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Why Empathy Is Dangerous

Yale psychologist Professor Paul Bloom tells us why empathy can lead to war, manipulation and "stupid decisions".

by Bruno Bayley
07 February 2017, 12:30am

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Empathy is bad and it's ruining the world we live in, so says Yale psychologist Professor Paul Bloom in his new book, Against Empathy. In it, he argues that empathy's association with kindness, caring and compassion is wrong – and in fact it is damaging us and the world we live in. On a sliding scale from day-to-day personal relationships to international relations and policy making, it is, Bloom argues, a force driving bad decision-making, and one that leaves us open to manipulation.

I called Professor Bloom to talk about how something so many people think of as a good thing is actually the exact opposite. 

VICE: It must be fun putting a book out with a title like yours that takes people aback. Against Empathy seems confrontational to many because they think of empathy as being the same as kindness or compassion.
Paul Bloom: Exactly. I have been getting hate mail and weird tweets from people thinking I am arguing for psychopathy or for cruelty, or that I am against kindness. I try in the book's subtitle, "The Case for Rational Compassion", to make it clearer. People mean different things when they say empathy. Sometimes people use it as a synonym for kindness and goodness, and I am not against those things. The sense of empathy I am against is feeling other people's pain, putting oneself in their shoes. Empathy in this sense is biased; it's innumerate; it can be weaponised. It makes us worse people. So I think we should make our moral decisions without empathy, through rational deliberation. 

You mention personal relationships as a sphere in which empathy is perhaps most useful, or at least less damaging.
The distinction that needs to be made is between empathy: feeling what other people feel, which I argue is often very bad; and compassion, which is caring about people, and which is almost always good. I think empathy is plainly wrong for foreign policy decision-making – decisions such as when to go to war – and also for domains like criminal justice or healthcare. For these sorts of things it almost always leads us to make stupid decisions. But I do go down to the micro level. If I go to my wife and I'm depressed, I don't want her to get depressed; I want her to cheer me up. 

"Empathy is myopic; it focuses on the immediate suffering of people and makes us blind to long term consequences."

How can empathy negatively affect things on a larger scale – in politics and international relations?
The worst political decision-making is often motivated by empathic concerns. You get really drawn into the plight of one person, often a child, or someone attractive, likely someone who looks like you. That is then used as a catalyst for some decision that ultimately makes the world much worse. 

In the Iraq War of 2003, the newspapers here were filled with grotesque details of atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein. If we go to war against IS it will be after seeing more and more stories about beheadings and other terrible things. Now, the suffering of innocent people is actually a pretty good reason to enter into a conflict, but empathy is myopic; it focuses on the immediate suffering of people and makes us blind to long-term consequences.

Donald Trump's rhetoric against immigrants has often employed an empathic appeal. He told people about the suffering of victims, rape victims, assault victims, people who lost their jobs to immigrants. He used people's empathy for these victims to energise hatred against these groups. 

Trump weaponised his voter base's empathy, essentially blowing statistics and concrete information out of the water. Does this mean empathy has a double action – not only does it have its own proactive effects, it neutralises statistics and hard information? 
Yes – and you know this better than everyone; you are a journalist. A story – whatever it's about – doesn't tend to lead with long-winded statistical analysis, it tends to start with a specific person and their story. Now, you [journalists] are never going to stop doing that – that's what people want: stories. When done responsibly, you can lay out an argument statistically and then use your story to support it, to bolster it. The problem is that often people don't do that. Demagogues just use the story.

Take the famous photo of Aylan Kurdi. Would this, in your opinion, be a rare example of people's empathic reaction being useful, in that it motivated changes about policing those migrant routes? Or is this still problematic in your view as it's an empathy-based reaction of the masses which is not based on full understanding of the situation?
I don't doubt that empathy can sometimes get it right, particularly when our empathy is prompted by wise and moral individuals. As for the specific case of Aylan Kurdi, I don't know. It led to a temporary spike in donations to various causes that I support, which is a good thing. On the other hand, if our empathy for the suffering of Syrian children leads us to get into a terrible and irrational war, it will be yet another case where our empathic reaction made the world much worse. 

Another big part of the book is the bias in empathy. It is an emotion that is very open to bias – be it in terms of racism, xenophobia or attraction. I think most people – and I'm not talking about demagogues; just nice "normal" people – would rather not think of their empathy that ugly way.
Empathy works like a spotlight and zooms us in on people, so it is really vulnerable to biases. Laboratory studies have been done showing we feel more empathy for people who are attractive, those who we consider safe over those we see as dangerous, those we affiliate with – a lot of that's common sense, really. One example I use in the book is the case of child beggars in India and Africa. There are a lot of studies suggesting that by giving to these kids you make the situation worse: these kids are sometimes effectively enslaved by criminal organisations who take a cut, and by giving money you are supporting that.

I was once on a radio programme talking about charitable giving. On the programme with me was a minister who was shocked by my recounting this example. She said, "No! This is terrible! I love giving to beggars, and to children in particular, because I feel human contact and intimacy." To that I said, "You should give that money to, say, Oxfam," and she said, "I don't want to go on my computer and type things in – I want more." So it depends what you want. If you want to feel good, give to the street kids. If you want to make the world a better place, give that money in a better way. 

So there's even maybe a selfish aspect tied into typical empathic reactions? People like to feel good, and that's a common result of acting empathically rather than rationally? 
Philosopher Peter Singer describes some people as "warm glow givers" – they give to a multitude of causes and charities, a little to each one, getting a little buzz each time. Singer says it would be better if you looked into which charity worked the best and gave to that. This is the argument for effective altruism. We see the same issue in our everyday life as parents or with friends, where what I can do for my sons that makes them happy in the short-term and gives me a buzz too isn't necessarily what's best for them in the long run. 

So how would you like to see your book used, applied for a better functioning world? 
I wrote the book because I think we should change a lot of the ways in which we act. One example specific to America is the use of "victim impact statements" during sentencing for crimes. I think it's understandable – it gives victims a voice. But I think it's also incredibly unjust. What then happens is that the sentencing of the criminal is largely decided by how a judge or jury empathises with the victim. What that means in the long run in America is you are going to get a longer sentence if you rape a white woman than a black woman, or a bigger punishment if your victim is attractive or if the relatives of your murder victim are articulate. More generally I would like a cultural change. I want to see a change where when a politician says, "We have to change our healthcare policy because, well, let me tell you this story about a little girl…" people will object. I would like to see people say, "Screw that, it's a dumb way of doing things – let's hear the actual arguments."

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