Lawyers and Empathy

New research reported this week in Scientific American shows that physicians get less empathic as they see more patients and progress through their medical training, a finding that mirrors studies about the impact of law school on lawyers that Susan Daicoff has cited in her many writings about the social psychology of lawyers. The new studies suggest that physicians who must deal regularly with patients experiencing pain become so successful at suppressing empathy that in functional brain scans, the area of their brains which would normally register an empathic response to an image of a person in pain in fact showed nothing measurable going on. All the measurable brain activity took place in the higher cognitive areas of the brain. "Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others. The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response." Why would this be so? Physicians "need to have daily communication with patients who are physically injured, bleeding or otherwise suffering. Being too focused on the patient's pain can make the doctor less effective. Suppressing the response to others' pain may in fact free up information processing resources to more effectively solve clinical problems. This argument explains the finding that physicians get less empathic as they see more patients and progress through their training." Sounds a lot like what lawyers experience on the job: daily contact with clients who are visibly suffering. The problem is that while suppressing empathy in favor of rational problem solving helps with certain aspects of medical practice, absence of empathy diminishes the quality of care. " Empathy is invaluable for motivating the whole process of delivering care, for ensuring effective communication (who wants to talk about embarrassing symptoms to a frigid doc?), and for building long-term relationships of trust between doctors and patients.The job of any physician is therefore part empathic and part problem solving. This constitutes an inherent trade-off in medicine because the human brain does not have infinite computational resources or time to perform both tasks equally well. One must be caring while also figuring out a proper diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, often under conditions of uncertainty." Substitute "lawyer" for physician, and these studies tell us that empathy on the part of lawyers isn't just touchy-feely icing on the professional services cake. Empathy is more like baking powder: without it, the entire cake is flat, tough, and inedible. For more information about Collaborative Divorce, check out: and

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