Maria Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and a contributor for The New Yorker, where she writes a column on psychology and culture. Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, and most recently, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Paul and Maria recently got on the phone for a Heleo Conversation in defense of not feeling others’ pain.
Maria: Against Empathy is probably not what people expect when they think of the word “empathy.”
Paul: Many people have an odd reaction to the title. When I argue against empathy, I’m not arguing against goodness or morality or kindness or love. I think those are real, terrific things. I’m not arguing with understanding other people. What I’m arguing about is how people often use the term empathy—putting yourself in other people’s shoes, feeling their pain, feeling their experience.
A lot of people think that that makes us good people, that it guides our moral decisions, but I argue that this makes us worse. That empathy is biased, it can motivate cruelty. By zooming in on one person, we lose the big picture, and it leads us to a lot of foolish decisions.
Maria: I’d love to focus on the distinction between empathy as being a good person and empathy as “I feel your pain.” How did you first decide that empathy wasn’t actually what people think of as empathy?
Paul: My day job is a developmental psychologist. I study kids. I’m really interested in their moral behavior, their sense of right and wrong, and what motivates their actions. By looking at kids over the years, I’ve come to the view that our emotions often lead us morally astray. Our emotions have evolved through natural selection, they’re adaptive in an evolutionary sense. When it comes to the everyday world, they make us worse people. An example is disgust. We’re often disgusted at things, at people, at certain sex acts. It’s an irrational emotion, it leads to a lot of hatred towards out-groups, hatred towards people of different sexualities than our own.
When I tell people this, they say, “Yeah, that makes sense. Disgust, that’s awful.” But I wondered how far one could push it. Take the emotion that people immediately thought was the best, empathy. Even this emotion can lead us astray. To make this argument, I make a distinction between empathy and compassion. I see you in your suffering, and you’re sad. I could feel empathy for you, feel your sadness, feel your pain, but I could also just care for you, want to make your life better, and want to help you. That’s compassion.
Maria: You raised a really interesting example in your book about donations to cities after something terrible happens—for instance, the Sandy Hook massacre. Chicago has many more children that need help than the families of wealthy Sandy Hook. When I read that I thought, “Huh.” I had never considered that giving donations in the wake of something terrible could be a bad thing. How is that the difference between empathy and compassion?
Paul: I got into a discussion once with somebody about charitable giving. I pointed out that I had read an article in Slate about child beggars—it said don’t give to child beggars in Africa and India, because although they might evoke your feelings of empathy and concern, actually giving to them makes the world worse. You support situations where kids are enslaved, often maimed, and by giving to them you encourage this. The answer isn’t to do nothing, but the answer is to give to organizations. This person was shocked. She said, “But what about the human connection? What about the warm rush of feeling I get? What about the empathy I experience?”
If you want a buzz, if you want to feel good about yourself, if you want this sort of warm feeling of connection, by all means give to the kids. But if you want to make the world a better place, then you should do something else. You shouldn’t listen to your heart. You should want to help the kids, and helping the kids will involve doing something different.
Take a family example. If my kid is coming to me and freaking out because he hasn’t done his homework, it’s not the right response for me to feel immediate empathy and freak out with him, and say, “Let’s step back, let’s take a break, let’s forget about your homework.” Rather, I should try to calm him down and say, “Okay, let’s take a break and then get started on your homework again, because it’s important.” Even if he’s very anxious, I shouldn’t feel his anxiety. Rather, because I love him, I should want to make his life better. That might even involve him doing some things in the short term that he doesn’t want to do.
Maria: I think that that is the opposite of what we would normally do. We want, right away, to jump to our kid’s defense, and we might actually judge a parent who doesn’t do that. Ironically, empathy can lead us to situations where we negatively judge someone for doing something that, in the long term, would make their kids better off.
Your point is really easy for a lot of people to relate to on a global level, but when it comes to the particulars, to personal interactions, it’s much more difficult. It’s very different to understand this rationally versus than it is to apply it to your own life, your own kids, and your own warm, fuzzy feelings.
Paul: Definitely. In intimate relationships, parents, kids, lovers, friends, it’s something I struggle with. I have to take a pretty hard line about policy decisions. Empathy leads somebody like me to prefer white people over black people, people in my neighborhood over strangers, and so on. It’s easy to see upon reflection that’s a really bad guide to policy. Policy should be impartial and fair.
Then you get to family, and the fact that empathy is biased—well that’s not such a problem anymore, right? I should love my kid more than I love you. I should care more about my wife than about a stranger. But it gets complicated. Empathy often leads us astray in close relationships.
Maria: How so?
“My worst moments as a parent weren’t when I cared too little, it’s when I cared too much. It’s when my kids have all sorts of fears and anxiety and a good parent, because they love their kid, doesn’t share those feelings.”
Paul: Imagine a highly empathic person, they really feel the suffering and the pain of others, they share their experience. Suppose I come to you and I’m anxious and upset. You, being highly empathic, now you’re anxious and upset. You share my feelings—but that’s not what I want. I want calmness, reassurance, compassion, caring, love. I don’t want you to freak out because I’m freaking out. My worst moments as a parent weren’t when I cared too little, it’s when I cared too much. It’s when my kids have all sorts of fears and anxiety and a good parent, because they love their kid, doesn’t share those feelings.
My kid is freaking out, I’m calm. My kid is very angry, I’m toning him down, because I love him, and I don’t want to share his feelings. I want to understand his feelings. To be a good parent, or a good policy maker, you’ve got to understand it, but you shouldn’t share those feelings. Those are everyday examples I use to make the point that too much empathy can be a problem. I will qualify myself, though. I once gave a public talk where I said, “The people we love the most, we don’t want them to feel our feelings, we just want them to care for us and understand us.” This may be the first time I ever gave a talk where people shouted at me during the talk. They shouted, “No!” It turns out that some people actually want those who love them to share their feelings.
If you’re indignant, or angry, or grieving, you want the person you love to feel that anger, that grief, those emotions. I agree that there are certain cases that we want our emotions to be shared. The philosopher Michael Slote gives a great example. He says, “Suppose you have a daughter who loves stamp collecting. It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and to encourage her and everything, but isn’t it better to share her enthusiasm?” I don’t doubt that empathy plays that role in intimate relationships.
I also don’t doubt that empathy is a great source of pleasure: to share the joys of others, to connect with fictional characters. It just seems really awful when it comes to moral decisions.
Maria: Yes, you make a really interesting point [in Against Empathy] when you quote Joshua Landy, the literature professor, that, “For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin you’ve got a Birth of a Nation.”
When I read that I thought, “Wow.” When you realize that a book that moves you changes history, you’re thrilled. You don’t really understand that the opposite side feels empathy, too. I realized, “Maybe transportation into fictional worlds can be pleasurable,” but we can’t let it guide moral decision making.
“Empathy is a tool. Liberals, I think, tend to fetishize empathy, forgetting that conservatives have the same empathy, they just direct it towards different people.”
Paul: When people champion empathy, they often think about a political cause they believe is morally right. They talk about the power of empathy to support it. Even obvious cases like slavery—you empathize at the plight of the slaves and you realize slavery’s a bad thing. Or, with recent discussions of immigration, you say, “Imagine yourself in the plight of an undocumented immigrant in a strange country, wouldn’t you care for such a person?” I don’t doubt for a second that empathy has a real power for that. But what people forget is is that empathy is used for the other side, too. It’s an amoral tool. In Birth of a Nation, empathy for the plight of white women who are ravaged by blacks was used to support the KKK.
For everybody trying to get you to empathize with undocumented immigrants, there’s someone else trying to get you to empathize with the American who loses his job because a foreigner takes it over. Or to use one of Donald Trump’s favorite examples, someone who’s raped or assaulted by somebody who entered the country illegally. Empathy is a tool. Liberals, I think, tend to fetishize empathy, forgetting that conservatives have the same empathy, they just direct it towards different people.
We see this as well in fiction. Sure, your empathic connections with fiction drive certain feelings, but my favorite book is Nabokov’s Lolita, and I would challenge anybody to make it through twenty pages without feeling tremendous empathy for Humbert Humbert and his plight. He’s plainly immoral, but once you’re in his shoes, you can’t help but adopt his goals.
Maria: That’s the mark of a great writer: to be able to get you to empathize with horrible people. It happens all the time, even for people who haven’t read Lolita, or who don’t really like reading. You see it in the fetishization of criminals, and even psychopaths. Hannibal Lecter. It’s on so many levels in our society.
Paul: Emily Nussbaum, a critic for The New Yorker, coined the term bad fan. These are people who empathize so much with a main character, who’s evil, that they cheer them on. They think Walter White, the high school teacher who becomes a meth dealer in Breaking Bad, is the hero, and no matter what terrible things he does, they say, “Do more of it,” because they’re putting themselves in his shoes. In many ways, it’s a testament to the skill of the writer, to get you to adopt the perspective of characters who really don’t fit your moral view, and probably shouldn’t.
Maria: You mentioned before that when you gave this talk, people got really angry because they think that you should feel these feelings. That’s really relevant right now because, especially with social media, we have all of this righteous indignation and social media shaming. Jon Ronson wrote a whole book about it, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Am I correct in drawing the inference that this is a failure of empathy? Empathy gone wrong? People feel that it’s their righteous duty to not just feel the feelings of others, but to morally police others, which might not necessarily be the best scenario for an actually moral society.
“You see this in a laboratory: once you get somebody to be empathic for a victim they are much more prone to be aggressive towards others. If I want to get you to hate somebody, a very useful way of doing so is to get you to feel empathy for someone [else]. A lot of the social mobbing we see on Twitter is an example of that.”
Paul: I love Ronson’s work, and his examples are horrifying. I’m on Twitter a lot, and I often worry about one day saying the wrong thing, and then it’s all over for me. In this mobbing of social media, I’m against empathy, but I will say some things in its favor.
To some extent what you see is a lack of empathy. This woman, Justine Sacco, makes a poor joke on Twitter and then her life is effectively over. Can you imagine what it’s like to be her? And if you tried to do so, wouldn’t that inhibit you from the endless mockery and cruel attacks? But, often what happens in these social media mobbings is somebody gets empathy for some sort of victim, someone who’s been discriminated against, a gorilla that gets shot, a lion that gets killed by a hunter, and then this connects to this indignation.
A long time ago a philosopher had this example: imagine there was a button where if you pressed it you could give somebody you don’t like a very mild electric shock. So mild they barely even feel it. Now imagine that a million people were pressing the button, so the person was screaming in agony. I’ve always thought that’s what re-tweeting is like. Someone says something really nasty, I re-tweet it, and while that one little thing I do hardly matters—suppose a thousand people are doing it. In some ways, social media is an example of how minorly bad acts can scale to terrible acts.
Maria: That’s something that is on a lot of people’s minds: the election of Donald Trump, and the way that shaming, social media, and empathy have been used on both sides to show how powerful it can be. It’s a minefield in terms of psychological and philosophical implications.
Paul: By law, any conversation ultimately has to come down to Trump, so here we are. And it’s a great question because there’s a huge debate on social media among Clinton supporters over whether one should empathize with people who voted for Trump. There are articles saying, “Exploring what it’s like to be a Trump voter, from a roughly sympathetic perspective,” and trying to get the Clinton voter to say, “This is what it’s like.” Then there’s a response, something like, “They don’t deserve our empathy. We should be devoting our empathy to people like immigrants, Muslims, gays, and not towards Trump voters. They are irredeemable. They are racist, and so on.”
I’ve always found this discussion very confusing, because it blurs together the question of whether you should empathize with the question of morality. Should you only empathize with good people? Again, it depends on what you mean by empathy. If what you mean is delving into their life experience, their suffering, maybe Clinton supporters don’t have to empathize with Trump supporters, and vice versa. But if what you mean is understanding, figuring out where somebody comes from, then empathy is actually very important—what psychologists call cognitive empathy. It’s important because these are people, and deserve to be understood. It’s also important in an instrumental way.
A lot of the Trump voters had voted for Obama. If you have political leanings along the Democrat side, it seems like a really good question to say, “What made them change their minds?” By asking that question, it’ll help you maybe win the next election.
We’ve had this discussion before—after 9/11 there were big debates over whether you should empathize with or understand terrorists. Many people think you shouldn’t—“It’s horrible, they’re just evil,”—but if your goal is to defeat them, you have to get into their heads in the sense of understanding. I think we don’t have enough of it and we should aspire to get more.
Maria: A distinction that we haven’t talked about enough, and that people often don’t really get, is that you can separate empathy into two different things: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. I’d love to hear you sum up by talking about those two different elements of empathy and why one might be useful while the other is not.
Paul: Emotional empathy is what I’m arguing against. Feeling other people’s pain, feeling their suffering… I think it leads to biased decisions, to irrational, short sighted actions and tone. Cognitive empathy is a bit more complicated. Cognitive empathy is understanding where people come from. Cognitive empathy is neither good nor bad. If you want to make the world a better place, it’s really important for you to understand what people think, what they want, and what makes them happy. You can’t really be a truly good person without cognitive empathy.
On the other hand, if you want to seduce people, or torture them, or trick them, or con them, it helps to know what’s going on in their head. Cognitive empathy is essentially a field of intelligence, and like any intelligence it can be used for good or evil. I would distinguish both emotional and cognitive empathy from compassion, which is valuing other people’s lives, caring for them, wanting to make their lives better. In the end, defending compassion is an important part of my work.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.