Can we save the world through empathy? For the past year, that idea has been a source of public debate as people try to figure out who deserves empathy, who doesn’t, and how to cultivate more of it to solve our problems.
Technology has been a key part of this conversation. Virtual reality proponents have long seen the potential of their work to do good, whether it’s using Oculus Rift to understand homelessness or trying to Kickstart an “empathy-increasing device to end avoidable violence.”
All of this is misguided, says Yale University psychology professor Paul Bloom, whose book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion came out this week. First things first: Bloom is a fan of empathy. He thinks it’s an important and powerful experience. But using empathy alone to make decisions can cause real harm, and calling for “more empathy” in politics isn’t the solution to our problems.
To understand where Bloom’s coming from, consider the difference between empathy and compassion. You experience empathy when you actually feel the suffering of someone else; you feel compassion when you care about someone and want their pain to go away, without suffering yourself. These can go together, but research shows that empathy and compassion are different and even activate different parts of the brain. Between the two, Bloom argues, empathy is more likely to lead us astray. Caring about other people is good. Feeling their pain all the time can have nasty downsides.
One downside: Empathy is biased. It’s easier to feel empathy for people who are like us (and like people we know) even when they’re not any more deserving than someone else. Another downside is that empathy isexhausting. Doctors or first-responders who constantly feel the suffering of others are likely to be less effective at their life-saving work. And empathy can lead to the wrong choice. If you feel someone else’s pain keenly, you might rush to take action — even though that action might be a bad idea in the long run.
I spoke to Bloom about living in “an age of emotion,” the dangers of following our hearts, and how technology can use empathy to exploit us. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Empathy is a really exciting area for people who work in VR. There are a lot of projects that make you feel like you’re someone else or work really hard to evoke certain emotions. The idea is that our natural empathy is limited, so why not use technology to expand who we can have empathy for? Then technology isn’t just innovative, it can cause important change. What’s the downside?
Empathy technology seems to be incredibly exciting, so I have nothing against that for pleasure. But if a lot of people want to use empathy technology as a tool of political advocacy, that’s different.
Say I want you to care more about refugees from Syria, so I’ll put you in this machine and now you’ll feel what it’s like to be a refugee in Syria. I don’t doubt that, if properly used, that technology might be very persuasive. But there are problems. One thing is that you’re only going to lock yourself into the machine if you already are sort of a believer in the cause. But more to the point, when liberals think about empathy, they only think it’s on their side, thinking, “If we had good empathy technology, more people would agree with what we’re arguing.”
In reality, empathy can go both ways. Somebody could develop a machine giving empathy for Syrian refugees, but also a machine giving empathy for someone who lost his job because a Syrian refugee took it and we watch him standing hungry in a food line. Or, to use one of Trump’s favorite examples, imagine a machine giving you empathetic feelings for someone who has been assaulted by an undocumented immigrant. Sure, empathy will support my side, but it’s not trivial to imagine how empathy could be exploited for any side. Donald Trump himself exploited empathy a lot in this election. In some ways, one of the advantages that Trump had over Clinton is that he was perceived as more authentic and was able to make people feel more.
Right. And one thing I’ve thought about is how this focus on using technology to increase our empathy again puts the burden for change on the individual.
Yes, empathy can also ignore broader incentives. Policy issues are notoriously difficult and complicated and it’s a deep mistake to assume that if we could feel more, then the world would turn out OK and we would do the right thing. Not everything is the job of the individual citizen. If you use this machine to make individual Americans care more about Syrian refugees, maybe they can send money, but that’s not the same thing as governmental action.
If you make me feel empathy for somebody who has been inadequately covered by the ACA, does that mean the entire program is bad and we should shut it down? What I’m saying is incredibly unromantic, I know. But things are complicated, and every policy — from health care to going to war — is going to have winners and losers, and there will always someone you can feel empathy for. So the question is, in the long run, what makes the world better?
Another thing is that there are many calls to feel the suffering of marginalized groups, like a trans kid who is discriminated against in school or a black teenager who is harassed by the police. That’s hopelessly arrogant. It’s really arrogant for somebody like me to assume that I can know what it’s like to be a woman experiencing sexism or a black teenager who’s afraid of the police. And the assumption that this sort of empathetic success is necessary in order for people to do good in the world sets the bar way too high.
Even if I can’t know what it’s like to be a trans kid being bullied, I can know that bullying is wrong. I can know that people should treated with decency and respect, and I don’t have to be able to vividly empathize with a woman who is sexually harassed to know that sexual harassment is a bad thing.
You advocate focusing on reason instead of empathy. But depending on ethics, what passes for “reason” is biased, too, and has led to morally terrible decisions. Think about eugenics and scientific racism, for example.
Reason is flawed! But here’s the thing: whenever someone says, “Reasoning has led to a wrong turn here,” I wonder, how do they know? Typically the way they know this is because they’ve thought harder about it and used reason themselves.
There are a lot of real-world cases where people’s reason is biased and confused and leads to all sorts of bad things. We’re imperfect beings, but to some extent reason has a huge edge because we can reason communally. That’s the scientific process. You make arguments about something, I see the holes in that argument, we reach an understanding together. It’s the congruence of intelligent people bouncing ideas off each other.
If you want to convince people you really believe something, heartfelt displays of emotion are good ways to do so. But because empathy can be weaponized and used against other people, someone who steps back and tries their best to be genuinely fair and reasoned and impartial is less likely to do damage in the world.
So, we have empathy versus reason. There are training workshops for rationality, and studies show that empathy can be trained, too. In some ways, it’s a choice, and you can learn to make it include more people. Why not work on improving empathy instead of discarding it as a guide?
I’m all for training rationality, but training empathy is flawed. Like we said, empathy is inherently biased, so even if you could train yourself to exploit the biases, it’s still in general not necessarily the right thing to do. You just get different biases.
And there are limits to how much we can work on our emotions. There’s no simply way I’m ever going to feel more empathy for a stranger than for my children. It’s like saying we should train our hunger so that plain tofu and uncooked vegetables taste as delicious as the most delectable foods. That’d be nice, but that’s not how hunger works. You could modify it a bit, you could learn to like certain foods, but you’d be stuck on certain things.
I agree that there seems to be a rise in calls for empathy, but are you sure that this isn’t just an argument over language? Maybe when people are calling for “more empathy,” they’re not telling us to actually feel the pain of others. Maybe they just use the word “empathy” to mean “kindness” and just want us to be nicer to other people.
There is a casualness with language and a lot of “empathy” talk is just kindness talk and that’s terrific. But on top of that there really is the belief among a lot of people — including a lot of theologians and philosophers and politicians and scientists — that empathy, real empathy in the sense of feeling other suffering, is really important.
People are looking for genuine expression of emotion in their everyday life. It’s not enough to say, “I thought about it and I think on balance the Trump election is a disaster,” what you want is people talking about how miserable they are and how they couldn’t get out of bed for a week.
The reason for the rise in that sort of talk, at least among psychologists, is a distrust in reason and rationality. It’s a sign of the times that we don’t live in an age of reason, we live in an age of emotion and we really gotta “listen to our hearts.”
Obviously, I think this view is disastrously wrong. Many bad things that have happened politically in the last few years, like wars, are not because people are thinking too hard, it’s because people are following their hearts. A lot of the ugliest rhetoric, rhetoric that leads to war and genocide, comes because we empathize too much with one group or not enough with another and don’t listen to our heads.
I’d like to see cultural forces change so that rationality and reason are more prized, so that when a leader comes up and says, here is my case for going to war, they make a case by saying, look, here are the costs and here are the benefits, and not by saying, “Let me tell you this story.” When it comes to giving to charity, for example, it’s already not so weird to first go online and evaluate the charity and see if it’s making the world a better place. So this isn’t a fantasy. We are seeing a bit of a revolution.
A lot of my psychology colleagues think we’re fundamentally irrational, emotional creatures and we’re stuck with this, that it’s Trump all the way down. But we’re better than that. Humans show over and over again extraordinary intellectual potential and this aspect of ourselves could be put to better use.