Empathy is Bad

My friend sent me a book for Christmas called Against Empathy [public library].  It’s written by a psychology professor at Yale named Paul Bloom, although his writing style reminds me of that of a philosopher (or perhaps debater).

The main premise of the book is that empathy as defined as “feeling what you think others are feeling” is net-net a bad thing and causes more harm than it helps society.

Bloom writes that:

“Empathy is like a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now.  this makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with.  Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.  It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future.  It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many.  It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.  It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”

Apparently people in today’s touchy-feely overly-sensitive-to-any-and-all-perceived-slights world are extremely against the idea that empathy could be a bad thing.  Reading about Bloom’s detractors, the non-academics assume that empathy is the silver bullet for today’s social ills, and if only we could be more empathetic towards the downtrodden, discriminated against, etc. etc. we would all be better off.

Bloom is very good about laying out his opponents’ counterarguments and addressing each one, but I think the core of why his position works (for me at least) is that it’s not against “empathy” the word that has all this positive baggage about compassion and kindness, but against emotion-driven decision-making.  And boy can I get behind that.

If you make a decision largely driven by empathic concerns (i.e. by what you feel others feel), you are more likely to be focused on single individuals (it is hard to truly feel what you think others feel at scale at the same time).  You are more likely to be swayed by what is in front of you NOW (feelings have a sense of urgency, and it’s hard to feel for things in the murky uncertain future–just think about all those times when you binge watched Game of Thrones when your future self might have more appreciated you spending that time working out or working towards a raise at work).  Also, you are by nature limited by what you can feel empathy for (empathy for people outside of their “tribe” is extremely difficult and unnatural for most–why do we pay less attention to and care less about disabled people or factory farm animals?).

When making decisions that have wide-reaching or long term ramifications (e.g. policy), that have complex interdependencies and 2nd and 3rd order effects, it is always better to try to analyze and predict the possible outcomes or range of outcomes, and consider which outcomes you might want to achieve or avoid at all costs.

For example, if you are deciding how to allocate the US foreign aid budget, you do NOT want to be swayed by pictures of starving children.  The pictures anchor you to that particular group of starving children, but maybe you should be thinking of the millions of other people in need that you don’t see or know about, or even the millions of other people in the future who will be in need if you don’t allocate money to invest in a better future for them.  Maybe you should be thinking about which country or NGO has the best ROI instead of the best marketing pitch and narrative.

Bloom has other interesting examples of when empathy steers us wrong.  Among the more interesting ones:

  • Focusing on empathy for a particular child makes organ donor list managers more willing to let her jump the queue (at the detriment of all those other children who were in more need and prioritized ahead of her)
  • Empathy for the Sandy Hook victims caused well-meaning but not well-thinking people around the country to send in warehouses-worth of stuffed animals and toys and donations, which this affluent neighborhood did not need, while the significantly higher rate of child homicides in Chicago got no attention at all
  • Because we have to choose who we empathize with (and who we choose first reflects/is influenced by our own biases and prejudices), liberal protestors against police violence towards black people called for more empathy for minorities, and conservative groups argued for more empathy for the police.  This just exacerbates tension and conflict.

Basically, I would agree with Bloom that when it comes to decision-making, you should strive to be objective where possible and use rationality to curb your tendency to jump to conclusions.  Emotion is the force multiplier that will make people act on these reasoned decisions.  When the decision has been made, then use appeals to emotion to bring about action.

Alas, the reality is that people are far more likely to make a decision based on emotions, and then use their rationality to justify it.  That is the difference between philosophers and psychologists (philosophers believe we should act on rationality and it’s possible to do so if we think about it, psychologists test things and conclude that it’s difficult to impossible).

Perhaps the most effective route forward is to set rules in place to counteract these emotional biases in decision-making (e.g., looking at a picture of your future self before making decisions that will affect your future self), and then take shameless full advantage of these persuasion buttons in other people (and in yourself) when it’s time to take action.  To the extent that we are Moist Robots, we should aim to hack our own/others’ OS(s) to bring about better outcomes.

Avoid perfectionism

A quick reminder: avoid perfectionism.

Sometimes life is busier than anticipated.  Sometimes you don’t have time to do the perfect job you think something deserves.  When that happens, you have a choice:

  • You can ship the 0.1 version and keep on iterating later
  • You can wring your hands and curse the gods/whoever brought on the unexpected and do nothing (decision paralysis)
  • You can save as a draft and pivot, shipping something completely different (but faster and easier)
  • You can reprioritize all of your other priorities and make time to do it right (to your standards, and no one else’s)

There are more options, but I’m out of time to think of them.  Basically, this is a lesson that life has tried to teach you before, so listen and learn!

Don’t be a perfectionist.  It’s not possible and will cause you a lot of grief.  Instead, do your best.  And if it’s absolutely unacceptable to ship something that isn’t up to par, then ship something different.  Reset expectations, change the frame of reference, make the legible illegible immeasurable incomparable.

Don’t Get Offended by Proselytizers

Hypothetical situation A:

A dear friend of yours shares a new thing X that has exponentially improved her life, pulled her out of a dark place, given her loving friends and community, and given her hope and guidance for the future.  Since it’s had such a big impact on her, she just wants to share it with anyone.  And who else to start with but her dearest friends?

Now substitute X for the Cute Animals Subreddit.  Are you offended?

Crossfit.  Are you offended?

Black lives matter.  Are you offended?

Christianity*.  Are you offended?

To “proselytize” is to “to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause”.  Viewed one way, it is an attack on our beliefs and way of life–someone trying to turn us into sheeple who blindly follow the “one true way” (however defined by the cause).  Viewed another way, it is sharing good ideas and tools out of a desire to benefit your tribe.

This is a deep topic and I don’t have enough time to explore it fully in one post, so today I’ll explain why I’ve learned to stop getting offended when people try to proselytize me to their religion.

  1. Where is it coming from?
    Religious people who take the time to answer my questions, talk about the philosophical points of their belief system, share their conversion stories (which usually entails describing some very emotionally vulnerable time in their life), etc., are generally quite kind.They genuinely believe they are doing a good thing–they’ve found a good thing and they want to share it with the people they care about.  Some of them can be a bit awkward about how they go about winning you over to their side, but their actions come from a place of care and compassion.Take it in stride as you would anyone giving a testimonial about some product or idea that has changed their life.  “Thank you, but I’m not interested” is always a useful response.
  2. Instead of anger, should you feel pity?
    OK, Xiaotong, maybe the people who’ve tried to convert you have been all fuzzy bunnies and sunshine, but I’ve gotten ambushed/lectured/yelled at/spit on.If you were confronted by a raving madman, I hope you got away unharmed.  If the person trying to convert you seems completely irrational and angry themselves, perhaps you should pity them.  What happened to them such that they became so angrily zealous?  Someone who is capable of that kind of negative emotional outburst might be in a lot of pain.  But even if you don’t care about that…
  3. What outcome are you looking for in these encounters and is getting offended going to be the most effective way to achieve that?
    Let’s say you get offended.  Let’s say you get angry and get in a verbal shouting match with the proselytizer (because how dare they shove this garbage in your face!).  What happens then?  You may have lost a friend, lost the good opinion of those around you, lost your peace of mind.  And possibly confirmed the suspicion in the proselytizer’s mind that you are a lost sheep in dire need of enlightenment.If you just want your friend (or the stranger) to stop talking about this, a better strategy would be to flat out tell them that you are not interested.  Then change the subject to something else.  If you don’t want it to happen again in the future, just let them know.  Set your boundaries and leave them the choice of crossing the line or not.  If they do, they will have revealed themselves to be the kinds of people who don’t respect boundaries.  And then you will have to decide whether you want to be around people like that.If you want your normal pre-religious friend back, you will need to change their mind about this entire organized religion business.  What is more persuasive?  A friend who cares about you, empathizes with you, and subtly nudges you to reach your own conclusions about why maybe this new thing isn’t quite right?  Or a friend who turns on you, gets upset and yells at you, insults your intelligence or rationality or free will?  Has telling someone that they are wrong about an extremely personal/emotionally charged choice in their life ever resulted in them saying, why yes you’re completely right and I was a total idiot to ever believe this?
  4. What can you learn instead?
    I am perhaps a bit of a weirdo about this, but it is truly fascinating to me how people craft their sales pitches and conversion stories.  Like any good salesman, the good proselytizers try to figure out beforehand what your most pressing problems are, what your greatest vulnerabilities are.  And then they tell you exactly how their product (religion) can help you solve it.For example, are you looking for friends in a new city?  Our youth group has a lot of people your age!  We do lots of fun things together!  It’s like finding a new family!  “I found a place to belong.”I imagine that salesmen and religious groups have a lot of cross-learning opportunities.  Marketers and religious groups, too.On a more personal level, what someone tells you about their conversion story, or what arguments they use to convince you to convert, can reveal a lot about themselves and about you.  Conversion stories are typically very personal, so it’s a great opportunity to learn more about a person’s emotional life and history.  You may be able to pick up what they value most, where they are insecure, and perhaps where you should nudge if you want to change their mind.  You can also get a sense for why they picked you to pitch this conversion story to.  What do they think of you, that they would think that this particular argument would resonate most with you?  This is a valuable opportunity for some self-awareness and introspection.You may also learn something valuable about how their religion helped them.  Perhaps there is a kernel of truth or some useful idea that can be repurposed.  For example, perhaps you are not ready to believe in a god, but the idea of believing in something bigger than yourself meshes with your internal belief system.   Religions are some of the most viral ideas in the history of humanity, so there are a treasure trove of hypotheses and lessons you can take away to test on your own life.When confronted with some new strange thing, don’t get offended, get curious!
  5. Stoic considerations generally
    If you don’t care about any of the other arguments above, consider this: do you want to be the kind of person who lets external events control their peace of mind?  If so, I guarantee that you’re going to spend a lot of time upset and unhappy.  Better to take control of your own happiness and emotions, and train yourself to focus on your response (within your control) to external stimuli (outside of your control).

Maybe these are more broadly applicable than just reasons why you shouldn’t get offended when people try to proselytize you.  Getting offended and throwing a hissy fit when life doesn’t go your way or when someone does something you don’t like is a waste of energy.  Instead, do something about it.  Tell your dear friend that you’re grateful they care about you enough to share this amazing thing that improved their life so much.  If you are not interested or feel uncomfortable, let them know.  Ask them questions, learn something new.  And if you have a better belief system for living your life, perhaps you should be the one trying to proselytize them!


*I called out Christianity since I’ve had the most people (strangers and non-strangers) convert me to this religion.  But you can substitute Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other form of organized religion here.  To be clear, there are certain things I like about religious beliefs, their application to living a good life, and their virality.  I just also like being a skeptic, and being able to be inconsistent and take the best parts of all religions (and atheistic philosophies) when I’m figuring out what works for me in my life.

You are not so great

When I was in 7th grade, I got kicked out of the elimination rounds of the county spelling bee (the word was “fulsomely”).  On the car ride home, stewing in my embarrassment and disappointment, my dad taught me what would become one of my favorite Chinese idioms: 山外有山, 人外有人 (shan wai you shan, ren wai you ren).

山外有山, 人外有人 can be literally translated into “beyond these mountains there are mountains, and beyond these people there are people”.  Figuratively, it’s a lesson in humility–you think you’re the tallest mountain in these peaks, but beyond this range there are mountains like Kilimanjaro or Everest, or Olympic Mons.  Similarly, you might be the best in this small school, town, group, etc., but outside in the real world there are amazing monsters who could eat you for breakfast.  The English equivalent of this might be “big fish in a little pond”.

This saying can also be applied to knowledge.  You know this much about your field of study, but you’ve only breached the tip of the iceberg.  True experts know about the known unknown, and guess at the unknown unknown beyond the great frontier.

In my experience, people who are served a slice of humble pie react in two ways.  One is a mix of discouragement and resentment and bitterness.  These folks go nurse a drink at the bar and complain about those who have bested them, or they give up and find something else to do.  The former is actively harmful (and I would advise you to avoid these people like the plague), and the latter could be useful if it’s not part of a larger pattern of giving up when the going gets hard.

The second reaction is about acceptance, curiosity, and excitement.  Yes, these people are better than me; yes, I still have so much left to learn.  How exciting!  How are they so good at what they do?  What are their habits, tricks, behaviors, thought patterns, etc.?  How can I accelerate my learning to surpass them?  What can I learn/repurpose from them?  (And for you competitive types out there that want results fast: What rules do they play by, and how can I disrupt them to change the game to one that I can win?)

Remember: 山外有山, 人外有人 (mountains and people, you are not so great). Stay humble, take everything as a learning experience, and just keep trying to do at least 1% better the next time through.  If you have patience, persist, and follow a good learning system (i.e. deliberate practice), you can out-work 95% of the population.  As for that last 5%, well…sometimes you’ll meet folks who are smarter, more hard-working, and luckier than you.  Then I hope you kindred spirits will become friends and join forces to make the world a better place.

(Thanks dad for teaching me this early on, and for hammering the lesson home throughout my unruly childhood years as an arrogant little brat. 🙂 )



In Which I Start A Blog

As some of you know, every year I set experiments for myself.  These help me focus my learning, and force me to keep expanding my comfort zone.  For example, back in 2015, one of my more whimsical experiments was signing up for a 3 mile obstacle race.  (This was a bit of a stretch for someone who picked the only high school that didn’t have a mandatory gym class and then assiduously avoided exercise throughout college into my first job.)  But signing up for the race led me down the fitness rabbit hole into Crossfit, weightlifting, yoga, and now an 8 mile obstacle race with my very fit little brother.

Well, after hearing and reading about the benefits of blogging, one of my 2017 experiments is to start a blog and write* a blog post every single day for a month.

Ground rules:

  • I will publish 1 blog post per day from February 4th to March 4th.  Posts must be published before midnight to count.
  • Posts can be of any length, but if I use a quote, I must at least explain what it means to me or how one can apply it in a real life situation.
  • Book notes or recommendations are OK.  Lists are also OK as long as items on the list are explained.
  • I will set aside the first 30 mins of the day (after filling out my 3 min journal) to write these blog posts.
  • Writing extra posts on weekends or days in advance is OK, but I need to mark this down and adjust my schedule accordingly.
  • Each post should be at least useful to myself as a reminder of something learned.

Contingency plans:

  • If I fail to write the blog post in the first 30 mins of the day, I will write a post during my lunch break.
  • If I have lunch plans, I will write the blog post at night before my evening journaling.

Rewards/Habit Building:

  • Link this to my existing habit of morning and evening journals.
  • After I publish a blog post, pat myself on the back and say ‘Great job, Xiaotong!’
  • After a month of successful blogging, treat myself to a cheat day meal of tomato basil flatbread from the Midwife & the Baker outside on a warm sunny day.

Hypotheses and Metrics:

  • Daily blogging will improve the speed at which I write (measure average word count per time taken to write a post).
  • Daily blogging will improve the quality of my thinking (subjective evaluation of posts).
  • Daily blogging will improve my memory of life lessons learned (subjective evaluation of posts).
  • Daily blogging will improve the quality of my writing (subjective evaluation of posts).


  • Objectively, did I publish a blog post every day in the specified time period following the ground rules?  If not, what % was completed?  What caused me to fail, and why did my contingency plans not work?
  • What did I learn from this endeavor, and did the subjective hypotheses turn out to be true?

Eventually, I’d like to create a public archive of my past work product, testimonials, book notes and recommendations, and various experiments and outcomes.  I don’t know if this website will be the final form of that, and perhaps not–for now, rather than thinking of version ∞, I’m just going to get version 0.1 out.  Assuming that the pottery class story of quantity > quality for better learning outcomes holds true, I’ll just commit to creating as many posts as possible, course correcting as I go along, and accept that some things will come out oddly shaped.


*Astute readers will point out that writing a blog post daily is different from publishing a blog post daily.  This is true.  It is also true, however, that experiments work better when they have a bit of wiggle room.  When attempting to create new habits, or test out a change in routine, one should strive to make the change as easy as possible to start with.  This may mean that I should make the ground rules easier for myself to allow days with just quotes and no commentary.