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 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: 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.
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The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
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