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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Empathy vs. Blame

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 13th 2010

Empathy vs. BlameDo you empathize with the suffering of other people? Do you have compassion for those who are suffering? If I present two people to you, each of whom has the HIV infection and told you that "Person A" is homosexual and became infected as a result of homosexual activity, and "Person B" was infected as a result of a blood transfusion during surgery, which one would you empathize with: Person A, Person B, neither one, both of them?

Research shows that, to the extent to which we believe that someone is responsible for their problems, there is lots of blame and little empathy. The reverse is also true. So, for example, if w believe that addiction is a choice that then, there is little sympathy for that individual. In other words, the addict is to blame for his dilemma.

This is an important discussion because the ability to have compassion and to empathize with others is the basis of love, marriage and parenthood. Empathy allows parents to care about their children and want to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to grow up in. Empathy motivates us to care for the sick and elderly and to look in on neighbors if they are having a crisis. It enables us to comfort and care for a crying baby.

There are those without empathy and compassion. They are referred to as people with the personality disorder called "Sociopathic or Anti Social Personality Disorder." These are people who manipulate and exploit others with absolutely no sense of conscience or moral code what so ever.

Most probably, empathy is something that results from human genetics and from early experiences during infancy and childhood. There is evidence that there is an inbred tendency towards empathy that shows itself by the second year of life. However, like all things human, the likelihood that empathy will be felt and expressed also depends on being raised by parents who provide the opportunity for the child to become attached. Activities such as feeding, touching, holding, caressing and caring for the infant and child all allow the child to become attached to others.

On the other hand, all too often, blame is used to stigmatize others and to provide excuses to refuse help in face of suffering. Returning to the hypothetical case of "Person A," many of us become convinced that he is responsible for becoming infected with HIV and deserves what he gets. It's a variation of the theme, "You made your bed, now sleep in it."

The problem is that people do not fall into catastrophic situations by choice. No one chooses to be homosexual, or to become addicted or to develop lung cancer. It is easy to be judgmental and say that the person dying of lung cancer smoked and deserves to suffer.

Empathy is part of the glue that makes human relationships happen. We cannot survive without relating to others or without sometimes relying upon empathy from others when the going gets tough.

Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Blame vs Responsibility - Katie - Mar 26th 2013

Being concerned with fault is a huge societal problem. Focusing on blame leaves everyone judging, and no one coming up with solutions. However, the often overlooked side of the equation is that there is responsibility. Responsibility looks at the here and now, and not the past, and says, "Now what?" It doesn't matter if a person did something or not, either way, he is infected. If we spend all of our time arguing who's fault it is, the person will never get the help that they need. Instead, we must each ask ourselves who's responsibility it is to fix the problem. It is the responsibility of the man who got Aides to get himself the treatment he needs. It is the responsibility of the infected to pursue his own justice. It is my responsibility to show empathy, but not to solve his problems for him. 

I see this most often in children. The children who come into my classroom from homes focused on blame make the "culprit" take care of their own messes. They will go out of their way to make sure they are never the culprit. Somehow their papers end up in the trash and thier desks look neat, all the while, the rest of the garbage around them that cannot be identified as their own gets shoved onto everyone else's desks. If they are missing a crayon and someone has an extra, they'll steal it, accuse the other person of stealing it from them, and create havoc and hurt feelings. On the other hand, the children raised to focus on responsibility and not blame will clean up their desks, even if it's not their papers or crayon shavings or markers. They will put their stuff away and then help their neighbor. They will ask the person with the extra marker if they can have it because theirs is missing, relationships are spared, and no accusing has to take place. They understand that it doesn't matter how the mess got there, but that it is their responsiblity to clean it up. It doesn't matter how the other person got the marker that may or may not be theirs, but that it is their responsibility to be nice. Blame teaches "get the other person before they get you." Responsibility teaches "We are all in this together and I have a responsibility that gives me an identity and purpose."

Then We Blame No One - Cathy - Jul 14th 2010

Then we blame no one because no one is really responsible for what they are - it is either genetic, environment, etc.  Even if you cling to the belief that homosexuality is not a choice (I believe the behavior exhibited does involve "choice" - when you make choices, you choose the consequences), the irresponsible behavior connected to contracting HIV would still be a separate issue. And, the addictive behaviors - once again makes a choice of whether they wish to continue with the behavior or not (all the time exhibiting the behavioral traits of a sociopath) and thus, consequences or not.  Gosh, maybe it isn't that I am exhibiting sociopathic behavior but that I am just sick to death of no one taking responsibility for their actions - personally, I believe that those who never take responsbility for their actions are the ones that are sociopaths.  Wouldn't that fit?  They go against the rules that society has created, all the lying, cheating,  the impulsive and dangerous behavior and they see themselves as not being to blame, they have no guilt ..............I mean, really.  Well, I just can't help it as it is wrong to point the finger at people and tell them that they must have empathy for anyone for any reason or they are exhibiting sociopathic behavior.  Also, and I can't not say it, homosexuality was considered a mental illness in my early lifetime so is that why it is not considered to be a choice such as schizophrenia and other psychosis. (Allan feel free to edit out any thing that would offend but I at least wanted to pass my thoughts on to you.  I know I sort of start, well, world wars around here from time to time and that is not my intention, really and I don't think I am that far removed from the general population in my thought process.)

Catastrophic? - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Jul 14th 2010

Hello Salil,

Your comment is correct, homosexuality is not a choice. But, you seem to misunderstand the message of the article. There are those who insist that homosexuality is a choice and, therefore, if they get the HIV infection its their fault for choosing homosexuality. I do not agree with that reasoning. That's the point of the article. If you blame someone for something that happened to them, you do not have to have any empathy.

Dr. Schwartz

homosexuality is catastrophic? - Salil - Jul 14th 2010

I am surprised at this choice of words : 


The problem is that people do not fall into catastrophic situations by choice. No one chooses to be homosexual, or to become addicted or to develop lung cancer. 


I thought we have gone past that era where we consider homosexuality to be catastrophic.

empathy is for everyone - - Jul 13th 2010

As someone who is chronically depressed,lonely,and wanting a relationship,this sort of article is very very gloomy and leaves whatever optimism I may have had completely obliterated.But,I will comment anyway.Personally,I believe that both people are equally entitled to empathy.Someone who engages in reckless behavior,may do so as a result of deep-seated feelings of inadequacy,powerlessness or emptiness,or as a result of ignorance or misinformation.In any case,they still deserve empathy for their situation.Regardless of his mistakes and his sexual orientation,he is a human being entitled to the same empathy and support as someone who received accidental exposure.

Two Extremes - Middle Ground? - Cathy - Jul 13th 2010

OK, this is based on two extremes.  I only use two extremes when my argument is, well, no offense, weak.  There is a lot of middle ground here, a whole lot.  I am more than familiar with the anti-social personality (the less than better half) and have looked deeply at the development of empathy because my adult son who functions at the pre-school level doesn't have the empathy/compassion that he should and best I can tell is that it has to do with his functioning level so I have been making a bigger effort to teach him these values (and it helps now that he is home with me full-time) because nothing hurts so much as to slam a finger or drop something on your foot and have someone make fun of you the way he most often does.  Frankly, I don't like the example used - AIDS virus transmitted via haphazard sexual encounter versus life sustaining blood transfusion.  So, are we implying that because I would not feel equal compassion/empathy for the individuals that I am anti-social?  I definitely would see one as more responsible than the other unless, say the person unknowingly contracted AIDS because someone was in a committed relationship and the other person was cheating on the side.  I expect people to act responsibly so that their vises don't effect the innocent people especially the children.  And, this feels like an agenda being pushed on me.  I stand by the laws of God.  Note:  I have the highest respect for Allan and always enjoy his articles but can't always agree - two different worlds we have lived in I guess. 

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