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?
** 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.
My first curiosity is an essay from the Financial Times. I have mixed feelings about the FT. It’s pretty impossible for a paper like that to be neutral, but the FT doesn’t even try. I am constantly disappointed with its sneaky political undercurrent. At the same time, I cannot find a news outlet that would be as well presented and lack the dogma. Anyway, the essay is titled The age of unenlightenment, written by Robert Armstrong.
The author is thinking of why it seems that we are getting dumber.
A book by Sloman and Fernbach entitled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone offers clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy. In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that’s too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.
Granted, I am trained as a doctor, however I knew 80% of the basics about how the body functions before I went in to college. It never fails to impress me that most people haven’t a clue about how their body works, but they really think they do. Women endlessly discuss what’s good for their skin, but seem to miss the crucial detail that virtually non of the miracle co-enzymes and ultra-proteins in their creams get absorbed past the epithelium. Guys in the gym would authoritatively discuss the benefits of “fast carbs” immediately after a gym session and how to prevent “knots” forming in muscle tissue, but ask them about insulin or myosin – and they haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean they don’t know the terms, but they just don’t understand the basics. A much more florid and familiar example is of people who love talking about geopolitics. They rarely know where the “enemy” actually is on the map.
Robert Armstrong continues: Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students don’t, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom. Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.
I agree with all of the above. There is a sense in the above lines that it was different in another time. I sincerely doubt that it was. However, I do feel that the rate at which raw information is becoming available is rising. Still, as few people know what to do with it as back in the proverbial day. It seems Mr Armstong’s conclusion is that the books he has read on the matter (listed below) focus more on the problem than on proposing solutions. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that was any good that proposed solutions. Observing what’s going on in plain sight and asking the right questions is usually more than enough. Here are the books:
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, Macmillan
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press
#republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press
While we are speaking about books, I’ve been into the book shop and looked over the newest books in the psychology section. I sat in Hodges and Figgis’ leather chair and flicked through a few books. I always do that before I decide to read a book: I’ve bought too many “recommended” books that turned out to be either poor quality (as in, I couldn’t even finish them) or insidiously venomous making me wish I hadn’t come across them at all. In any case, I tend to really engage with the books I read, so there is a courtship ritual before I commit to reading the entire work. It went like this:
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
“The Art of Thinking Clearly by world-class thinker and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.”
Mmm, it’s a very practical rewrite of Daniel Kahneman’s and Nassim Taleb’s thoughts. I would have thought that the former were practical enough. The back of the book featured praise by Sam Harris. I found Harris interesting initially but soon was uncannily repelled from his lopsided philosophy. I would be more careful in my choice of allies than Mr Dobelli. Could be a light read for someone unfamiliar with cognitive biases, but if you have any respect for your little grey cells, go straight to Kahneman. My (binary) rating for this book is: Nay.
Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck
“After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with agrowth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed”
Psychology classics retold – and not in a very compelling way. Nay.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom
“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In Against Empathy, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”
I thought there was some merit in this book, but Daniel Goleman said a lot of the same stuff better. It may seem that he proposes the opposite to what this book is about, but that’s only an illusion. Perhaps, given the denigration of the intellectual and analytical approaches in the media, this books attempts to restore the balance and say that a quest for empathy isn’t going to solve our problems? It’s a nay from me, though the tone of the book is pleasantly contrarian.
P.S. If you want to see some beautiful nature photos and are interested in travel, my friend Charis blogs about the island I was recently on – Cyprus. I was there with her for some of the trips she describes. I will write more about my escapade to the Eastern Mediterranean at some stage.