By Theo Winter
An article in the Wall Street Journal is making waves.
Its author has a bone to pick with… wait for it… empathy.
Yes, you read that correctly. Some guy on the internet has a problem with empathy. And he’s got a news flash for all of us: empathy is bad, m’kay.
I just ignored the headline at first, assuming it was clickbait by a crank or a con—of the "be controversial and get noticed" school of marketing. (I have this thing about not rewarding bad journalistic behaviour with my mouse. Internet, my old friend, you have fooled me one too many times.)
But then I noticed a number of respectable authors, scientists, and thinkers were all talking about the anti-empathy article. So at that point I did what any principled, independent-minded person would when made aware of a popular trend. I immediately caved and jumped on the bandwagon.
The author creating the stir is, as it turns out, no wackadoodle. He’s Dr. Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University, a TED speaker, and popular lecturer who appears in a number of online videos. (For example, his Think Big video on The Psychology of Everything has received over 500,000 views.)
Just released this month, Dr. Bloom’s new book is called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In an animated video promoting his book, Dr. Bloom doesn’t mince words:
"I'm arguing that empathy is fundamentally, from a moral standpoint, a bad thing. It makes the world worse."
You heard right, folks. Dr. Bloom hates kittens and wants the world to descend into eternal darkness.
Well, not quite. Let’s unpack, shall we.
The Case Against Empathy
Definitions are critical here. Dr. Bloom distinguishes between two types of empathy:
1. cognitive empathy (understanding someone's perspective) 2. emotional empathy (sharing in someone’s feelings).
Dr. Bloom doesn't use the word "empathy" to mean the 1st type—cognitive empathy. When most of us use the term empathy, according to Dr. Bloom, we mean the 2nd type—emotional empathy—which, when it comes to guiding our decisions, is “a moral train wreck.”
Oookaaay then. How so?
There's quite a few carriages riding on this train of thought, but here's the main cargo: Getting caught up in someone’s emotional situation is problematic because it biases and distorts our thinking, making us irrational, immoral, tribal, and even racist. It’s why people care more about a little white girl stuck down a well than about climate change or earthquakes that affect thousands in a foreign country.
There's plenty of other examples and research that Dr. Bloom cites as ammunition to make his commentary sound less like a satirical piece in The Onion written by a fictitious psychopath with an axe to grind, and something more reminiscent of the movie Concussion, in which a brilliant, cerebral dissection by a seriously smart and courageous doctor reveals a hidden medical issue that challenges deeply held assumptions.
Empathy, we’re challenged to believe, is dangerously shortsighted. It prevents us from being rational, levelheaded moral responders, or what Peter Singer calls “effective altruists”—people who work out where their charitable donations of time and money are most needed or best spent.
For Dr. Bloom, there’s a superior alternative to empathy: compassion. As a state of general goodwill, compassion has “all of the benefits of empathy and few of the costs.” For example, in loving-kindness meditation participants are told to direct warm feelings toward others—but not actually jump into their shoes and go for a walk. We're told there are not just practical but also neurological differences between empathy and compassion. Empathy training leads to “increased activation in the insula and cingulate cortex” while compassion training leads to “activation in other parts of the brain, such as the ventral striatum.” Empathy seems to be more taxing (it “wore people out”) as compared with compassion meditators who felt better, not worse, after the training and, perhaps more significantly, demonstrated kinder behaviour.
So, the hell with empathy and all you hippy a-holes who promote it, right?
While I believe that Dr. Bloom makes many excellent points and I find his moral-political analysis insightful and enriching, I'm not persuaded by his basic anti-empathy sentiment. For one thing, I would question his narrow definition of "empathy" when I've personally experienced many people who use this term far more broadly. As Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, points out Dr. Bloom conflates empathy with sympathy, which is a problematic start. I also question the way in which the whole argument is being sold. To be against empathy, rather than against sympathy, or holding to a more nuanced position along the lines of the shortcomings of empathy—and even going so far as to paint empathy as “fundamentally bad”—is, in my opinion, critically flawed and potentially dangerous. Confusingly, this claim is apparently contradicted by a statement in this interview in which Dr. Bloom admits that empathy can't be "all bad" and, among other benefits, it "can serve as a moral spark, motivating us to do good things." Huh? How can something that is fundamentally morally bad also be sort of morally good?
From my perspective, I don't believe it's a question of is empathy fundamentally good or bad, but rather how is empathy expressed in complex human systems? As with basic emotional states such as anger, disgust, pride, and envy, empathy—which has both emotional and cognitive components—has the potential to lead to positive and negative outcomes, depending on the interplay of a multitude of individual and situational factors. As noted by Leslie Jamison, a doctor who responded empathetically to her situation was able to offer extremely effective care because his concern was specific, focused, and personal, rather than generally compassionate. Empathy is arguably at the very heart of successful communication, emotional bonding, and trust in human relationships. Anyone who has worked in a sales or leadership role should understand this power well.
But again, confusingly, Dr. Bloom acknowledges in one place that, like anger, too much empathy or too little empathy would be undesirable, yet in another place he is advocating for the removal of empathy from the decision making process, suggests we would be better off without it, and very openly states his intention to persuade you to "be against empathy, too."
Though I am certainly not under the illusion that empathy is, by any means, perfect, and I applaud Dr. Bloom for raising important concerns about its impact on matters of policy, justice, and moral decision making, I remain sceptical of the claim that empathy actually makes the world a worse place.
For more, I recommend this excellent page from the Boston Review that has published a number of responses from leading thinkers to Dr. Bloom, with a range of perspectives and arguments, both for and against.
Feel free to buy Dr. Bloom's book here. I will be passing on the purchase.
Theo Winter is author of "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders." He works as Client Manager, Writer & Researcher for DTS International. Connect with DTS on Twitter. Connect with Theo on Twitter or LinkedIn.