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Book Review: The Dark Sides of Empathy by Fritz Breithaupt

Book Cover of The Dark Side of Empathy by Fritz Breithaupt

This book, for sure challenges a lot of common assumptions around Empathy and what pushes some of Human Behaviors. First thing first, this book is not against Empathy. The title is probably a bit “sensationalist” and written to drive curiosity. The author is clear from the introduction of the book that he wants to ensure that we understand why people also do “negative” things because of Empathy. Thus simply disconnecting the concept of Empathy linked to moral standards.

Empathy makes us human and it would be naive to imagine we should just get rid of empathy, even if we could.

Fritz Breithaupt, The Dark Sides of Empathy.

A big part of the book is focused on some questions linked to the darkest sides of human history, where the author interrogates himself how it was possible that millions of people did not “empathize” with the victims of the Holocaust (just as an example). “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 behaviour in relationships, like helicopter parenting.

Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy

Fritz Breithaupt, The Dark Sides of Empathy.

The underlying assumption of this book is that very often Empathy does more good to the empathizer than to the subject of Empathy. Usually this is not a problem, but sometimes this can become so if we face what Breithaupt define “Vampirisitc Empathy”. An example is the already mentioned helicopter parenting: “In a sense, extreme helicopter parents are robbing their kids of a selfhood so that they can basically project their own self into these kids.”.

There has been some sharp criticism of this book, primarily focused on the multifaceted definition of Empathy itself. Elizabeth A. Segal, for example, states that “There’s no dark side for Empathy, just people with dark sides“. I think it’s often down to the question of definitions. For example, we can argue that what Breithaup describes is not genuine Mature Empathy, and I’d tend to agree. 

I found the book of Breithaupt useful, especially in the context of a business relationship. For example, it can help explain the “Hero” behaviour that some people at work tend to display. Are they caring for others because they want to help others, or for their personal satisfaction? Sometimes we don’t care, as long as the results are positive for both people in the relationship. But we all know that heroes at work can take a pretty negative turn

In a moment where Empathy is being characterized as a critical skill for the Future of Work, I think that this awareness can be essential to do a check simply, and especially make sure we examine all behaviours that only seem altruistic but are not.

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I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. Over the years I have worked on many projects in different HR domains, gaining a deep understanding of all key HR processes, from Talent Management to Recruiting, from Organizational Design to Leadership Development, from HR Transformation to HR & Payroll Systems implementation at International level. Working with Fashion Brands, leading retailer as well as, through consulting, international brands in industries like Banking, Manufacturing, Professional Services at both Headquarter and local level. Last but not least I consider myself an eclectic and creative personality, with many interests ranging from technology to arts and poetry.

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