Why Empathy without Emotional Intelligence is Dangerous

Soft skills are the new black. We read about their importance to our careers every day.

Especially Empathy. Empathy can make you a better leader and a happier person.

While empathy is undoubtedly an important skill, it can be tricky when it's an isolated skill of a person with an otherwise low EQ.

Keep two types of extremes in mind while reading on:

  • The compassionate person - understanding someones emotions and motives (empathy) turns into compassion and sympathy every time
  • The manipulative one - the knowledge about someone is gained and exploited for personal advantages

How do we understand others?

To talk about potential dangers of empathy as an isolated skill, we should first look at how we understand others.

Huge thanks to the wonderful Rebecca Saxe and her Saxelab. Rebecca is a pioneer in the new field of cognitive neuroscience and a lot of our knowledge about how we make moral judgments and think about others is owed to her work.

One finding of her important and widespread work is that we have a brain region that is only used for considering what others might be thinking. It's not used for any other cognitive task.

In a conversation, we listen to someone's words; we study their mimic, body language, changes in their voice. And we think about what they might think and feel. We assess and evaluate information through our belief system. We might try to consider which beliefs our conversation partner has and take that into account.

Bias and moral judgments

Here is an example used in philosophy a lot:

You are in a situation where you have to decide in an instant of a second. A train is about to collide with a group of 5 people.


You can do nothing or you can redirect the train. If you redirect it, only one person will die (there's someone standing on the tracks.)

What will you do?

Most people state they would redirect the train and sacrifice one life to save five others.

And most people agree that it's ok to sacrifice one life.


The same scenario. You can save five lives by sacrificing one. Only this time you have to push the person on the tracks.

Will you push him?

Most people think it's not ok to push the person in front of the train.

What's the difference? The intent.

In the first scenario, a person will lose their life because of a decision you made. But you did not intend to kill them.

Q3 (my addition)

We're still looking at the same scenario. You can save a group of five people.

All you have to do is redirect the train.

This time you know a lot about the person you have to sacrifice. His name is John, he has brown hair, gray eyes and a his wife just gave birth to a beautiful daughter. John took on a second job to pay the mortgage for the house.

You've seen a picture of John and his family. He's smiling and they look so happy. You feel he looks very likable and could be someone you would enjoy to hang out with. The whole family is adorable!

Will you sacrifice John and leave his wife alone with a newborn kid?

What's the point?

We make partly emotional decisions and we are biased.

In 2009, Rebecca Saxe shared in a TEDx talk about a similar experiment with sugar/poison and how people judge someone differently based on their intention more than the action.

Two scenarios from the sugar experiment: 

a) someone accidentally poisoned someone (not knowing it wasn't sugar but poison)

b) someone thought he would give someone poison but didn't kill him because it was sugar

The intent makes all of a difference, doesn't it? Or what we believe it to be.

When Empathy can be problematic

It's easy to manipulate us

As we established, your opinion about someone depends on several factors, including his intent. Someone able to fool you about his intentions or sense your weak spot (what makes you angry, what makes you take action, what do you fear) can manipulate you.

Empathy can exhaust

If you are someone who feels compassion and sympathy for everyone who has problems, you might be worn out before your workday is over. Maybe this hurts your personal relationships. Psychiatrist Wulsin Lawson concluded that depression is prevalent in certain industries - those where people interact with others a lot (for instance, care professions.)

A partner might not be open to listening to more problems in his private life, be impatient with his kids, or a boss might overburden someone because he feels compassionate with someone else.

Empathy can be exclusive

It's easiest for us to understand people similar to us. The more factors are different, the harder it becomes for us to understand them.

If someone is from a different culture, religion and has different habits and beliefs, it's more difficult for us to understand how he feels and what motivates him.

That can lead to the formation of exclusive groups.

It could be teams within an organization that make it hard for "outsiders" to get in. Groups could even react hostile towards people who do not belong to the group.

People are also more open to doing "bad" things to protect someone they feel for. We are more willing to lie or cheat if we believe we can help someone in need (or from our group) with our actions.

Emotional Intelligence is a set of skills/traits

The set of skills of a person with a high EQ is what makes all of the difference.

If I'd had to put the most important advantage in one sentence:

Emotional intelligence allows us to be in control of our actions and reactions at all times. It allows us to get as close to making rational decisions as humanly possible.

Aurorasa Sima

What I mean by that:

"Control" has a negative connotation. Unfairly so. Being in control of your emotions does not mean you don't have any.

It just means that you understand their source, how they influence your decision making and that you can at all times route thoughts to your creative brain (Neocortex.)

Pain changes the brain

Whenever an impulse is directed to the reptilian brain, you do not have the chance the make an intellectual decision. You react (fight or flight.)

Think of this: You're riding your car on the highway. A fly hits the windscreen. You blink. Why did you blink? You know the fly cannot hit you through the windscreen.

You know that if you think about it. But there is a neural pathway in your brain that directs anything that looks faintly like a hurtful past experience (something did hit your eye) to the reptilian brain. You don't get the chance to decide how you want to react.

It's not much of a problem if you blink one time too much.

But the same principle that applies to physical pain applies to emotional pain.

We all experienced pain.

Whether you're a board member who became obsolete after an M&A or your first love left you.

Whether you've been sacked, or you had to sack someone. Our brain does not care about your career or which car you drive. Not even if you're married to your soulmate.

All your brain cares about is your survival.

If something hurts you, the brain will form a neural pathway to the reptilian brain to protect you and route anything faintly SIMILAR (not identical!) there.

Consequences lead from

  • reacting inappropriately (Why did I say that? I didn't mean it...) over
  • creating self-fulfilling prophecies (by subconsciously reacting as if the old situation would repeat) to
  • repeating the same negative experience over and over again

Empathy is an important social skill...

if it is paired with other skills, for instance, self-awareness, self-management, communication skills...

  • Empathy without a high level of self-awareness can lead to irrational decisions or leave you vulnerable to manipulation.
  • Knowing how someone feels and what his agenda is by itself does not enable you to influence/persuade a person.
  • Rational decisions are only possible if we remove neural pathways to the lizard brain that do not serve us and replace them with new ones.
  • People with a high EQ are hard to manipulate.

I would recommend a stand-alone empathy training for someone who already has a high EQ or only wants to understand what makes other people tick.

Emotional intelligence training is brain training. Should you have attended emotional intelligence courses or read books and did not achieve the desired results, it was because you gained knowledge but could not implement it.

It takes about 9 weeks to change your brain.

And that's good, in a way. If you'd be able to strip your brain of survival instincts just like that, you'd be eaten by a bear and could not read this article.

Also, you could not make a conscious rational decision about if you want to attend my emotional intelligence training.


Saxe, Rebecca: The right temporo-parietal junction: a specific brain region for thinking about thoughts

Eric Brunet, Yves Sarfati, Marie-Christine Hardy-Bayle´, and Jean Decety: A PET investigation of the attribution of intentions with a nonverbal task

Wulsin Lawson: Prevalence rates for depression by industry: a claims database analysis

 Wikipedia: ToM (Theory of Mind)