The Long Battle of Cruelty and Empathy

Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) (1893) by Eero Järnefelt (1863–1937) for Cruelty blog post

What is cruelty? To be the target of cruelty—whether by a troll on social media trying to intimidate you, by a friend or family member who strikes out in anger, or as a victim of political violence—is to be trapped in a world where innocence is betrayed.

In a world reeling from violent confrontations and the horrific behaviors they precipitate, it seems not only wise but necessary to take a deep dive into the nature of cruelty. Acts of cruelty have been rationalized for the sake of family, tribe, religion, country, and empire since the beginning of humankind. Gruesome depictions of child abandonment, mutilation, starvation, and even murder fill our early folk and fairytales. Ancient legends and bible stories of pillage and revenge remind us of the brutality latent in our species. Aggression in humans is multifactorial, an adaptive survival mechanism with social and biological roots.

A favored definition of cruelty was put forth by psychologist Victor Nell in a 2006 article for Brain and Behavioral Sciences. “Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on other living creatures, sometimes indifferently, but often with delight.”[1] Nell hypothesized that cruel behavior evolved millions of years ago in early hominids out of predation, the killing and consumption of one living creature by another. Modern examples of cruelty are products of adaptations from our ancestors and have helped us establish social control as urban dwellers. In Nell’s view, the public spectacles of cruel punishments acted as deterrents to criminal behavior.

Cruelty, Nell maintains, exists only in humans and not non-human creatures. A cat “playing with” a live mouse cannot be said to be “enjoying” the suffering of that mouse. As far as we know, cats cannot imagine the consciousness of another creature, whereas some studies suggest the suffering of others pleasurably and sexually arouses humans engaged in the torture of other humans.[2] Cruelty can have a psychologically rewarding effect.

Bohumil Stibor. Soubor dřevorytů z koncentračního tábora. [Portfolio of Woodcuts from a Concentration Camp] (V Pelhřimově, 1946) for Cruelty blog post How does empathy or the lack of empathy impact the capacity for cruelty? Empathy is the ability to feel what another is feeling. Do persons who commit acts of cruelty derive their “enjoyment” from their empathy with their victims? Or do they have damaged brain circuitry that limits or nullifies their capacity for empathy? If one definition of cruelty includes the positive or pleasurable feedback the perpetrator receives from harming another or in watching the other harmed, then that person clearly can feel what the recipient is feeling. That person does not have a damaged capacity for empathy, just a warped response to what they do feel. Contrary to popular belief, disruption in our wiring for empathy is not the primary cause of cruelty. Empathy, we often forget, is not necessarily bonded to compassion, defined by emotion researchers as “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help.”[3]

Neuroimaging suggests that individuals who consistently exhibit violent aggressive behavior, including children who harm animals, show decreased activity in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain responsible for executive functions like impulse control. Those who display reactive emotional and physical violence (someone hits you, you hit back) have a different neurological profile in brain scans than the small substrata of individuals with psychopathic personalities characterized by callous unemotional traits. Psychopaths do have damaged empathy circuits but account for only a fraction of the cruelty on the world stage.[4]

Is cruelty a learned behavior taught by a culture and reinforced by its societal norms? Would most of us commit acts of cruelty under dire, life-threatening circumstances? Cruelty erupts when individuals or societies are unable to contain their anger, frustration, and desperation. Feelings are contagious and mass hysteria metabolizes ordinary citizens into frenzied action. Research psychologist Jeff Greenberg from the University of Arizona developed the Terror Management Theory to explain this phenomenon. TMT posits that as hominids became aware of their own mortality, they adopted a cultural worldview in the form of a religion or a communal morality. When this worldview is threatened by another group, that’s when cruelty and violence emerge.[5]

We are all too familiar with the process of dehumanization, the assignment of non-human status to other humans. In his book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, the philosopher David Livingstone Smith writes that acts of genocide can occur when the despised group is considered less than human. We can see so many examples of this: the dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, the methodical extermination of Jews and other so-called “undesirables” in Nazi Germany, the mass slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic minority during the Rwandan civil war, the Armenian genocide or the massacre and displacement of Native peoples by white settlers in North America. Each of these demonstrates how one group has rationalized violence to justify the domination of another group and inflict culturally sanctioned violence for so-called moral or societal purposes, like honor killings and revenge. The labeling of marginalized and ostracized groups further dissociates them in the eyes of the dominant culture. Call a group of people “bloodsuckers,” “vampires,” and “parasites,” as Hitler labeled the Jews in Mein Kampf, and somehow ordinary citizens are able to accede to their mass extermination.

Are we as a species doomed to relive and recycle the violence and hurts of the past? Can we enlist the vast powers of our imagination to envision a new world? Sociologist Gareth Higgins recently said: “If you want a better world, tell a better story.”[6] Can we learn to balance our biologically determined aggressive instincts with our capacity to love and care for each other and the earth? It’s worth encouraging.

[1] Nell, Victor. “Cruelty’s rewards: The gratification of perpetrators and spectators,” Behavior and Brain Sciences, 09 August 2006

[2] Longpre, N., Guay, J. P.’ Knight, R. A. “MTC Sadism Scale: toward dimensional assessment of severe sexual sadism,” Assessment (ASM) 26 (2019)

[3] Goetz, J.L., Keitner, D., Simon-Thomas, E. “Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical ReviewPsychology Bulletin May 2010

[4] Viding, Essi, “Explaining the Lack of Empathy” from Psychopathy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2019)

[5] Greenberg, J., Arndt, J. “Terror Management Theory” in Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume 1, Sage Publications (2012)

[6] Higgins, Gareth, “Revolution Stories” on Learning How to See with Brian McLaren podcast, October 20, 2023

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Transforming Empathy into Compassion: Why It Matters,” “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination,” and “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.

Transforming Empathy Into Compassion: Why It Matters

Compassion. Holding Hands. for Empathy blog post


On a recent nightly news, I witnessed the tragic scene of a Turkish father wailing over the bodies of his wife and young children who had been crushed under debris from the February earthquake. Tears flooded my eyes and my body bent into the posture of mourning; the emotional distress of a stranger a continent away had become my own. Was this an automatic empathic response, an act of mimicry or emotional contagion? How do these affective states differ?

In “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm define mimicry as “the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person.”[i] If I see you crying, I cry, but my response is automatic and not the result of my ability to feel what you are feeling. In one study, when participants were shown photographs of sad faces, their pupil size mimicked the pupil size of the people in the photographs they were shown.[ii] This provides evidence that mimicry occurs outside our awareness.

Emotional contagion, like mimicry, is related to empathy and is sometimes thought of as a primitive type of empathy in which one person “catches” another person’s emotions. The word “catches” reflects the infectious quality of the phenomena. For instance, before they have developed any sense of an individual self, babies cry when exposed to other crying babies. Anyone who has attended a tense football game or soccer match can feel emotional contagion at work in the crowd.

Emotional contagion can occur at political rallies, in combat zones, in mass protests and revolutions, at public killings, or in ecstatic religious rites. Within families, emotional contagion can set the tenor of a household. A sensitive child may absorb a mother’s non-verbally expressed depression or a father’s pent-up anger and feel it as their own.

A personal experience comes to mind: when my sister was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, I had difficulty separating her family’s panic from my own unexamined feelings and was swept up in the family trauma. At that moment, my feelings were undifferentiated from the family’s. The ability to be attuned to the inner lives of others is a great asset for me as a novelist who delves deeply into her characters’ unconscious fears and desires; but my characters’ problems stay on the page, not in my heart.

An undifferentiated self is unable to identify, protect and separate their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions from those of others. Differentiation requires self-awareness and the ability to know one’s internal world and express it to others without fear. While it’s important to be aware of the emotional state of others, internalizing their distress can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate helpful action based on altruistic love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, current social neuroscience research points to gender differences for men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries. In no country did men score better on “cognitive empathy.”[iii] Cognitive empathy is when someone is intellectually able to understand what someone else is feeling or thinking. Researchers distinguish this from affective or emotional empathy when someone feels another’s emotions and responds with an emotion.  In this test, participants were asked to guess the facial expression just by looking at a pair of eyes. You can take a version of  this ten-minute test here.

Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and is foundational to our existence as social creatures. Without empathy, we would be unable to perceive the suffering of others and take steps to alleviate it. Without empathy, we would feel lost and alone in a cold and indifferent universe.

As Lamm and Singer take pains to note, “Empathy crucially depends upon self-awareness and self/other distinction, that is, on our ability to distinguish between whether the source of our affective experience lies within ourselves or was triggered by the other.”

Mimicry or emotional contagion usually precede empathy which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may lead to prosocial behavior.

But empathy burn-out is also a fact of life, especially for those engaged in caregiving services. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of happiness, compassion, and empathy. Functional MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson has drawn from his research: while the ability to feel our common humanity is essential to a cohesive, caring world, empathy without the skill of compassion diminishes our capacity to be of help.

Compassion is other-centered (feeling for); empathy brings us back to a focus on our own suffering in response to the suffering of others (feeling with). During the height of the COVID pandemic, we saw medical personnel and other front-line workers expressing mental and physical exhaustion, what popular science calls “empathy fatigue.” This is not limited to the helping professions but can occur within families and groups where difficulties may abound.

As Richard Davidson writes, “When people experience raw empathy, regions of the brain associated with pain and negative emotions become more active rather than the brain regions associated with positive feelings and a capacity to view things from another’s perspective. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.”[iv]

To cultivate compassionate regions of the brain, Davidson suggests noticing what small gestures we can undertake when someone needs help—offering to carry a heavy grocery bag for an elderly person or aiding someone in crossing a busy street. Infinite possibilities exist for enacting daily random acts of kindness. Dr. Davidson and other spiritual teachers offer guided meditations on fortifying the neural networks for compassion. Big changes are not necessary to alter our attitude and understanding of how individuals can contribute more fully to a more compassionate world.

[i] Singer T, Lamm C. The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 81-96

[ii] Harrison, N. A., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., et al. (2006). Pupillary contagion: Central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing. Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci., 1, 5–17.

[iii] Greenberg, David M. Sex and age differences in “theory of mind” across 57 countries using the English version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, PNAS,  September, 2022

[iv] Davidson, Richard “Shift from Empathy to Compassion,” Healthy Minds Innovations, December 8, 2020

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?” and “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination”.

How I write; love and forgiveness

frostwritingdeskI began to write and publish poetry in my thirties. Soon, the word went out among my family members—Dale’s a poet!—something Robert Frost advised against calling oneself, claiming it to be a rather self-indulgent title. But to my family a poet I was, certified (by an MFA) and published.

My first writing assignment might have been my sister’s second marriage for which I was asked to write a poem. The sorts of poems written for weddings, birthdays, retirements, funerals are referred to as “occasional poems,” that is, composed for specific occasions. My sister requested I write a poem, and a poem I did write, though I cannot now recall a single line, nor how I felt composing it. The poem must have passed the mustard since I’m sure I would have remembered any negative comments, as these seem to have a longer shelf-life than praise. Fast-forward a few decades: the poem and my sister’s second marriage have both vaporized.

The next occasions I must have written poems for were birthdays, my Aunt Ann’s retirement, and maybe a Mother’s Day or two. I disliked having to create on demand but understood how much it meant to others to be the focus of an original piece of writing dedicated solely to them. And so I obliged. My father’s funeral is a blur. He died instantly in a car crash while I was camping with my family at a remote site above Lake Superior accessible only by canoe. The outfitters paddled out to find us, and we made it back in time for the funeral, but my poet-mind seemed gone for good. Of course a year later I was writing poems about my father, poems filled with memories and questions about who he was to me and who he was to himself, poems I couldn’t have written while he was alive.

Wordsworth portrait by Richard Caruthers 1817Which is to say I’m in complete accordance with Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’ve never been a writer who cozies up to writing on command. I do know plenty of writers who swear by writing assignments—Wake up at 6 AM for a week and write a poem before you get out of bed—and others who like to goof around with exercises at the back of writing books. And while I certainly see the merit in this and wish I had the inclination, alas, this way of writing is not for me.

But why not, I wonder? Here’s my guess: to generate my enthusiasm, I need to be empathically connected to the material. Empathy and not just interest means I need my heart and my mind engaged. The mind lines things up, makes a list, gets bossy. The heart insists on value. “Hey, why do you care about this stuff anyway? What’s it mean to you?” The mind and heart are a bit like a comedy duo, the mind played by Stan Laurel, the sourpuss realist, arms crossed over his chest, taking account. Sweet, dumb Oliver Hardy’s stan-laurel-oliver-hardy-1the heart—that fool, that big buffoon, ever-loving and always trying to connect.

I’m kidding, of course, stretching the truth (and metaphor) beyond its ken. But let me come back to my original subject—writing on assignment. Sometimes an assignment comes along that provokes heart and mind, and that’s exactly what happened when Justin St. Vincent asked me to write a piece for his terrific eBook,  Love, Live, Forgive.  Justin had gotten my name from The Fetzer Institute, where I had participated in a writer’s retreat on Love and Forgiveness.

justin st vincent author_photo_2014I knew Justin’s assignment was one I could accept with pleasure. I wrote about compassion and healing. My offering includes lines like “Every piece of art is a statement about the human condition, every effort to create, a reflection of our tender, brutal, poignant selves.” And what I’ve discovered reading the other entries is that I am no rare bird in the art world in exploring love and forgiveness and compassion as themes. I’ve been hugely intrigued and inspired by what I’ve read by the other writers, musicians, and visual artists. Their words are insightful, surprising, original, pithy, humorous, wise and absolutely worth reading. There’s a sampling below. Hope you’ll download this free book and dip in soon.

nicol_ragland_bio_picFrom photographer and filmmaker Nicol Ragland:

“My most recent fine art series, ‘Between Two Worlds,’ is meant to subvert separatist thinking by reflecting back the destruction of life amongst the speed of our industrialized society. . . . We live in a culture that perpetuates turning a blind eye away from our fear, our grief, and destruction while in that same place is a tremendous amount of resolution, love, and truth.”

From DJ, producer and photographer Moby:

“To me, the opposite of love isn’t necessarily hate. The opposite of love is judgment, and the opposite of forgiveness is bitterness and resentment.”

Rakha_NaseemFrom author, speaker and storyteller Naseem Rakha, a friend from the Fetzer Institute:

“For me, there is no creative life or noncreative life. There is just life, and each day I create what I can of it.”

From poet Demi Amparan:

“If we can relate to a person’s perspective and differences, it’s then hopefully possible for us to begin the process of love and forgiveness.”