Author: Paul Bloom
APA Style Citation
Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Collins, New York, New York.
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Paul Bloom knows that many people will read this book out of anger, with the intention and hope of refuting the argument that empathy is bad for the world. I did. I wanted to find fault with the reasoning that placing ourselves in the shoes of someone else was somehow a danger to both ourselves and others. While Bloom has not convinced me that empathetic behaviors cause more harm than good, I can acknowledge that sometimes his argument is strong. He concedes that not all empathy is negative, but rather argues that on the whole, it is not beneficial. He opens with an example of an adorable young girl who needs a kidney transplant. Once we get to know this girl and understand that she will likely die without the transplant, we often demonstrate empathy by imagining what it might feel like if this was happening in our own family. When given the opportunity to move this girl up the list of those waiting for the transplant, we may jump at the opportunity to save her and her family from their continued suffering. Bloom argues that this would be a case of empathy leading to injustice. The feelings of empathy for this young girl have prioritized her life over the lives of others also waiting for a kidney who were rightfully in line ahead of the girl with whom we empathize.
Bloom argues that one of the reasons most people are so deeply in favor of the concept of empathy is that is has been associated with many concepts such as compassion, sympathy, and kindness which are related to but not actually empathy. Bloom makes it clear that he is in favor of kindness and compassion. He believes that empathy causes us to make decisions that seem kind and compassionate but that can actually hurt more people than help. He argues that empathy is like cholesterol and has both good and bad types. The first, cognitive empathy is the type of empathy in which a person can understand another person`s suffering but does not feel what they feel. We can feel compassion or sympathy without feeling what the person themselves feel, Bloom argues that this is often the case when we help others. If a child falls from a high jungle gym and breaks his nose, we will immediately try to help, but it is unreasonable to argue that we feel what he/she feels. Similarly, we can buy a gift that we think someone else will enjoy, without necessarily liking it ourselves; this is kindness but not empathy. These concepts are often presented as interchangeable and interwoven, but Bloom argues that can exist as distinct entities.
The second type of empathy is emotional empathy; this occurs when we feel the pain of others, this is the emphasis of the book and the type of empathy that Bloom believes can blur the lines of morality, balanced reasoning and fairness and that which he argues against. Bloom argues that empathy can be learned and socialized and is often employed to encourage people to “do the right thing.” Children are often scolded by asking, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” Bloom argues that there needs to be more to morality than empathy and that in fact, they are distinct because they need not occur simultaneously. If you see someone throw garbage out of his or her car window, this may upset you morally, but there is no empathetic element, you do not feel what the person does or for that matter what the garbage feels.
Bloom uses the very emotionally sensitive topic of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown Connecticut as an example of how empathy can result in an unseen negative outcome. While it is impossible to overestimate the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, More children were killed in the city of Chicago in a single year than those killed in Newtown. However, the vividness of hearing the news of the Newtown victims and the painful emotions associated with this single event, makes the Newtown shootings stand out in our minds. While the Chicago shootings may be covered daily in the paper they are not a single event, but rather multiple less salient events that are easier to forget. This availability heuristic created an outpouring of emotional empathy and gifts flooded into Newtown from all over the country. Unfortunately, the gifts far exceeded what could be distributed in Newton a relatively affluent community, but many volunteers were needed to help store the gifts and toys even after Newtown officials asked that nothing else be sent. Bloom argues that this money could have been better spent saving lives by buying mosquito netting for children in Sudan and providing clean drinking water for those who have no access or meals to the elderly who do not have enough food. In this way, people would be saving lives, but instead, their emotional empathy created a glut of teddy bears in a community that needed emotional support, but not tangible items and diverted resources from other potentially deadly situations.
Bloom argues that this and other similar examples demonstrate that compassion is biased and often results in a cost-benefit net loss. Therapists who are too empathetic with their client’s problems face burn out and need to learn how to help their clients through the healing process without taking on the pain and suffering of their clients at the same time. Bloom provides an example of a worker at the 9-11 sight looking for bodies when it was clear that they would find no more survivors, this person needed to try to dial back their empathy as they would otherwise have become overwhelmed and unable to help in the recovery efforts. Surgeons may also need to practice this skill as too much empathy may inhibit their ability to do their job well. The key here may to be employ understanding and caring rather than empathy.
Empathy can also be counterintuitive; when we perceive that individuals play a role for creating a negative situation in their own life, we are likely to employ the just world phenomenon and demonstrate very little empathy even if it would be the kind and moral thing to do. For example, if you found that someone was infected through HIV because they were an intravenous drug user who had used and infected needle, we might be likely to say that “it was their own fault.” Psychopaths are often said to lack empathy, but Bloom argues that criminal psychopaths have normal empathetic abilities, but they can dial it up to ingratiate themselves with people and then turn it down if they violate trust or engage in a criminal activity that may result in hurting others. Those with autism, unlike the criminal psychopaths, have little ability to empathize but do not have questionable moral behavior. Demonstrating Bloom`s argument that empathy and morality and not inevitable linked to one another.
Bloom also discusses that the development of an in-group to whom we are likely to empathize and find similarities often creates and out-group may lead to stereotyping, dehumanization and unfair negative attributes. While we can empathize with the victim of a crime or a family member who is suffering, Bloom argues that there are limits in empathy. For example, if you heard that 30 people were killed in a flood in Indonesia, you would likely feel badly and perhaps empathize with the families of those killed or injured. However, if you heard that 3000 people were killed in the flooding, would you feel 300 times worse? We might go to herculean efforts to remove child trapped in a well, but do very little to try and change the climate which may over time results in the deaths of thousands more people. Bloom uses quotes by both Stalin and Mother Teresa to demonstrate this point. Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic. Mother Teresa, “If I look at the mass, I will never act, if I look at the one, I will. Both understood the limits of empathy, but one in demonstrating Bloom`s thesis, the morality of this understanding is neutral, empathy need not only be used for good.
Bloom does recognize that some good can come out of empathy and organizations such as effective Altruism advocate doing good deeds that combines the efforts of the head and the heart.
Other Related Resources
The Atlantic: Short video of psychologist Paul Bloom making the argument that empathy is a bad thing
https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/474588/why-empathy-is-a-bad-thing/. Bloom maintains that he is against empathy but for compassion. He poses that empathy should not override rational deliberation; it should be a reliable servant-but never a master.
Big Think: Why Empathy is not the Best Way to Care: Video in which Paul Bloom describes why empathy can backfire and lead to negative effects.
Psychology Today: Why Paul Boom is Wrong about Empathy and Morality
Quartz: Empathy Makes us Immoral
Oxford Education Blog: Against Empathy? Really
Psychological Figures and Concepts
File Drawer Problem
Just World Phenomenon
Medial Prefrontal Cortex
Posterior Cingulate Gyrus
Theory of Mind