January 13, 2017

A couple of empathetic humans. Credit: Petras Gagilas / Flickr / Creative Commons

It’s one of those questions every kid who’s ever smacked another kid gets asked by a stern adult: “How would you feel if you got hit?” It’s a rhetorical question meant to make you feel that other kid’s pain, to feel empathy.

Empathy is one of those qualities we look for in a leader. And, yet, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is against it - at least a certain kind of it. We ask him why.

Three Takeaways

  • We’re usually empathetic toward people with a similar background: “Your friends, your family, your skin color, attractive, young, babies, teenage girls,” Bloom says. “Empathy is very difficult to get from people who look very different from you, who frighten you.”
  • Politicians use our empathy against us. “Any broad, interesting policy is going to have winners and losers, inevitably in the short term,” Bloom says. “People are going to suffer no matter what you do. Gun control, affirmative action, abortion. And so we should try our best not to be swayed by pictures and videos and sad stories, and ask cold-blooded questions like, ‘Which healthcare system is going to help the most people and provide the best healthcare and so on. And [we should] tell our politicians, ‘Don’t give me these stories.’”
  • So what’s Bloom’s advice for how we can make better decisions? Recognize there’s a difference between a decision that feels right and is right. “Knowing this won’t magically make the lure of empathy go away anymore than knowing that I have implicit biases will make those biases disappear,” Bloom says. “But it helps.”

More Reading

  • Paul Bloom lays out his argument against empathy in The Wall Street Journal.
  • Yes, some people definitely disagree with Bloom. The Boston Review collected a few rebuttals.
  • Willie Horton, a convict whose crimes upended the 1988 presidential race, came up in our interview with Bloom. Writing in The New York Times, opinion columnist Emma Roller says Horton’s influence on political campaigns is alive and well.

government, Culture, Paul Bloom, politics, empathy

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