Against Empathy: Why Emotion-Based Politics Lead to Inaction

The ranking of empathy from highest to lowest goes liberals, conservatives, libertarians. But the difference is minor, says Paul Bloom. Typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize – it’s over who to empathize with.

Paul Bloom: When I tell people I’ve been writing a book against empathy often they look at me suspiciously because most of my friends are liberal and say wait, is this some sort of conservative book? Are you attacking liberals and progressives? And it’s a natural question to ask because a lot of people associate empathy with liberal and progressive politics and they associate other traits with conservatives. The conservatives would say they associate reason with conservatives. The liberals would say we associate selfishness and self-interest with conservatives. But one thing people often agree about is that on both sides is that the liberals are more empathic for better or worse. And, if so, then my attack on empathy is an attack on liberal politics. And that would certainly be interesting. But that’s not the way I’m going to go. I think there’s some experimental evidence that actually liberals are a little bit more impacted than conservatives. There’s empathy tests that you could give and it turns that liberal score a little bit higher than conservatives. With Libertarians below everybody kind of on the floor here. But it’s not a big difference. And it turns out that when it comes to political debates typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize, it’s over who to empathize with. Do you empathize with black teenagers who are shot by cops. Or do you empathize with cops who have a difficult and dangerous job. Do you empathize with the parents of a toddler who got shot by a gun due to lax gun laws.

Or do you empathize with somebody who is raped because she is not permitted, has no right to own a gun to defend herself. Do you empathize with the woman or the fetus. Do you empathize with the beneficiary of affirmative action who otherwise wouldn’t get into a college or with the white kid who is going to get in because his grades are great but isn’t going to get in because he’s white. And so on and so forth. Every sort of argument where liberals and conservatives face off against, each side points to somebody to empathize with and argues that way. And I think this is a horrible way to have political discussions. Any policy of any scope from affirmative action to gun laws to abortion laws is going to have some winners and losers. And inevitably people who suffer upon any application of law. And so pointing out oh, let me tell you the story of somebody who suffered. Somebody who suffered because of Obamacare. Somebody who suffered because we’re getting rid of Obamacare. It’s a stupid argument. It’s an appeal to the passion while what you really want to know is statistics. You want to know well how many people are suffering. How many people are better off this way and how many people are worse off that way.

Now I said for many political debates it’s always a question of who you empathize with. But not for all of them. There’s some political positions, some moral and social positions where empathy just favors one side of the issue. But I think it tends to favor the wrong side. So one of these issues is climate change. A lot of people are concerned about climate change because they believe I think with a lot of evidence that unchecked it will lead to suffering of millions or perhaps billions of people. But there’s nobody to empathize with. There’s no single person you could point to and say see that crying child. She’s crying because of climate change. It doesn’t work that way. The argument is statistical. On the other hand if you were to try to respond to climate change by raising gasoline taxes or doing some sort of other social intervention then there will be crying children. There’ll be people who suffer. So empathy set argues for inaction where I think the right policy would involve some sort of action. A second example is free speech where empathy I think is always on the side of a censor. Because if I say something that offends somebody on the right, on the left. If I mock some beloved figure. If I use some terms that some group doesn’t like people will suffer. And if you’re empathic with their suffering that’ll be a good argument for shutting me up. On the other hand if you have rigorous laws preventing people from speech, hate speech laws, anti-free speech laws it’s hard to see the empathic concern here.

The arguments in favor of free speech don’t tend to be empathic arguments. They tend to be arguments based on moral principles like people should have a right to communicate themselves. Long-term utilitarian benefits like society is better off if everybody has a voice. Selfish benefits of the sort. If I let you say your stuff that I don’t like you’ll let me say my stuff that you don’t like. But they aren’t empathic arguments. And here again empathy favors one side of the story which is to shut people up, to censor people. And here again I think it favors the wrong side of the story.

Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.


The title of Paul Bloom's latest book may ruffle a few feathers; it's called Against Empathy. Empathy has come into its own of late, held on a pedestal as one of the most glorified emotional skills – but Bloom argues that at times it can cloud our judgement. When it comes to political debates, typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize, it’s over who to empathize with, he says. There are some political issues, such as climate change and free speech, in which empathy favors one side of the issue, and encourages inaction over action.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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