope to meet the moral test of our times, if we hope to eradicate child poverty or AIDS or joblessness or homelessness … then I think that we’re going to have to talk more about the empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through somebody else’s eyes.”

The Empathy Museum takes a similar tack. On its website, it defines its mission as using participatory art projects to explore “how empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.” Founded in 2015, it has launched projects such as the Human Library, which allow visitors to “borrow” another person for a one-on-one conversation, and A Thousand and One Books, an actual library built from donations. “A Mile in My Shoes,” the exhibit I saw, fitted visitors for the shoes of a refugee or migrant and then provided them an audio recording of the person whose shoes they were literally walking in. The shoes I fit belonged to Julie Cheung Inhin, a British East Asian actress. On the audio, she spoke of the moments when someone would comment on her race and she would suddenly become conscious of her difference from the people around her, despite “feeling like everyone else.”

As painful as such moments must have been for her, they also shone a problematic light on exhibit itself. No matter how much I, a white woman, could imagine what Cheung Inhin might feel in these instances, and no matter how long I walked in her shoes, other people would never perceive us in the same way. I could imagine her pain, but I would never actually suffer it, and that made the experience of walking in her shoes feel more like consumption than communication. Did I really need her to relive those experiences into the recording in order to understand she had been treated unjustly in those moments? When I returned from my intimate, meditative stroll with Julie, I saw that others were waiting for their turn with her shoes — my second empathetic failure that day. In paying careful attention to the recording, I paid too little attention to everyone else.

The idea behind projects like the Empathy Museum is that that empathy, when felt truly, will prompt global change. But how? If I’m personally moved to give a bag of almonds or even my entire personal savings, that hardly seems sufficient to pass the “moral test of our times” or change the world. How can personal feelings feed into the collective action necessary for addressing systemic and structural problems?

“A Mile in My Shoes” is a low-tech analogue of efforts to use virtual reality to increase viewers’ empathy. A TED talk by Chris Milk, a VR filmmaker who made Clouds Over Sidra, about a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a Jordanian refugee camp, typifies the claims made for the technology. “When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on, and because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way, you empathize with her in a deeper way,” Milk says, arguing that this intimate form of connection changes people’s perspective. He took the film to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2015 and is currently working with the United Nations to develop more films that he hopes to show “to the people who can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films.” Entrepreneur Jamie Wong and CNN commentator Van Jones employ similar reasoning for Project Empathy, which uses VR to show viewers what it’s like to be incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. Like Milk, they hope that exposing federal and state legislators to visceral VR experiences will change their minds and policies.

The claims made for VR have been made in the past for other emerging narrative technologies. The title of Milk’s first TED talk (“How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine”) reflects film critic Roger Ebert’s claim that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” And before film, literature was the agent of empathy-driven change. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, is held to have so inflamed Northern sympathies against slavery that, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said to her when they met, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” However, as Daniel R. Vollaro wrote in a 2009 article, there is little evidence that Lincoln said those words or that they accurately reflected the novel’s impact. Instead, the legend stems from 20th century efforts to promote the political power of literature and late 19th century efforts to diminish the role played by more radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown, whose direct action and militant organizing were cast as dangerous in the post-Reconstruction era.

The narrative about the power of literature, like the current approach to VR, makes historical change not a matter of the resistance efforts of the oppressed and their allies but of relatively privileged people speaking to other relatively privileged people to spark a paternalistic response. UNICEF found that showing Clouds Over Sidra halved the number of conversations face-to-face fundraisers needed to have before someone agreed to donate. And when Project Empathy’s first film was shown at the Democratic National Convention, 85 percent of viewers said it changed their minds about criminal justice. That seems promising, but both projects also share a theory of social change that is surprisingly anti-social, despite its emphasis on human connection. By focusing on bringing the experiences of the marginalized to elites, VR developers implicitly endorse a system in which a small number of people retain outsize power.

The lives filmed for VR experiences are isolated from any collective movement for justice and deployed instead in a simulation staged as a meeting between a powerful and a powerless individual

The lives filmed for VR experiences are isolated from any collective movement for justice and deployed instead in a simulation staged as a meeting between a powerful and a powerless individual in which all the petitioner’s words and actions are pre-selected by a third party. VR allows elites to believe that the best way to understand another’s perspective and act in their interest is not through talking to them directly but through consuming their experience at a distance, as framed by someone who seems more like a peer.

In mediating between the needs of the afflicted and the apathy of the comfortable, empathy-generating technologies risk reinforcing the very power dynamics they claim to fight. Abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic relied on visceral displays of the physical pain of slavery to sway public opinion. Empathy Museum founder Roman Krznaric holds up the U.K. abolitionist movement as a model of empathy’s political efficacy, but, like the historical example he uses, his museum’s mission statement is troublingly sensationalist: “What is it like to have spent years in prison, or to be a child growing up in Tehran, or to have rediscovered love in your 80s? The Empathy Museum will help you find out.”

Saidiya V. Hartman argues in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th-Century America, that depictions of slavery’s violence can “immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity” while reiterating the “spectacular character of black suffering.” In “Radical Empathy: Politics and Emotion,” Nina Power updates Hartman’s analysis to include the widely circulated videos of the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other black victims of police violence. Such images are ostensibly meant to rouse (white) people to action, but, as Miles F. Johnson observed in a piece for the Establishment, their spread can be extremely unempathetic to the people on whose behalf they seek to work: “If you locate yourself as someone who wants to resist violent white supremacy, you must not privilege white people having information or being shocked into action over black people being irreversibly damaged.”

I do not mean to say that literature, film or VR has no role to play in rousing people to action on behalf of others outside their immediate circle. Plenty of stories communicate their authors or characters truths in ways that don’t sensationalize their pain, and empathetic communication can happen horizontally between different communities, not only vertically from the marginalized to the privileged. Such a moment is beautifully rendered in Chris Bachelder’s novel U.S.!, in which a boy in a conservative working-class town rescues a socialist-realist novel about outsourcing from a book-burning and is radicalized by reading it. But for change to occur, it is also not enough for narrative technologies to render experience vividly and sensitively. There must also be a surrounding movement to channel any awakened empathy and awareness into action. Otherwise, they may merely present a moral pretext for what is really just imaginative pleasure.

Research into empathy paints a cloudy picture of its efficacy at prompting moral action. Empathy can be instant — the sympathetic wince when you see someone stub their toe — and scientists link it in part to “mirror neurons” that fire in similar ways when we see someone do something and when we do it ourselves. But research also suggests that people can intentionally either enhance or shut down their capacity to empathize. An article from Greater Good magazine pointed to a study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner of people who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust, which found that the rescuers shared the experience of being taught since childhood to consider the perspectives of others. This is tempered, however, by findings that suggest the majority of us are more likely to empathize with members of our own in-group than those outside it, as Peter Bazalgette points out in The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society. For example, one study he cites found that participants’ neural response to watching people in pain decreased when those people belonged to a different racial group.

Research indicates that sympathy for others’ misfortunes and the cognitive ability to assess another person’s point of view correlate with prosocial behaviors like volunteering, but identifying strongly with fictional characters does not. Another study, which gave participants an excerpt of literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, or nothing and then tested their ability to guess others’ thoughts and emotions, found that the literary fiction readers scored better. The researchers hypothesized that parsing such fiction’s “show don’t tell” approach upped the participants’ empathetic capabilities.

“Civility” hits home for beltway insiders who can’t imagine having to emigrate: Empathy becomes a game of claims to who deserves its spotlight, leading to a stalemate of competing moral outrage

Of course, understanding someone’s perspective does not mean you will necessarily adopt it. As Paul Bloom points out in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, psychopaths are able to use this skill to better manipulate people. He argues that empathy shines a “spotlight” on individuals, causing us to rush to alleviate their particular pain without thinking of the long-term ramifications of doing so, or of the other, unspotlighted sufferers we might be ignoring. Since empathy is individualized and biased toward those who are more like us, it can lead to ignoring the suffering of groups, which occurs at a scale that exceeds empathy’s grasp. And nothing prevents empathy from being enlisted for hateful causes. “When liberals think about empathy, they only think it’s on their side,” Bloom said in an interview with the Verge. “In reality, empathy can go both ways.” In his book, Bazalgette calls Nazi Germany a “society without empathy” but then later clarifies that Nazis actually exploited in-group empathy to depict their victims as enemies of the German people.

The fallout from the Trump administration’s child-separation policy at the southern U.S. border also points to how empathy can be turned against itself. Opponents of the policy have disseminated images to try to spark empathy for its victims. The photograph of a two-year-old Honduran girl wailing in a pink sweater became a visual distillation of the policy’s human cost. It turned out that the girl in question, Yanela Sanchez, was not actually separated from her mother — an illustration of Bloom’s claim that the empathetic instinct to focus on individuals over collectives can lead to errors in reasoning. Nevertheless collective outrage, spurred in part by the image, eventually prompted Trump to sign an executive order ending the family separation policy he had previously claimed only Congress could stop.

Despite this apparent concession (which replaces family separation with whole-family detention, something immigration rights advocates say merely trades one trauma for another), Trump later in the week doubled-down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric by flipping the empathy table. He held a press conference with so-called angel families, whose loved ones had been killed by people in the U.S. illegally. “These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones,” he said. The implication was plain: You want empathy? I’ll show you empathy. You’re the ones ignoring worse pain. The controversy over “civility” in the wake of administration officials being hounded in public likewise insists that we prioritize the feelings of these officials over the needs of the families separated at the border to be reunited as quickly as direct action can facilitate. The controversy reflects the idea that people empathize more easily with their peers. Civility hits home for beltway insiders who can’t imagine having to emigrate but can imagine having their dinners disturbed over policies they have proposed or enabled. Empathy becomes a game that can be rigged by generating opposing claims to who deserves its spotlight, leading to a stalemate of competing moral outrage. As Bloom pointed out, “political debates typically involve a disagreement not over whether we should empathize, but over who we should empathize with.”

What emerges from this is that appeals to empathy are politically useless unless scaffolded by an accurate understanding of power. Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric against immigrants is frightening not only because it reflects a lack of empathy for people in a desperate situation, but also because he has the ability to turn that rhetoric into policy. Without that understanding to scaffold it, empathy can be mobilized to generate fellow-feeling for elites already operating from a position of strength and shield them from the consequences of their actions. It’s worth noting that Obama, who extolled the benefits of empathy, deported more than five million people and escalated the use of drone strikes abroad. The families separated (temporarily or permanently) by those actions didn’t suffer any less because the president championed empathy.

If the 21st-century U.S. is to avoid being described in some future pop-psych book as a “society without empathy,” direct confrontation with the architects of injustice will be required. When Fox News anchors are minimizing the child separation policy by saying, “It’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas,” it’s time to stop tinkering with the right empathy technology to tweak the hearts and minds of Trump voters and time to start figuring out how to disrupt the machinery of active oppression.

Olivia Rosane has a master’s in art and politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. For her dissertation, she completed a multimedia imagining of communities surviving in a climate-changed London. She spent her 20s working and organizing at a bookstore and writing about drones and internet literature for The State. Her work has also appeared in the New InquiryYes! Magazine, and the Dissent blog.