Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-fv566 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-17T02:59:57.878Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Dark Side of Empathy: Mimesis, Deception, and the Magic of Alterity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2015

Nils Bubandt*
Anthropology, Aarhus Research Center on the Anthropocene, Aarhus University
Rane Willerslev*
Anthropology, Arctic Research Center, Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University


This article challenges the tendency, both academic and popular, to assign empathy the status of a virtue. The widespread inclination to associate empathy with the morally and socially “good”—with compassion, understanding, cultural bonding, and non-violent sociality—ignores what we propose to call the “dark side of empathy”: that is, the multiple ways in which empathy is routinely deployed to manipulate, seduce, deceive, and dehumanize others by means of vicariousness. Two diverse ethnographic cases, of hunting in Siberia and political violence in Indonesia, provide the empirical background for a discussion of the complex relationship of empathy to mimesis, deception, violence, and sociality.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Ahmad, Sara. 2004. Affective Economies. Social Text 22, 2: 117–39.Google Scholar
Allport, Gordon Willard and Postman, Leo J.. 1947. The Psychology of Rumour. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Appadurai, Arjun. 1998. Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization. Public Culture 10, 2: 225–47.Google Scholar
Baron-Cohen, Simon. 1997. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and the Theory of Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2012. Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
Batson, C. Daniel. 1991. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hove: Lawrence Erbaum Associates.Google Scholar
Battaly, Heather D. 2011. Is Empathy a Virtue? In Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter, eds., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 277301.Google Scholar
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Oxford: Polity.Google Scholar
Behar, Ruth. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
Brightman, Robert. 1993. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Bronner, Stephen Eric. 2000. A Rumour about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Bubandt, Nils. 2006. Sorcery, Corruption and the Dangers of Democracy in Indonesia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12, 3: 413–31.Google Scholar
Bubandt, Nils. 2008. Rumors, Pamphlets, and the Politics of Paranoia in Indonesia. Journal of Asian Studies 67, 3: 789817.Google Scholar
Bubandt, Nils. 2009. From the Enemy's Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes. Cultural Anthropology 24, 3: 553–88.Google Scholar
Bubandt, Nils. 2014. Democracy, Corruption and the Politics of Spirits in Contemporary Indonesia. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Byrne, R. W. and Whiten, A.. 1992. Cognitive Evolution in Primates: Evidence from Tactical Deception. Man (N.S.) 27: 609–27.Google Scholar
Chalk, Frank and Jonassohn, Kurt. 1990. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Cohn, Norman. 2005. Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. London: Serif.Google Scholar
Connelly, Mark. 2004. War and the Media: Reportage and Propaganda, 1900–2003. London: I. B. Taurus & Co.Google Scholar
Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter. 2011. Introduction. In Coplan, A. and Goldie, P., eds., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ixxlvii.Google Scholar
Das, Veena, Kleinman, Arthur, Ramphele, Mampela, and Reynolds, Pamela. 2000. Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Decety, Jean. 2012. Empathy: From Bench to Bedside. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Decety, Jean and Ickes, William, eds. 2009. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
de Waal, Frans. 1992. Intentional Deception in Primates. Evolutionary Anthropology 1, 3: 8692.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
de Waal, Frans. 2008. Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology 59: 279300.Google Scholar
de Waal, Frans. 2009a. The Age of Empathy. Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Harmony Books.Google Scholar
de Waal, Frans. 2009b. Primates and Philosophers. How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Duncan, Christopher. 2005. The Other Maluku: Chronologies of Conflict in North Maluku. Indonesia 79, 2: 5380.Google Scholar
Echols, J. and Shadily, H.. 1989. Kamus Indonesia—Inggris. An Indonesian—English Dictionary. Jakarta: PT Gramedia.Google Scholar
Eco, Umberto. 1999. Serendipities. Language and Lunacy. London: Phoenix.Google Scholar
Eisenberg, Nancy and Strayer, Janet, eds. 1987. Empathy and Its Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Farrow, Tomm and Woodruff, Peter. 2007. Empathy in Mental Illness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Fausto, Carlos. 2007. Feasting on People: Eating Animals and Humans in Amazonia. Current Anthropology 48: 497530.Google Scholar
Frazer, Sir James. 1959 [1911]. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
Frith, Christopher and Wolpert, Daniel. 2004. The Neuroscience of Social Interaction: Decoding, Influencing, and Imitating the Actions of Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gallese, Vittorio. 2003. The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity. Psychopathology 36, 4: 171–80.Google Scholar
Gebauer, Gunter and Wulf, Christoph. 1995. Mimesis: Culture-Art-Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Goffman, Erwing. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
Goldman, Irving. 1975. The Mouth of Heaven: An Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
Halpern, Jodi. 2001. From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Halpern, Jodi and M. Weinstein, Harvey. 2004. Rehumanizing the Other: Empathy and Reconciliation. Human Rights Quarterly 26: 561–83.Google Scholar
Harrington, Brooke. 2009. Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Hastrup, Kirsten. 2004. Action: Anthropology in the Company of Shakespeare. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.Google Scholar
Hefner, Robert. 2000. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Hefner, Robert. 2002. Global Violence and Indonesian Muslim Politics. American Anthropologist 104, 3: 754–65.Google Scholar
Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Heryanto, Ariel. 2006. State Terrorism and Political Identity in Indonesia: Fatally Belonging. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Holbraad, Martin and Willerslev, Rane. 2007. Afterword. Transcendental Perspectivism: Anonymous Viewpoints from Inner Asia. Inner Asia 9, 2: 329–45.Google Scholar
Hollan, Douglas. 2008. Being There: On the Imaginative Aspects of Understanding Others and Being Understood. Ethos 36, 4: 475–89.Google Scholar
Hollan, Douglas. 2012. Emerging Issues in the Cross-Cultural Study of Empathy. Emotion Review 4, 1: 7078.Google Scholar
Hollan, Douglas and Throop, Jason. 2008. Whatever Happened to Empathy? Introduction. Ethos 36, 4: 385401.Google Scholar
Hollan, Douglas and Throop, Jason. 2011. The Anthropology of Empathy: Introduction. In Hollan, D. and Throop, J., eds., The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies. New York: Berghahn Books, 121.Google Scholar
Holt, Thaddeus. 2004. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.Google Scholar
Iacoboni, Marco. 2008. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others. New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
International Crisis Group. 2000. Indonesia: Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku. Jakarta and Brussels: International Crisis Group.Google Scholar
International Crisis Group. 2002. Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku. Jakarta and Brussels: International Crisis Group.Google Scholar
Ickes, William. 1997. Empathic Accuracy. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
Ickes, William. 2003. Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel. Amherst: Prometheus Books.Google Scholar
Ickes, William. 2009. Empathetic Accuracy: Its Links to Clinical, Cognitive, Developmental, Social, and Physiological Psychology. In Decety, Jean and Ickes, William, eds., The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 5770.Google Scholar
Janovic, Tomislav, Ivkovi, Vladimir, Nazor, Damir, Grammer, Karl, and Jovanovi, Veljko. 2003. Empathy, Communication, Deception. Collegium Antropologicum 27, 2: 809–22.Google Scholar
Jochelson, Waldemar. 1926. The Yukaghir and the Yukaghized Tungus. Boas, Franz, ed. New York: American Museum of Natural History.Google Scholar
Kaldor, Mary. 1999. New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Kelman, Herbert. 1973. Violence without Moral Restraint. Journal of Social Issues 29: 2961.Google Scholar
Klinken, Gerry van. 2007. Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia: Small Town Wars. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Kögler, Hans Herbert and Stueber, Karsten R.. 2000. Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Kohut, Heinz. 1984. How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Kuper, Leo. 1982. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Kwon, Honik. 1997. The Saddle and the Sledge: Hunting as Comparative Narrative in Siberia and Beyond. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Insitute 4, 1: 115–27.Google Scholar
Lipps, Theodor. 1903. Einfühlung, Innere Nachahmung, und Organempfindungen. Archiv für die Gesamte Psychologie 2: 185204.Google Scholar
Lissner, Ivar. 1961. Man, God and Magic. London: Jonathan Cape.Google Scholar
Lorimer, Francine. 2010. Using Emotions as a Form of Knowledge in a Psychiatric Fieldwork Setting. In Davies, James and Spencer, Dimitrina, eds., Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 98126.Google Scholar
McNamara, Robert and Blight, James. 2001. Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century. New York: Public Affairs.Google Scholar
Metcalf, Peter. 2002. They Lie, We Lie: Getting on with Anthropology. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Miller, William Ian. 2003. Faking It. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Nanere, Jan. 2000. Halmahera Berdarah: Suatu Upaya Mengungkap Kebenaran. Ambon: Yayasan Bina Masyarakat Sejahtera dan Pelestarian Alam.Google Scholar
Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
O'Connell, Sanjida. 1995. Empathy in Chimpanzees: Evidence for Theory of Mind? Primates 36, 3: 397410.Google Scholar
Pedersen, Morten A. and Willerslev, Rane. 2012. The Soul of the Soul Is the Body: Rethinking the Concept of Soul through North Asian Ethnography. In “Fuzzy Studies,” special issue of Common Knowledge pt. 3, 18, 3: 464–686.Google Scholar
Preston, Stephanie and de Waal, Frans. 2002. Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 172.Google Scholar
Prinz, Jesse. 2011. Is Empathy Necessary for Morality? In Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter, eds., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Polity, 211–29.Google Scholar
Qvortrup, Mads. 2003. The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Impossibility of Reason. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2009. The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
Robbins, Joel and Rumsey, Alan. 2008. Introduction: Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and the Opacity of Other Minds. Anthropological Quarterly 81, 2: 407–20.Google Scholar
Rogers, Carl. 1959. A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-Centered Framework. In Koch, Sigmund, ed., Psychology: A Study of Science. Volume 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw-Hill, 184256.Google Scholar
Rutherford, Danilyn. 2009. Sympathy, State Building, and the Experience of Empire. Cultural Anthropology 24, 1: 132.Google Scholar
Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Siegel, James. 1998. A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: Counter-Revolution Today. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
Spiridonov, Nikolay I. 1996 [1930]. Odulu (Yukagiru) Kolumskogo Okruga [The Odul Yukaghirs of the Kolyma region]. Yakutsk: Insitute for the Problem of the Small Peoples of the North, 167214. (First published in Sovetskiy Sever 9, 12: n.p.).Google Scholar
Spyer, Patricia. 2006. Some Notes on Disorder in the Indonesian Postcolony. In Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., eds., Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 188218.Google Scholar
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Strassler, Karen. 2000. Currency and Fingerprints: Authentic Reproductions and Political Communication in Indonesia's “Reform Era.Indonesia 70: 7182.Google Scholar
Stueber, Karsten R. 2006. Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Stueber, Karten R. 2012. Varieties of Empathy, Neuroscience and the Narrativist Challenge to the Contemporary Theory of Mind Debate. Emotion Review 4, 1: 5563.Google Scholar
Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Titchener, Edward. 1909. Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes. New York: MacMillan.Google Scholar
Vickers, Adrian. 2005. A History of Modern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Viverios de Castro, Eduardo. 1992. From the Enemy's Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society. Howard, Catherine V., trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Viverios de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 4: 469–88.Google Scholar
White, Ralph K. 1984. Fearful Warriors: A Psychological Profile of U.S.-Soviet Relations. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
Wikan, Unni. 1992. Beyond the Words: The Power of Resonance. American Ethnologist 19, 3: 460–82.Google Scholar
Rane, Willerslev. 2001. The Hunter as a Human Kind—Hunting and Shamanism among the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs. Journal of North Atlantic Studies 4: 4450.Google Scholar
Rane, Willerslev. 2004. Not animal, not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10: 629–52.Google Scholar
Willerslev, Rane. 2006. To Have the World at a Distance: Rethinking the Significance of Vision for Social Anthropology. In Grasseni, C., ed., Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards. The EASA Series: Learning Fields, vol. 6. New York: Berghahn Books, 2446.Google Scholar
Rane, Willerslev. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Willerslev, Rane. 2009. The Optimal Sacrifice: A Study of Voluntary Death among the Siberian Chukchi. American Ethnologist 36, 4: 693704.Google Scholar
Rane, Willerslev. 2011. Frazer Strikes Back from the Armchair: A New Search for the Animist Soul. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17: 504–26.Google Scholar
Rane, Willerslev. 2012. On the Run in Siberia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Willerslev, Rane. 2013. Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps not too Seriously? Religion and Society 4: 4157.Google Scholar
Wispé, Lauren. 1986. The Distinction between Sympathy and Empathy: To Call Forth a Concept, a Word Is Needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50, 2: 314–21.Google Scholar
Wispé, Lauren. 1991. The Psychology of Sympathy. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
Zahavi, Dan. 2001. Beyond Empathy: Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8, 5–7: 151–67.Google Scholar
Zembylas, Michalinos. 2007. The Politics of Trauma: Empathy, Reconciliation and Peace Education. Journal of Peace Education 4, 2: 207–24.Google Scholar