Circles of Empathy: Why We Care About People To Different Degrees

circles of empathy

The truth is: you don’t care about everyone equally. This may seem like plain commonsense to some people – but to others, this can be a frightening and uncomfortable realization.

We often like to believe that we can exercise “universal love” or “universal empathy” toward everyone, without any discrimination or judgment or preference. Every human life is equally valuable to us, and there’s no reason to prefer any one person over any other.

While this sounds like a very nice and utopian view of humanity, it’s not very reflective of how our minds actually work in the real world.

You don’t care about everyone equally – you prefer some people over others. One of the most obvious examples of this is the fact that we often care more about the well-being of our family and friends over that of a completely random stranger.

And if push comes to shove – and you have to choose between saving the life of a family members vs. the life of a random stranger – you’re going to show a clear preference toward your family member. This is natural, right?

And we wouldn’t blame anyone for having that preference, right? Even though that preference is ultimately subjective, and not based on any objective analysis, it is a natural preference. And we don’t fault people for caring more about some people over others in this context.

In this article, I want to lay out a concept called “circles of empathy.” The basic idea is that we do care about some people over others, and there’s nothing wrong with having this preference, as it is completely natural.

Circles of empathy

Here is a rough illustration of how our “circles of empathy” work.

It begins with love for yourself, your family, and your friends, and then extends to bigger groups of people like your neighbors, your coworkers, your community, and your nation:

circles of empathy

Naturally you can empathize with anyone if given the chance. Anyone can theoretically become a friend.

Of course it helps if you have met the person. Or at the very least, you can attach an identity to them like a name or a face. Psychologists sometimes call this the “identifiable victim effect.”

Basically, it’s far easier to empathize with people who we can personally identify (with at least a name or a face), rather than if they are some abstraction (like a number or a statistic).

Think about it this way: When you hear about 100 strangers dying from some other part of the world vs. 1000 strangers dying, your empathetic response doesn’t usually become 10x more intense, even though there are 10x as many deaths.

This is one limitation of empathy. Once you start thinking about large groups of people, you’re thinking about something abstract and numerical, not something you can empathize with on any real personal level.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t care about random people suffering or that you can’t take active measures to help those people. However, it does show us that there are real limitations in your ability to care and empathize with everyone to an equal degree.

Caring about your small corner of the world

Our lives aren’t usually defined by people we’ve never met from parts of the world we’ve never been to. Our lives are defined by the people that are right in front of us on a daily basis.

Our family, our friends, our local community – these are areas in life where our empathy is often strongest, and these are the people whom we tend to care the most about.

We may not often think about it this way, but empathy is a resource. And caring about other people is a resource. And like all resources, you need to choose who you invest it in. And that requires discretion.

When you care about a person in any meaningful way, that takes up physical and mental energy – time, effort, planning, emotional investment, money, etc. And you probably don’t have an infinite amount of these things to give to the world.

People sometimes fall for the existential trap that they want to “save the world,” but they inevitably realize they can’t, and that makes them very depressed and frustrated with everything.

But you don’t have to “save the world” to be a good person and do good things for others. When you understand your “circles of empathy,” it gives you permission to focus on your small corner of the world, and not feel obligated to save everyone or die trying.

You actually have more power to change the world within your small sphere of influence rather than trying to change things which you have much more limited control and understanding of.

Altruism toward strangers

Before you take this article as an argument against being altruistic toward complete strangers, let me clarify a couple things.

First, our “circles of empathy” teaches us that people tend to care more about some people over others (for natural reasons, they are usually people who are a part of your daily life). So you shouldn’t feel bad for having this natural preference, everyone does to some degree.

Second, because it’s easier to empathize with people who you know personally, this is often a better use of your “empathy” and “caring” resources rather than people who you barely know anything about.

Keep in mind, many people don’t have opportunities to be very altruistic toward strangers. They are too busy trying to take care of themselves and the people around them. That is perfectly reasonable for many people, and there’s nothing to feel guilty about there.

However, if you find yourself in a fortunate position where you can dedicate resources toward being altruistic toward strangers, you should look into the concept of effective altruism.

“Effective altruism” is a social movement associated with the ethicist Peter Singer. It tries to apply evidence and reason toward altruistic endeavors, rather than relying solely on feelings and empathy.

One common application of “effective altruism” is to do a lot of research into the organizations you donate your time and money toward. Make sure that these charities are actually reaching the people in need and coming up with solutions.

It’s far-too-common these days to see charities and organizations that end up misusing resources or even pocketing it for themselves.

In the spirit of altruism, it can be tempting to donate a little money toward every charity you come across. A few dollars here, a few dollars there can make you “feel good” about yourself and believe you are contributing and making a difference.

But if you are giving away time and money without proper discretion, and without doing research, you might be wasting a lot of your own time and money that could be spent in more effective ways.

Altruism toward strangers is good, but within reason and using proper discretion.

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