Critical thinking or empathy?

Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.

If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had

A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy

B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,

which would you choose?

I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.

In B, you side with the first person you meet.

Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*

People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.

Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.

Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?

A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.

An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.

Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.

Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.

It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.

I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)

Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?

Some other places talking about empathy:

The Atlantic, ViceThe Guardian

* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.

** George F.  brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.

52 thoughts on “Critical thinking or empathy?”

  1. “People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.” True. However, I understood empathy as not just understanding how a person feels, but actually FEELING how another person feels…which differentiates it from sympathy. Have I been wrong? Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I would choose the choice of 50% more empathy and 50% more critical thinking, based upon the adage “When faced with a choice between two items, always choose the third.”

    The story used to illustrate this concept was of an elderly lady who was shopping for food and asked the grocer, “How much are the cantaloupes?” He answered “two for 99 cents.” She continued “How much for just one?” and he said “50 cents.” She said, “I’ll take the other one.”

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I want 50% of both empathy and critical thinking. It’s not like these things are necessarily opposed, just different, and both are necessary to function as a human being. Emotional marshmallows tend to be borderline personalities, and people who can think but have no empathy are psychopaths. This isn’t a zero-sum game. So how do we teach both empathy and critical thinking in our schools?

    Liked by 5 people

      1. Well, I would argue that the primacy of parents is a given, but good learning systems have a lot of built-in redundancy – in some cases, the extended family, the elders, the traditions and rituals of the people, in other cases the schools and similar institutions. I mentioned schools because of Dr. Martina’s previous involvement in education.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, well I never implied they were a zero sum, I just gave you a scenario where you had to choose between them.

      As for schools, we can strengthen those qualities. I think there is nothing like Maths to strengthen critical thinking. However, where I am, in Ireland, they just keep dumbing down maths… And I don’t know how to teach people empathy… I visited veterans – I think that was a big part of it for me

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I apologise, Dr. Martina, if I read your initial post as suggesting your thought experiement was a zero sum game. On re-reading that was me indulging in eisegesis.

        However we conceive empathy (and I am not convinced we have a good understanding of how it actually operates within the human mind/body – it’s undoubtedly more complex than the essentialism implied in using that single seven letter word), what seems obvious is that we regularly teach people to overcome empathy. We do it in the basic training of a soldier, where the recruit is taught to overcome any hesitation to kill another being (and, ironically, build bonds and rely on others in the team or platoon). We do it in our warped ideologies, whether it is liquidating kulaks as class enemies, indigenous peoples as threats to our security and land, or Jews as a threat to our racial purity.

        Can empathy be taught? Well, I’ve participated in exercises around racism and sexism, and I’ve been involved in listening circles with survivors or the Indian Residential Schools in Canada. What those experiences did was overcome older teachings that confirmed me in my privileged position (settler, upper middle-class, male, well educated) and obliged me to listen to the subjects of genocide, assault, and marginalization. This tapped into what “empathy” I had. It was a combination of both critical thinking (rewriting histories, calling into questions assumptions) and allowing empathy to emerge by keeping silent and listening. So, can we teach people to listen, and not jump in with instant on-the-spot analyses that say more about our presuppositions than what was actually just said?


      2. I had to look up eisegesis. A very useful word!

        I think that it’s like smoking: you can teach people that it’s bad for them, but it’s not really going to work. If you teach people the consequences of a lack of empathy, it may have some effect…


  4. No one can truly feel what another feels. We can imagine another’s emotional state; try on their hat, sort to speak. So, empathy, to me means: can you imagine my loss, my happiness? Nope, I have no idea what it feels like to have one’s home burn down, to lose everything. I can’t imagine what that might feel like. But, I can sympathize, and be kind to you in your time of extreme need.

    So, Doc, you’re using % increase/decreases. If only 1% of people can critically think… a charitable number I’d wager, then 2% is what we’d get from A? There are probably more empathy oriented people say 30% so 60% for B? I’d need better numbers to justify my choice… Nullius in verba.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I see. Trying to go for apples and orangutans eh? If empathy was TRULY feeling another’s pain, and pain is a bad thing (some might quite like it), and the corresponding reaction would be reduce the application of pain by twice as many folks, which, I might find to be a doubling of kindness, then I’d go for that.
        A critical thinking asshole is still an asshole. In fact, having more people realize the futility of life through a complete application of critical thought, might mean even more abhorrent behavior against folks since It Just Doesn’t Matter. (Meatballs – Bill Murray (grin).)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, my problem is that an empathetic asshole is more dangerous than a critical thinking asshole (all else kept equal). The good thing about a critical thinking asshole is that you can change their mind. And as for futility of life, that’s not the only conclusion you can arrive to through critical thought. You’re too Camus and not enough Nietzsche, Well-known Mole

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      3. > The good thing about a critical thinking asshole is that you can change their mind.
        True that.
        I wish Critical Thinking was taught in high school (as opposed to something useless, like Shakespeare, or Trigonometry).


      4. You think? Rote memorization and contrived angular calculations is what I remember — hated them both. I’d have rather learned statistics and psychology — at least I could have used both of those today.


      5. I don’t see a huge qualitative difference between trigonometry and statistics. Maths is maths. Yes, there are rules to trigonometry, but you don’t say you “rote learnt” the rules of poker or monopoly? There is at least the same amount of rote learning and contrived assumptions in statistics as in trigonometry.

        And as for Shakespeare, it’s not that different to ancient myths etc – I think he’s very good as a way to learn persuasion, story telling and certain personality types.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I applied rote only to Shakespeare – sure, today I might find Shakespeare entertaining and provocative (as it was written for adults anyway). But when I was 14 or 15? Hell no.
        Stats is not trig. No way. (Strangely enough I just helped my son pass Stats 352 and what a bear (I helped write the R code).) Stats helps one understand the world’s behavior and is useful for everyone to know (some level of it). It practically has critical thinking built right in. Trig? If I was building a bridge, a rocket or a robot, then sure. Otherwise, it was a waste of my time (and limited teenage capacity).


      7. Yeah I agree, it’s very hard to teach Shakespeare to kids, but life is to short to leave if till you’re older. I think I sent you that essay on lies we tell kids by Paul Graham? It makes good points on this.

        However, whether trig is useful in daily life is irrelevant to our discussion on critical thinking training. Squats are useless in daily life unless you are a builder or an athlete, but they build a capacity for something else. Same with trig.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Well, I’d have rather have learned stats than trig. And we’re just never going to agree on Shakespeare, I’m afraid. (Always a pleasure conversing with you.)


  5. In simple terms, I will choose more critical thinking. My life experience has way too many people overwhelmed by their own feelings as well as everyone else’s.
    Seldom is ANYONE overwhelmed by clear, conscious, critical thinking. Casual use of the thinking mind will usually put random fluctuation of FEELINGS into workable process.

    Unquestioned FEELINGS often keep people intermittently operating at toddler age even though they may be 60 or older chronologically regardless of the equal opportunity to think critically.

    Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean wallowing helplessly in someone else’s pleasant or unpleasant feelings. People can feel empathy and then disengage from feelings long enough to use the ol’ noggin if they’re willing to grow up a bit.
    I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “Seldom is ANYONE overwhelmed by clear, conscious, critical thinking” – I think those who refuse to accept that critical thinking is impotent against certain things do get overwhelmed by it. Like, we cannot really understand chance, or how the universe is endless and expanding, or things that we call “supernatural”. They boil it down to being meaningless.

      Of course, you could call this a deficit of critical thinking too, but it seems a little unfair.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Looks like you identify the separation of emotional intelligence (also, Goleman I think) and critical thinking. I run into the resource hoarding with people I work with. I say share, they say be resourceful. So. Like, the best intentions I agree we kind of need our head and our hearts when thinking and feeling out others. Also. Understanding the smallness of any situation creates some gravity. Something stable to say, well let’s use some awareness like how could I resource nothing?

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  7. I realized upon pondering your question that I can’t answer it, because I think empathy is a component of mature critical thinking. It applies in cases where the question about which we’re thinking critically involves another person, and it helps us to see where our own assumptions might be flawed, and appreciate what our opponent is basing their view on. Then we can make our critical response to them more effective. 🙂

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      1. Sure, that’s how we often parse it, but lately I’ve been thinking about how much we rely on dichotomies to parse the world around us, when really things are more of a spectrum. It takes a lot of pondering to get to this point and isn’t always going to be practical, of course. Still, if I had the magic to increase or decrease either critical thinking or empathy by 50%, I’d want to see if I could get a third option — increase by only 25% people’s level of sophistication, to decide when pure critical analysis and when more subjective issues would be best. That’s the real trick!

        But of course, we can’t teach sophistication. It has to be learned through making lots of mistakes.

        And that answer pretty much shuts down these sorts of discussions, and I still like these sorts of discussions, so…carry on, then. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I love your point. And yes, I think you are right. Critical thinking and empathy could be in some kind of sophistication spectrum! I used to think that education helps sophistication. The older I get, the more I realise that formal education doesn’t do that at all…

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  8. Good point, empathy being the older trait. It’s odd how we associate this with kindness when generally our more ancient, animalistic behaviours are deemed to be uncivilised, cruel and unemotional. Perhaps this is the real triumph of critical thinking…


  9. I agree about empathy and spitefulness. I understand it so well from practice. Haha! So, I’ll go with you on A. I’d like to think I have 50% more on both empathy and critical thinking. My life imprint, as “analyzed” by my BodyTalk practitioner, says I’m a leader but a negotiator socially and an inventor at work but I don’t know fun. I’m an image builder! These attributes don’t make me more critical and empathetic but I’m using them as my reasoning. 😃


  10. (continued)…would make better-informed and wiser choices. With wiser choices, there would be less to apologize for and kinder behavior to begin with. With kinder behavior, people would feel less abused and disrespected. With feeling less abused, people would feel less sad. . With less sadness, there would be less situations needing empathy (I am not advocating zero empathy. Feelings and well-being matter) and people could spend more time pursuing hobbies, joyful living and a productive life.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. In researching blogging on empathy, I stumbled across this post. So fascinating! I think I agree with Bruce Bryant-Scott on having both 50% empathy and critical thinking. If you have too much of either, it’s a frustrating (and perhaps poisonous?) personality. But good thoughts here. It’s giving me quite a bit to think about the balance between critical thinking and empathy (and if there is a good balance…).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Breaking your own heart because of the heart of the world. Literally giving the world a piggy back ride. Do we not come to critical thinking to discern the mess of feelings we have? Do we not long to fix our whirlwind lives. Should go hand in hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I think critical thinking is a lost art. I value both empathy & critical thinking equally. I couldn’t choose between them loll I believe both are equally important, & would love to see more of both 😉


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