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How Empathy Promotes Trust

23 October 2017

In the aftermath of the Dallas shootings on July 7, 2016, Hillary Clinton said: “We need to try as best we can to walk in one another’s shoes, to imagine what it would feel like if people followed us around stores or locked their car doors when we walked past.” Clinton was calling for a familiar form of emotionally-charged imaginative perspective taking commonly known as empathy. In the ongoing public debates about oppression and privilege, one common refrain is that empathy is conspicuously and dangerously missing from the outlook of the powerful and well-off. 


Another thing that seems to be in troublingly short supply is trust in the testimony of people who are in some respects oppressed, subjugated, discriminated against, or otherwise systematically disadvantaged. By testimony, I don’t just mean the kind of declaration one gives in a court: you testify whenever you invite other people to take your word for it that something or other is true. When people who are oppressed in some way testify that an attitude or behavior is offensive or threatening, it is often very important for their addressees to trust what they are saying, to believe them on the basis of their word.


Is it just a coincidence that a lack of empathy seems to coincide with a lack of trust in testimony? What exactly is the relationship between empathy and trust in testimony? The full answer to that latter question is complicated. Today, I’ll argue that empathy functions as a particularly powerful tool for supporting trust in testimony. This is only half of the story. There is reason to think that in some situations, reliance on empathy will inhibit the extension of testimonial trust, but that is a topic for another day.


To trust someone’s testimony, one has to believe both that the testifier is honest and that she is competent– that she is able to distinguish the offensive from the funny, the threatening from the innocuous. If we have every reason to believe that a person is speaking honestly when she testifies about some circumstance, but we doubt that she is sufficiently skilled at recognizing and responding to evidence, then we cannot take her word for it when she testifies about how things are. Empathy supports trust in testimony because it can provide a basis for the attribution of competence needed for trust in testimony. How so? To answer that question, we need to say a bit more about what empathy is.


When one empathizes, one considers the other’s situation as though one were occupying the other’s position. When efforts to empathize succeed, one secures an acquaintance with another’s view of the world from the inside, as it were. One feels the imaginative analog of the other’s emotional experience of her situation. So, to take an example, suppose an acquaintance tells me that her colleagues’ admiration of her “beautiful accent” is irritating, and I regard her testimony as honest. I then do the work of empathizing. I try to see if I can get into her way of seeing things, of emotionally registering the facts about her situation in the same way that she does. If I succeed, then the admiration will also look irritating to me.


Now, there is of course a difference between having something look irritating to you and actually judging all things considered that the thing is irritating. But here, two observations are important. First, I can’t simultaneously experience something as irritating (or exciting, or awful) and think that my reaction is totally unintelligible, that there is nothing to be said for it. And second, we tend to place a great deal of stock in the way things look to us. Most of the time, we are willing to go along with our emotional presentations of the world’s qualities, to treat them as perfectly correct.

So, when I imaginatively experience the admiration as irritating (via empathy), it will be very difficult if not impossible for me to wholeheartedly believe that my irritation is entirely uncalled for, and I will naturally be inclined to think that I am totally right about the nature of the colleagues’ compliments.


Because I know that my acquaintance’s actual emotional experience of her situation matches my empathetic experience of her situation, when I empathize with my acquaintance I will be practically bound to conclude that there is something right in my acquaintance’s judgment, and I may also be inclined to conclude that her judgment is wholly correct. These conclusions about her judgment, taken separately or together, provide a reason to believe that my acquaintance is appropriately sensitive to irritating phenomena. And, since appropriate sensitivity to the way things are is part of being competent, I thereby secure a reason to attribute epistemic competence to my acquaintance. As we’ve seen, the attribution of competence constitutes one of testimonial trust’s enabling conditions. So, my empathetic effort will furnish a basis for trust in my acquaintance’s testimony.


Empathy has the power to dramatically reshape one’s willingness to trust in others’ testimony. Suppose my acquaintance’s testimony about the irritating nature of colleagues’ remarks takes me by surprise. It doesn’t fit with my general understanding of what kind of things are irritating, and what kinds of things are nice. The colleagues are highlighting one of my acquaintance’s positive traits, and their compliments seem to come from a place of goodwill. Being genuinely admired for a positive trait is usually a good thing. In this case, it would be natural for me to initially suspect that my acquaintance is just touchy, and the thought of her as touchy will incline me to discount all of her testimony about what is troublesome or offensive. But if I take the time to imaginatively place myself in her position, and find that I feel the stirrings of annoyance in myself, matters will look very different. Her irritation will no longer look unaccountable. The possibility of dismissing her testimony as the erroneous upshot of an excessively querulous outlook will recede from view. And next time she mentions that some apparently benign treatment actually isn’t, I will be more inclined to take her word seriously.


Image: Trust by Aditi Basu from Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)