Paul Bloom | Against Empathy (Episode 578)

Paul Bloom | Against Empathy (Episode 578)

Paul Bloom (@paulbloomatyale) is a developmental psychologist and author who returns to discuss his newly published book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • How do you define empathy — and do you believe it’s a crucial component to “good” behavior?
  • Learn why empathy actually does more harm than good by making us focus on smaller problems that affect one person over solving the bigger, intangible ones that affect the entire population.
  • How does empathy direct us to help in fundamentally biased ways?
  • Why did we evolve empathy in the first place?
  • Understand the differences between empathy, sympathy, and compassion (and why it matters in our decisions).
  • And so much more…

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Most of us are taught from an early age that empathy is an important part of being a “good” person. But Paul Bloom, developmental psychologist and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, rejoins us at The Art of Charm to talk about why we should take a deeper, logical look at the notion of empathy so we don’t misdefine and misapply it in ways that do us — and others — more harm than good. This may seem infuriatingly negative at first glance, but trust us — it will all make sense as you listen to the episode. Enjoy!

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We tend to think of the capacity to feel empathy as a good thing. If we’re not able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to feel their pain, then aren’t we lacking a fundamental piece of what makes us human?

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion author Paul Bloom disagrees, but give him a chance before you condemn him as some kind of cold-blooded psychopath.

“I argue that empathy…is biased,” says Paul. “It’s innumerate; it’s irrational; it leads us to all sorts of moral mistakes; it’s a catalyst for violence and cruelty. We’re much better off — the subtitle is ‘The Case for Rational Compassion’ — combining rationality, a sense of the right thing to do, cost and benefits and so on, with compassion — kindness towards others.

“Basically, if you feel other people’s pain, it motivates you to want to help them. And in the short term, with just one person around, that’s great. But when you start using this as a way to direct policy and criminal justice and when to go to war, it has horrible consequences.”

Part of the problem is not so much that empathy drives us to help people, but it dictates who we want to help. We’re more compelled to feel the pain of people who are close to us in some way — our friends, family, people who look like us, people who belong to the same ethnicity, and attractive people, to name a few. But people who are out of sight on the other side of the world, or are seen as enemies, or in some way frighten or disgust us don’t evoke empathy. “Empathy directs help in a fundamentally biased way,” says Paul.

And then there’s the fact that empathy will direct us to focus on helping one person so chosen by our own biases at the expense of focusing on bigger problems that potentially affect entire populations. “It’s because of empathy we care more about a little girl stuck in a well than we do about the problem of climate change,” Paul says.

This speaks to perhaps the biggest reason to eschew empathy: it’s not very efficient. Consider the medical staff in a hospital emergency room and how too much empathy would be a hindrance to their job performance. Lives would be lost if doctors and nurses couldn’t be cool-headed enough to separate themselves from the pain their patients experience in order to do what it takes to alleviate that pain. And this is why even the most experienced surgeon in the world wouldn’t generally be allowed to operate on their own child, spouse, or best friend.

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about compassion as a better alternative to empathy (and why the two words aren’t synonymous), why mindfulness meditation seems to facilitate compassion, how medical professionals are able to treat patients with compassion and problem-solving curiosity instead of empathy, why our loved ones would rather we show up with the response of compassion over the sharing of empathy when they’re having a bad day, the difference between sympathy and empathy, what cognitive empathy is and how it can be used for good and evil, common misconceptions about psychopathy and how they relate to empathy, the merits of effective altruism over blind charity, and more.

THANKS, PAUL BLOOM!

If you enjoyed this session with Paul Bloom, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

Click here to thank Paul Bloom at Twitter!

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 727 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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