Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
7 scholars and legal experts dissect what you can and can't say in America.
- The free speech debate typically happens at either end of a spectrum — people believe they should be able to say whatever they want, or they believe that certain things (e.g. hate speech) should be censored. Who is right, and who gets to decide?
- While they acknowledge that speech is a powerful weapon that can cause infinite good and infinite harm, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, sociologist Nicholas Christakis, author and skeptic Michael Shermer, and others agree that the principle should be defended for everyone, not just for those who share our views. "I'm not defending the Nazis," says Strossen, "I'm defending a principle that is especially important for those of us who want to have the freedom to raise our voices, to protest the Nazis and everything they stand for."
- However, as Strossen and attorney Floyd Abrams point out, there have always been boundaries when it comes to free speech and the First Amendment. There are rules, established by the Supreme Court, meant to ensure that speech is not used to inflict "imminent, specific harm" on others.
Most people believe you can win an argument with facts - but when "facts" are so often subject to doubt, are personal experiences trusted more?
- A new study has found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts.
- The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory in order to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
- The effectiveness of facts in these conversations (even when proven true) is unclear because facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics such as gun control and political beliefs.
Researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Wharton School of Business have found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts. The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory and to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
Use personal experience, not facts, to gain respect in a disagreement
Do personal anecdotes mean more than facts in a world where facts can't be trusted?
Image by ngupakarti on Adobe Stock
According to the study, both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in a political discussion will help foster mutual respect and understanding — however, all fifteen of these experiments (across multiple methodologies and issues) show that isn't quite true.
These studies were conducted using topics that have proved quite polarizing in the past, such as:
- Conversations about guns
- Discussion over comments from YouTube videos regarding abortion opinions
- An archive of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN
"What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
In the first study (n = 251), participants were asked to "imagine someone disagrees with you on moral issues" (abortion, for example). They were then asked, "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
Responses were then categorized into themes with a majority of respondents (55.78 percent) stating that basing one's stance on facts and statistics would increase respect, followed by basing one's stance on personal experiences (21.12 percent), followed by an understanding of mutual respect (14.34 percent).
"When discussing political beliefs, who is more rational?"
Next, a sample of participants (n = 859) was asked to imagine interacting with two political opponents, one who based their beliefs on facts, and one who based their beliefs on personal experiences. Participants rated their imaginary fact-based opponent as more rational than the opponent who based their stance on personal experiences. They also voted that they respected them more and wanted to interact with them more.
A separate study from this experiment (study number four, n = 177) had participants weighing in on topics such as taxes, coal, and gun policies. They then were asked to read about individuals who disagreed with them on these subjects either due to personal experiences or factual knowledge. Participants in this study rated how rational their opponent seemed, and those who based their arguments on personal experience were perceived as more rational than those basing their opinions on factual knowledge.
How does this translate to real-world conversations?
This section of the experiment had 153 participants engaging in conversations on the street (with people they assumed were passersby but were actually members of the research team) about the topic of gun control. Analyses of these conversations revealed that strangers who based their stance on personal experiences were treated as more rational (and were more respected/interacted with more) by participants than those who based their stance on facts.
Confirming the theory that even when facts are true, personal experiences garner more respect and willingness to engage in conversation.
This experiment (n = 194) sought to reaffirm the theory that personal experiences garnered more respect while ruling out possible alternative explanations. The researchers contrasted concrete facts about gun control (taken from JustFacts.com) with personal experiences. For example, someone reading an annual report that mentions 73 percent of murders in the United States are committed with firearms (factual knowledge) versus "someone's young daughter was hit by a stray bullet" (experience-driven argument).
This study found that these facts were rated as higher in specificity and concreteness than the personal experience, however, personal experiences gained more respect and willingness to discuss the topic.
Facts, even when proven true, are often less respected than personal experiences.
When imagining these different kinds of arguments, everyday Americans believe that supporting their belief with facts will lead to respect. However, the effectiveness of facts (even when proven correct) is unclear. The problem is, in the past decades, American has seen a decentralization of news and information that has allowed people to gather their "own facts." Facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics.
Study confirms the existence of a special kind of groupthink in large groups.
- Large groups of people everywhere tend to come to the same conclusions.
- In small groups, there's a much wider diversity of ideas.
- The mechanics of a large group make some ideas practically inevitable.
People make sense of the world by organizing things into categories and naming them. "These are circles." "That's a tree." "Those are rocks." It's one way we tame our world. There's a weird correspondence between different cultures, though — even though we come from different places and very different circumstances, cultures everywhere develop largely the same categorizations.
"But this raises a big scientific puzzle," says Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania. "If people are so different, why do anthropologists find the same categories, for instance for shapes, colors, and emotions, arising independently in many different cultures? Where do these categories come from and why is there so much similarity across independent populations?"
Centola is the senior investigator of a new study in the journal Nature Communications from the Network Dynamics Group (NDG) at the Annenberg School for Communication that explores how such categorization happens.
Some have theorized that these categories are innate—pre-wired in our brains—but the study says "nope." Its authors hypothesize that it has more to do with the dynamics of large groups, or networks.
The grouping game
Some of the shapes used in the experiment
Credit: Guilbeault, et al./University of Pennsylvania
The researchers tested their theory with 1,480 people playing an online "Grouping Game" via Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. The individuals were paired with another participant or made a member of a group of 6, 8, 24, or 50 people. Each pair and group were tasked with categorizing the symbols shown above, and they could see each other's answers.
The small groups came up with wildly divergent categories—the entire experiment produced nearly 5,000 category suggestions—while the larger groups came up with categorization systems that were virtually identical to each other.
Says Centola, "Even though we predicted it, I was nevertheless stunned to see it really happen. This result challenges many long-held ideas about culture and how it forms."
Nor was this unanimity a matter of having teamed-up like-minded individuals. "If I assign an individual to a small group," says lead author Douglas Guilbeault, "they are much more likely to arrive at a category system that is very idiosyncratic and specific to them. But if I assign that same individual to a large group, I can predict the category system that they will end up creating, regardless of whatever unique viewpoint that person happens to bring to the table."
Why this happens
The many categories suggested by small groups on the left, the few from large groups on the right
Credit: Guilbeault, et al./Nature Communications
The striking results of the experiment correspond to a previous study done by NDG that investigated tipping points for people's behavior in networks.
That study concluded that after an idea enters a discussion among a large network of people, it can gain irresistible traction by popping up again and again in enough individuals' conversations. In networks of 50 people or more, such ideas eventually reach critical mass and become a prevailing opinion.
The same phenomenon does not happen often enough within a smaller network, where fewer interactions offer an idea less of an opportunity to take hold.
The study's finding raises an interesting practical possibility: Would categorization-related decisions made by large groups be less likely to fall prey to members' individual biases?
With this question in mind, the researchers are currently looking into content moderation on Facebook and Twitter. They're investigating whether the platforms would be wiser when categorizing content as free speech or hate speech if large groups were making these decisions instead of lone individuals working at these companies.
Similarly, they're also exploring the possibility that larger networks of doctors and healthcare professionals might be better at making diagnoses that would avoid biases such as racism or sexism that could cloud the judgment of individual practitioners.
"Many of the worst social problems reappear in every culture," notes Centola, "which leads some to believe these problems are intrinsic to the human condition. Our research shows that these problems are intrinsic to the social experiences humans have, not necessarily to humans themselves. If we can alter that social experience, we can change the way people organize things, and address some of the world's greatest problems."
Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river...
These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word 'transcendent' in Wittgenstein's writings, you'll likely find 'misunderstanding' or 'nonsense' nearby.
When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: 'The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.' With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a 'religious point of view' but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.
'The man' who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can't do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?
One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that's in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can't capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.
What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it's unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.
Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn't a sequence of moves. It's something we do to make the game possible in the first place.
One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. 'The river is overflowing its banks' and 'The word river is a noun' are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it's like saying 'The bishop moves diagonally', and it's no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.
What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn't a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There's nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you're clear that that's what you're doing. If you say: 'The king moves just like the queen,' you're either saying something false about our game of chess or you're proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he's talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he's simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we're doing one thing when in fact we're doing another.
But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. 'In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,' Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn't true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren't right or wrong – they're the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.
What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you'd need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You'd need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it's meant to represent. In other words, you'd need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?
The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There's a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein's religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn't try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn't liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.
Wittgenstein's remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn't transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.