Empathy Is Overrated – And It Can Actually Prolong Suffering
Oasis had it right: stop crying your heart out. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy may be working against our best interests, and that compassion may be a better strategy.
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. An internationally recognized expert on the psychology of child development, social reasoning, and morality, he has won numerous awards for his research, writing, and teaching. Bloom’s previous books include Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil and How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, and he has written for Science, Nature, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Paul Bloom: I argued empathy is a poor moral guide. It’s biased. It’s enumerate. It zaps the spirit. It can be weaponized to make us worse people. But one question I often get is what replaces it? And in my book I make a distinction between empathy and compassion. Now a lot of people think the terms mean the same thing and it’s not an argument of words. You can use whatever words you want. But psychologically there are two different processes. One is what I’ve been calling empathy which is you’re suffering, I put myself in your shoes. I feel your pain and that has all sorts of effects, most of them bad I would argue. But a second distinct process is compassion where I care about you. I care about your welfare but I don’t necessarily feel your suffering. Now you might say well that’s just a verbal difference or how do we know such a compassion exists. But there’s some really cool research exploring this and actually I got into this because I was at a conference in London and I bumped into Matthieu Ricard. He was hard to miss, long saffron robes, beatific smile. The happiest man on earth. And I got to talking to him and he asked me what I was up to and I told him that I was against empathy. And to me that felt kind of awkward but I thought, you know, telling a monk you’re against empathy. But he said oh, empathy. Of course you should be against empathy. And he began to tell me about his research and then I realized there’s a body of research, neuroscience research that distinguishes empathy from compassion, exactly the distinction I was looking for where they put people in scanners, FMRI scanners and they get them to engage in empathy meditation where you feel the suffering of the other person.
You imagine feeling it. And you compare that to compassion meditation where you care for people. Loving kindness they call it. Without any empathic connection. And this work which was done in collaboration to the neuroscientist Tania Singer illustrates a real sharp difference where empathy is exhausting, it is unpleasant, it is difficult and it makes you withdraw. Compassion is exhilarating, it’s energizing, it is seen as a positive experience and it makes you approach. It makes you more likely to help. And since then there’s been other researchers. Some work by David DeSteno out of Northwestern looking at the effects of mindfulness meditation. And I’m naturally skeptical about this work. A lot of claims about mindfulness meditation are often overblown and I think we should be cautious about them. But DeSteno’s work has been replicated a few times and it seems robust. And the finding is it makes us nicer. It makes us more compassionate and more kind for strangers. And there’s not exactly consensus as to why this is so but one speculation they have is it makes us nicer because it dampens our empathic feelings. Less empathy, more compassion, more kindness.
A lot of relationships are based on other things and I actually think for many relationships empathy gets in the way. So think about what you want from a doctor or a therapist. You want them to understand you. You want them to care about you. But do you want them to feel your pain and feel your suffering? On the one hand if they do so, they’ll be exhausted. They’ll suffer from burnout. If a therapist sees a series of patients for 50 minutes each day and she feels their depression, their anxiety, their fear, their anguish she wouldn’t make it through a week. But more than that it would make them less effective at what they do. Think about what you want when you see a doctor and you’re very anxious. Do you want the doctor to be anxious? No, you want the doctor to respect you, to understand you, to listen to you, to be concerned about you. But not to echo your anxiety or your fear. Certainly for a therapist if I go to see my therapist and I’m deeply depressed I don’t want her to get deeply depressed. Now I have two problems. I have me and I have her. I want her to look at me with that therapist look and say so how does that make you feel? I want her to have some distance from me so she can set herself to solving my problems and to providing a more realistic perspective. Or take parenting. You might have a teenage son or teenage daughter who’s extremely anxious for some reason, maybe he or she left the homework for the last minute and is just freaking out.
A good parent does not freak out along with their child. A good parent says okay, calm down. Let’s take a minute. Let’s figure out what to do. Take a breath. And is supportive and calm and loving. But doesn’t inherit the anxieties and sufferings of their children. Part of what it is to love somebody is not to share their suffering but try to make it go away. Now it is complicated. In intimate relationships I think there is a place for empathy. Often we want to share our feelings and we want to share the feelings of others. Sometimes in a romantic relationship, a couple, one person will feel angry or humiliated or upset and wants their partner to feel the same thing to share it. Sometimes if you have a kid and your kid is enthusiastic about something sharing the kids enthusiasm is important. I don’t doubt that empathy plays some such role but I think we tend to overstate it. I think when we think hard about what other people need, what it takes to be a good person, a good friend, a good parent what really matters is understanding and compassion but empathy often gets in the way.
In some way my book is an optimistic book because I argue about all of our limitations and how empathy leads us astray. But in order to make that argument we also have to have an appreciation of we’re smart enough to realize that empathy could lead us astray and that we’re smart enough to act so as to override its pernicious effects. So it’s empathy that causes me to favor somebody who looks like me over somebody who doesn’t. Or somebody from my country or ethnicity over a stranger. But it’s rationality that leads me to say hey, that’s not reasonable. There’s no reason to do it. It’s not fair. It’s not impartial. And so we should try to override empathy. So what I argue is that we have the capacity for rationality and reason. This is actually fairly controversial. In my field my fellow psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists often argue that we’re prisoners of their emotions, that we’re fundamentally and profoundly irrational. And that reason plays very little role in our every day lives. And a good one of the main goals of my work is to argue against that. Now there’s a specific argument that is often made which I think is just not a good argument at all which is to say well, determinism of a sort is true. What we do, how we act, how we think is the product of events that have started a very long time ago plus physical law. We are physical creatures. We can’t escape from causality so we’ll just continue doing what we’re doing.
And for the most part I actually agree with that. I think that notions of more responsibility can be reconciled with determinism. But I think determinism is correct but none of that challenges rationality. And as an illustration you could imagine a computer that’s entirely determined but is also entirely rational. You could imagine another computer that’s entirely determined but is capricious and arbitrary and random. And so even in a deterministic universe the question remains what sort of computer are we. Are we emotional creatures or are we rational creatures? But there is nothing, not the slightest bit of inconsistency between the claim that we live in a determined universe and that we’re rational reasoning creatures.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s latest book is called Against Empathy, which doesn’t leave you guessing where he stands. Bloom argues that empathy is doing us damage – there is a place for it, but not so high up on society’s pedestal. Empathy can cloud our decision-making, and bring us too close to problems that require action rather than commiserations. Realizing that begs the question: in a world with less empathy, how do we connect and help our fellow humans? Bloom is banking on compassion, and makes a distinction between the two that transcends semantics: empathy is feeling what other people feel, imagining their predicament, echoing their emotional state. Compassion is more rational: you hear the other person’s predicament but you don’t feel their emotion – this frees you up to understand it, and to make headway on a solution. Bloom likens it to seeing a doctor or a therapist. Do you want them to feel and echo your pain or anxiety, or would prefer that they do something about it? If empathy is as overrated as Bloom suggests, then compassion may be the better way to show you care. Paul Bloom is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.
Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.
Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036ae7b8dd661df2d125a3421a0299ba"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bcVruA0AJ-o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."
Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.
- A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
- Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
- An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
Credit: logika600 / Shutterstock<p>Remaining healthy requires regular screenings. Here again we see a disassociation between risk reduction and proactivity. Seventy-seven percent of respondents don't talk to their doctors about lifestyle habits that support brain health; 51 percent have never been screened for depression; 44 percent have never had a neurological exam; and 32 percent have never been screened for hearing problems. </p><p>Common early warning signs of dementia, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to</a> Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center, include repetitive questions and stories, difficulties with complex daily tasks, and trouble with orientation. </p><p>In terms of intervention, <a href="https://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/does-lack-of-exercise-lead-to-dementia" target="_self">exercise</a>, <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/obesity-dementia" target="_self">diet</a>, building a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-reserve" target="_self">brain reserve</a>, and challenging your brain (such as learning a new language or musical instrument) are all proven methods for staving off the ravages of Alzheimer's. Oxytocin has also <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/alzheimers-oxytocin" target="_self">showed promise</a> in brain-addled mice, while researchers found positive results for a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/intermittent-fasting" target="_self">group of intermittent fasters</a> in promoting neurogenesis. </p><p>Epidemiologist Bryan James says that dementia is <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/04/15/176920391/how-exercise-and-other-activities-beat-back-dementia" target="_blank">not an inevitable result</a> of aging. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia." </p><p>Professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, Andrew Budson, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends</a> aerobic exercise and the Mediterranean diet. As has long been known, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and healthy fasts like nuts and olive oil seem to have brain-boosting properties. </p><p>To learn more, take the <a href="https://www.mdvip.com/brain-health-iq-quiz" target="_blank">Brain Health IQ quiz</a>.</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>