The Dark Side of Empathy by Paul Bloom, The Atlantic
How caring for one person can foster baseless aggression towards
"Politicians are comfortable exploiting this dark side of empathy.
Donald Trump likes to talk about Kate—he doesn’t use her full name, Kate
Steinle, just Kate. She was murdered in San Francisco by an undocumented
immigrant, and Trump wants to make her real to his audience, to make
vivid his talk of Mexican killers. Similarly, Ann Coulter’s recent book,
Adios, America, is rich with detailed descriptions of immigrant crimes,
particularly rape and child rape, with chapter titles like “Why Do
Hispanic Valedictorians Make the News, But Child Rapists Don’t?” and
headings like “Lost a friend to drugs? Thank a Mexican.” Trump and
Coulter use these stories to stoke our feelings for innocent victims, to
motivate support for policies against the immigrants who are said to
prey upon these innocents."
"Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, argues that empathy is a
bad thing—that it makes the world worse. While we've been taught that
putting yourself in another's shoes cultivates compassion, it actually
blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions. In this
animated interview from The Atlantic, we hear Bloom’s case for why the
world needs to ditch empathy."
"I'm writing a book on empathy, and I'm arguing against it. I'm arguing that
empathy is fundamentally, from a moral standpoint, a bad thing. It makes the
Why is empathy a bad thing?
"I'm using empathy in the sense of putting yourself in the shoes of another
person, feeling their pain. And it might seem obvious that will make you a
good person because it makes you more likely to care for a person and more
likely to help them.
But one problem is that empathy blinds you to the long term consequences of your
It's because of empathy that the whole world cares so much more about a baby
stuck in a well, than we do about global warming.
The Philosopher Peter Singer gives an example of, warn glow altruists for
charities. So what they do is they give to a lot of different charities and they
give a little bit of money to each one. Because for each one they get a little
rush. Oh, I'm helping the blind babies. Oh, I'm helping the farm workers.
Oh, I'm helping the chickens.
And the problem is that when you give a small amount of money to a charity,
often it doesn't do much good because the money it takes to process your
donation, in some cases actually, is such that the charity takes a loss on
your donation. So Singer describes warm glow altruists, who basically give
because they get a buzz out of it, as opposed to what he calls, effective
An effective altruists say, 'What does the world need and how could I use my
money to best ends and how could I volunteer and act to make things better?" And
Singer argues, I think, convincingly that it is the effective altruists that
make a bigger change in the world.
A lot of our failures to make the world a better place, but a lot of our awful
actions, are motivated by sort of a moralistic rush. Empathic engagement, being
caught up in the suffering of victims is usually the number one argument in a
democratic country for going to war. It's how the government persuaded us to
support the war in Iraq. If we ever go to war against ISIS. Like a full
blown military war, it will be motivated by our feelings for the suffering of
their victims. But that is just one consideration. The other consideration is
how many people die in wars, how many other victims will they create? But our
empathy, our selfish moralizing, zooms us in and says, "Oh my God, there
are these people suffering , let's bomb the crap out of them, let's destroy the
whole country to save these people. " and then people are later surprised at "Oh
gosh, apparently, you know, we've killed 50,000 people, gosh, who would have
If you really want to make the world better, spend less time trying to maximize
your own altruistic joy and in a more cold blooded way think, 'how could I
help other people?' "
Refugee crisis: Why one boy’s tragedy created a wave of empathy
It took the story of a drowned child to end apathy to mass refugee
deaths on Europe's shores. It doesn't have to be this way
"Some scholars say it happens because we simply can’t feel compassion
for large groups. As psychologistPaul
it: “It is impossible to empathise with 7 billion strangers, or to feel
toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a
child, a friend, or a lover.” Fellow US psychologistPaul
argues that “our capacity to feel sympathy for people in need is
limited, leading to compassion fatigue, apathy and inaction”."
"Many psychologists, philosophers, and laypeople believe that empathy is
necessary for moral judgment and moral action — the only problem with
empathy is that we sometimes don’t have enough of it,” Bloom says. “I’ll
argue that this is mistaken. Empathy is a poor moral guide. It is
biased, shortsighted, and innumerate. We are better off without it.”"
"I'm writing a book on empathy," psychologist Paul Bloom tells people.
They respond warmly, until he follows up with, "I'm against it." On this
episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Paul discuss what empathy is,
why Paul is concerned that it's a terrible guide to moral decision
making, and what the alternatives are.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say,
don’t try to feel others’ pain.
Bad idea, say cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom and neuroscientist Richard J.
Davidson. At their Aspen Ideas Festival talk on Thursday, Bloom allowed that a
the word “empathy” as it’s sometimes colloquially used—to mean kindness,
goodness, morality, and love—is unobjectionable. But in the Obama-esque sense of
feeling another’s feelings, empathy, they contend, it mostly hurts the world.
“To the extent that I’m an empathetic person,” Bloom said, “I’m a worse person.”
“The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing
you are to cause pain.”
Empathy is typically seen as wonderful, central to cooperation, caring, and
morality. We want to have empathic parents, children, spouses and friends; we
want to train those in the helping professions to expand their empathy, and we
certainly want to elect empathic politicians and policy makers. But empathy has
certain troubling features, and questions have begun to arise about just how
useful empathy really is and how it might be different from related capacities
such as compassion.
Speakers: Paul Bloom, Richard J. Davidson
I'm writing a book against empathy
Being against empathy is like being against world peace
empathy mean different things to different people
1. Some see it as goodness, kindness, love, morality, making
the world a better place. I'm not against empathy in that sense.
2. Some use empathy in a narrow sense of understanding the
minds of other people. What psychologists called mind reading or naive
psychology. I'm not against that either. I'm not sure that is a force for
good. A good person can do good things by understanding how other people work,
what gives them pain and gives them pleasure, but so can a sadist and a
monster. It's an amoral property.
3. What I mean by empathy, like many philosophers and
psychologists talk about, is putting yourself in somebody else's shoes. Seeing
the world thought their eyes. Feeling their pain, feeling their pleasure.
Neuroscientists find there is a way that we literally feel each
others pain. If you poke one persons hand then another person that sees that
literally feels the others pain.
Dan Batson found if you feel empathy for another person,
and literally put yourself in their shoes and feel their pain, you are more
likely to help them and care for them.
This is why many people are pro empathy, and many people in the
general public are pro-empathy.
Barack Obama has spoken many times about the
importance of empathy, Recently saying that the biggest deficit we have in
America is an Empathy Deficit.
So what is not to like?
Empathy serves as a spot light, zooming you on people and
specific problems and that could be a good thing and that is also it's
Because of it's focusing
properties it can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted. We see this in the
[there is a quality of spaciousness, holding awareness of self,
others and the space around us]
You can do an experiment where you ask people to feel empathy
for a single person, show her face, give her name, and you will find people
will be very engage and want to help that person.
Then you have another group and tell them about 8 different
people. It's hard to feel empathy for 8 different people.
people give less
to the 8 than to the one.
We also find in the lab, that empathy is v
It's true about the hand thing, feeling the pain of others. It
works best for people like me if the hand is white. If it is a black hand, I
feel less empathy.
[there are factors in peoples minds that inhibit empathy]
We feel less empathy with people who are from the out group,
other countries other ethnicities. A European study found that people feel a
lot of empathy for those who are fans of the same soccer team. No
empathy at all for people on different soccer teams.
The same narrowness and focus shows up in the real world. It's
because of the zooming effect of empathy, that the whole world cares more
about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of
millions and millions because of climate change.
[this is primary the work I do to widen that . If there is
ignorance in the world we don't say, only a few people have education, it's
all educations fault the the lack of education. No, we say we need to expand
and overcome ignorance, expand .. Analogously, Paul is saying education is
It's because of empathy, that when a teenage white girl was
lost in Aruba there was about 20 times more television coverage than of the
deaths of tens of thousands of people in the Sudan.
It's because of empathy, that if someone gets sick from a
virus, they will shut down a virus program. Because it's easy to empathize
with someone that is suffering. Even if the virus program is saving the lives
of hundreds or people
[narrowing and exclusivising empathy can cause problems.)
This is an example of how empathy is doing good, but not the
right kind of good.
But empathy could also do bad. not hard to have example. ie.
people have pointed out, When we give to child beggars in
Africa or India we are making the world worse. We're supporting organizations that maims tens of thousands of children. If you want to help
the children there are a lot of better ways to do it like giving to Qxfam.
But giving to Oxfam does not hit our empathetic buttons. It does not give us
this warm rush of satisfaction. )
[always comes from an individualistic viewpoint. creating a
culture of empathy is the solution]
This about the atrocities, lynching's, of American blacks in
the south, or European holocaust. As psychologists we talk about them in
terms of prejudices and hatred. but empathy plays a huge role. these
atrocities a typical motivated by stories of suffering victims. Stories of
white woman, assaulted by blacks. Stories of German children attacked by
When some people think of empathy they think of
charity, I think of war. Whenever a democratic country goes to war, like the
United States, what they will do is tell stories about the suffering victims
that need to be saved through the war. Before we went to war in Iraq there
were stories about the atrocities committed by Sadam Hessen and his brutal
children. When we go to war against Isis and it escalates, we will hear more
and more stories about the atrocities done by them. This is a good argument,
I'm not a pacific. There are sometimes good reasons to go to war. But the
obsessive focus on the victims, can easily be
exploited, and case a war that creates suffering many times more than the
suffering of the victims.
5:00 We did Studies at Yale. Measured peoples empathy, on a
standard empathy scale. Then asked how violently they would punish someone
that did something wrong to an innocent victim. Did it with around 5
different scenarios. International and domestic. Findings were the more
empathy you had the more violent you are. The more ready and willing you are
to cause pain. Because your empathy motivates your anger and rage.
You may agree with me that empathy is a poor guide to
6:45 but for the everyday people that we care
for, the people we are intimate with, you may think empathy is critical. but
that is not what the data shows. There have been hundreds of studies
testing how empathic people are. And despite what many people might think.
The more empathy you have has very little coloration with how kind your are,
how much you give to charity, how likely you are to volunteer. A recent meta
analysis combined hundreds of studies looking at the opposite direction.
Looking at aggression, physical aggression, verbal aggression, and sexual
aggression. And found absolutely no connection with empathy. Or think of the
helping professions. We often say to one another doctors and therapist
should be empathic. An if what you mean by empathic is, caring and kind and
understanding, absolutely. But if you mean by empathic is they should should
put themselves into our shoes, they should feel what we feel. Definitely
not. This sort of empathic engagement leads to burnout, it leads to
suffering, and pain and it also makes them bad at what they do.
7:45 When I am with my therapist I was her to understand me,
I'm complicated. I want her to want to make me better. I want her to care for
me. But I don't want her to feel pain. If I say I'm anxious and I'm depressed,
I don't want her to go, "I'm anxious and I'm depressed." I really want her
calm and caring. I'm making the distinction casually. But there is research
supporting this, and Richie is going to expand on this I think in different
Disentangling empathy from compassion. There is a wonderful
collaboration between Tania Singer, a neuroscientist and Matthew Ricard, a
Buddhist monk and biologist. Where among many other studies, what they did was
they trained people to feel empathy. To engage in empathic contact with other
people. Then they trained another group to be compassionate. To care about
other people but not necessarily engage in the same way.
What they found was the empathic group had a worse time, they
suffered more, and they helped less. The compassionate group felt good, they
loved it, they enjoyed it and they helped more.
5:45 So this is how I will end. It answers a sort of skeptical
question, which is. F you took away empathy what would you replace it with?
And I think we replace it with two things.
One is a sort of rather cold blooded rational cost
benefit analysis. Suppose what you really care about is trying to make the
world a better place, then you would sort of go not after what gives you the
buzz. But what really helps other people.
And then the second thing is we need some sort of emotional
push. The push need not come from empathy. The push could come from love, from
caring, from compassion, from more distance emotions that don't swallow us up
in the suffering of others. So I hope to persuade you to join me in the
crusade against empathy.
9:30 David Richie, Thank you Paul. That was wonderful. Let me begin by
just sharing with a little bit of my journey.