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.