Despite the apparent advantages of accurate empathy (e.g., in clinical settings), are there advatages to an indeterminate or less than perfect empathy for pain?

– In ‘less than perfect’ empathy for pain, intellectual and emotional demands would be diminished and intense personal distress of the observer is less likely. Emergency or burn units can be extremely stressing for health care professionals. Observers have a considerable need to know what is happening to others in pain, but they need not suffer unduly (Craig, 2009).

The indeterminacy of empathy for pain is due to complex social and psychological reactions and the complex nature of human beings: the concept of pain facial expression must be flexible and elastic because human expression, and our reaction to it, is diverse and unpredictable.

Typical observers find it easier to describe a person as ‘in pain’ than to describe his pain-behavior in precise physical terms, and do not identify affectively relevant features of pain from austere physical ones. Astute observers often know the conclusions of such alleged inferences without knowing their premises (Wittgenstein, 1958).

1. Craig, K.D. (2009). The Social Communication Model of Pain. Canadian Psychology 50(1), 22-32.
2. Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical Investigations. ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and R.Rhees. tr. G.E.M. Anscombe, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.