A bench on Fifth Avenue in New York. (CREDIT: George Etheredge/The New York Times)

In my mind one of the defining elements of being human is the ability to care about others — not merely to say that we care, but to truly experience that caring, to have empathy.

We have the capacity to feel the emotions others experience as if those emotions were our own. We feel our children’s joy when they first ride a bike or score a soccer goal, but we also cry when someone else is suffering a loss, and rejoice at one’s good fortune. And we can experience these things even if the other person is just an acquaintance or even a complete stranger.

When we stop to think about empathy, it is very clear that it is an amazing superpower. It allows us to transport ourselves into the mind of another person and view and feel life from their perspective. Of course, we can’t completely step into that other person’s shoes, but we can get close. Even more impressive is that sometimes when we watch a movie or read a book, we get to feel the joy and pain of fictional characters as if they were real.

National Park in Amboseli, Kenya. (CREDIT: Ryan Christopher Jones/The New York Times)

What kind of a dictator would you be?

When discussing our ability to care about others, economists use a more objective-sounding term, “social utility,” as a way to measure and understand it. Here is an example of the way we try to measure social utility, using an experimental setup called the “dictator game.”

In a generic version of the dictator game, we pick two people to participate. The players don’t know each other and are never to learn the other’s identity. One is assigned to be Player A (without telling the participants, we call this role “the dictator”), and the other player is assigned to be Player B (“the recipient”). We give the dictator a sum of money; let’s say $100. We then ask the dictator to allocate the money between himself and Player B. Any allocation is acceptable. The dictator can keep all the money and give the recipient nothing. He can keep $50 and give away the other half. The dictator can also keep nothing and give all the money to the recipient.

Once the dictator has made his decision, the money is split between the two players and the game is over. This might not seem like a very exciting game, but we can learn a lot from it. This game is designed to help us figure out if we are completely selfish (we keep all the money) or if we care about other people, and to measure to what degree we care based on how much money the dictator shares with the recipient.

The airport in Lamu, Kenya. (CREDIT: Ryan Christopher Jones/The New York Times)

How caring are we?

In general, when this type of experiment is conducted across countries, genders and ages, most dictators give some money to the recipients. As one might expect, most dictators appear to care more about themselves than the recipients, and as a consequence typically give away 20-30 percent of the money. But they do care!

In other versions of this basic experiment, dictators share more after they meet the recipient in person, or when the recipient belongs to their social group, or when the recipient demonstrates real need, or when they expect to meet and interact with the recipient again in the future. But the point is that we have a capacity for caring about others — and we take actions to follow up on this caring, even at a cost to ourselves.

A man on the Hippo Dhow, a Mozambique boat, on the water in Lamu, Kenya.
(CREDIT: Ryan Christopher Jones/The New York Times)

The dark side of caring

Because our ability to care shows up when we are exposed to suffering, and because we have an instinct to try and avoid pain, we are often tempted to evade the very thing that makes us human: caring.

As long as the people around us feel positive emotions, we join their emotional party, and we get happier as a consequence. But, what about when someone else is suffering? Here, too, we have the capacity to share in the feeling, but now we experience negative emotions and sadness. In fact, it can sometimes be agonizing.

And this is when our innate empathy drives us to escape, in order to avoid those feelings and impede our humanity. How does this happen? We pass a panhandler on the street. We know that if we make eye contact we will feel compassion.

We will experience some of his despair and be moved to give something. So what do we do? We work hard to look the other way.

We focus intently on the buildings on the other side of the street or the array of cars down the road, hoping to keep our humanity, the part of us that cares, dormant.

And the larger question is: Which version of humanity will we, individually and collectively, choose? Will we open our eyes to the pain of others, and with it feel the need to do something to help? Or will we just get better at looking away?

Dan Ariely is an author and the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.