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 scientists show that tides created tidal pools, stranding fish and forcing them to get out of the water.
- The researchers ran computer simulations to get their results.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains the Tides<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9913a65f847775722d7c23d40d78938b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dBwNadry-TU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
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- A study surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person, regardless of the person's age or gender.
- The most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.
- The dangerous effects of optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, salience bias, and internet echo chambers.
Optimism bias<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTAzNDM0Mn0.vRtlUDOpCnC_ZOdjxZUpRL5J9fnBeITmXXIPOMXOzhg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C2291%2C0%2C1908&height=700" id="abbcf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff0569ffedf799d7a1237068dc1ee72f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="smiley paint on gray ground in front of people" />Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash<p>Most people have a tendency to overestimate the chances of experiencing a positive (like getting a promotion), and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative event (like getting robbed or sick). Typically a benign — even beneficial — human quirk, the "optimism bias" could be contributing to the spread of coronavirus according to behavioral psychologists.</p><p>Experts argue that it has caused people to discount their individual chances of contracting COVID-19, despite being aware of its risk to the rest of the population. A study that was conducted over three phases this year surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person is, regardless of the person's age or gender. </p><p>"This is very typical of what optimism bias is," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/22/why-optimism-bias-could-be-unhelpful-in-a-pandemic-say-psychologists.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told CNBC Make It</a>. "You usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is lower than people like you, and the likelihood of you experiencing positive events is higher than other people like you."</p><p>According to Sharot, optimism bias is a product of our tendency to vividly imagine positive future events and attribute more probability to them happening. </p><p>In certain circumstances, such as in our jobs and relationships, this can be beneficial by encouraging us to behave in ways that may contribute to positive outcomes, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we're in a pandemic, and it's having a concerning impact on our ability to assess risk and react appropriately. As time goes on and COVID-19 cases <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/26/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to rise and spread</a> the threat of the virus is becoming a background hum to everyday life making this bias worse. </p><p>"I think now the risk is greater because we have gotten used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.</p><p>The United States is now reporting the greatest number of cases it's seen to date, with a seven-day average of daily new cases reaching 68,767 on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. </p>
Other menacing biases<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzA1OTMwOX0.f68UAZY--fN5yJ_26v7OjhQG5Ieda_HQx_iDF5NKHJI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C30%2C0%2C31&height=700" id="79c78" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8b155c7f4503e53d756c1451be9874c8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images<p>Optimism bias may be compounded by <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7144592/" target="_blank">confirmation bias</a>, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories while disregarding information that contradicts one's preferred narrative of reality. Salience bias is also at play, leading people to underplay or discount the threat of something they cannot see such as a microscopic virus or sick people in the hospital.</p><p>Additionally, internet echo chambers exacerbate these cognitive biases. When others share our viewpoints, our biases are typically inflated, and it's never been easier to curate our social circles with networks of people who do exactly that. This feeds into the tribalism and polarization that has added to the challenges of getting a majority of the U.S. population to comply with virus safety measures. Think, for example, how the act of <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/face-masks-transmission" target="_blank">wearing a mask has become politicized</a> in the U.S. as a perceived badge as to which group one belongs to, masks often being associated with liberal-leaning people and no masks (<a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/christian-nationalism" target="_blank">anti-maskers</a>) being associated with the far-right. </p>