There is a homeless woman I see sometimes when I take the train to work. She asks me for money so she can get something to eat. Most of the time, I say no. I rationalize it by thinking to myself that I don’t know what she will do with the money, and I would prefer to give my money to my church or other organizations that help social problems like homelessness on a larger scale.
But if I’m honest with myself, she also makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t have a place to live, or don’t have enough to eat. I feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, and I feel guilty because I have a good job and a nice apartment, and I don’t have to worry about those things.
Last weekend I was hanging out with some friends in Uptown, watching college football and relaxing. We ended the night by eating a couple large pizzas at Rocco’s. We had a few slices of pizza leftover, and I carried the leftovers in a pizza box as I walked back to my apartment.
Near my apartment, an SUV drove by, and the window rolled down. It was a big group of young people who looked pretty much like me, and the guy nearest to me said, “Hey, can you spare a slice?” Without thinking about it too much, I walked over to the car, and handed them the leftovers.
Here’s the question I struggled with as I thought about this the next day: What was different about the homeless lady at the train station and the 20-somethings in Uptown? In both scenarios, there was a need. In both scenarios, I had money/food to spare. But in one scenario, I helped, and in the other scenario, I said no.
My behavior didn’t really make sense. If anything, I think a strong argument could be made that I should do the opposite. The 20-somethings in Uptown didn’t need my leftover pizza. They were all dressed nicely and were driving an expensive SUV. They could buy their own pizza. The homeless woman, on the other hand, had a more legitimate need. So what’s the deal?
I think the difference in my behavior has to do with empathy. Empathy involves the ability to understand the experience of another human being. There are cognitive and affective components to empathy. The cognitive component involves being able to take the perspective of the other person. The affective component involves being able to share the feelings of the other person.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think I had more empathy for the 20-somethings in Uptown than the homeless woman at the train station.
But when I analyzed it a bit, it made sense. The 20-somethings in Uptown were more similar to me, so I had an easier time understanding their perspective. I could imagine myself being in their situation—going out and being hungry for a slice of pizza. I’ve never been homeless, and I’ve always had enough food to eat, so it’s more difficult for me to understand the perspective of the homeless woman at the train station.
I think there is a motivational component at play also. Engaging with the homeless woman makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty about my privilege. I don’t like feeling that way, so there is a part of me that moves away from even trying to empathize with her in order to avoid those uncomfortable feelings.
The take-home lesson for me is that it is easier to empathize with people who are more similar to me. But that’s not usually the people who need my help. If I want to make a difference in the world and serve those less fortunate than me, I need to actively move toward their experience and try to understand and empathize with them, even if it is uncomfortable.
Discussion: Do you find it easier to empathize with individuals who are more similar or more different from you? What have you found to be helpful when trying to empathize with others who are different from you?