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.

A little thought experiment

You’re about to open results of psychological tests comparing atheists and agnostics. What do you expect to find?

I wonder if agnostics are more conflict averse, better at abstract thinking and have a sense of humour.

Also, how do atheists who have children deal with the concept of Santa? Santa is a real world conspiracy theory – and possibly a much more pagan one than a Christian one. I imagine that there has to be a “herd immunity” for the concept of Santa to survive in creches and primary schools. Do religious parents arrive at the door step of atheists and be like, stop your child from spreading heresy!..

P.S. It is snowing in Ireland. I was in the Midlands today and it’s a Winter Wonderland.

IMG_7942

 

Ordeal By Innocence

Presuming one’s innocence means presuming that the plaintiff’s lying. In certain cases.

The presumption of innocence works well when we don’t know who committed the crime. The paradigm breaks down when fighting over whether a crime was committed.

Whoever solves this philosophical puzzle will do a lot for justice. The current rules fail both the victims and the accused. And the bystanders – all the people who worked on “Ordeal by Innocence” whose work will never be recognised.

The BBC said Friday that it will not air upcoming Agatha Christie special “Ordeal by Innocence” while an investigation into actor Ed Westwick on allegations of sexual assault proceeds. Filming has been disrupted as well on another BBC series starring Westwick, “White Gold,” which is available on Netflix outside of the U.K. “Ordeal by Innocence” […]

via BBC Pulls Drama Starring Ed Westwick; Filming Disrupted on His Comedy Series ‘White Gold’ — Variety

Trying to be old

I loved how the sun lit up the windows of the ostentatiously classy restaurant come wine bar on St. Andrew’s Street in Dublin called Stanley’s. The bleached turquoise exterior with golden letters spelled understated chic.

A few doors down from the expensive Trocadero, the location seemed perfect for such a place.

It opened about 2 years ago. Today I found that it’s been replaced with a place called Kathmandu, a gerrish, bright orange Nepalese eatery. Full of people. 

Stanley’s was never full of people.

Why? Where did they go wrong? Where didn’t they go right, more like? The broadly positive Irish Times review and then another even more positive one? The perfect location? The classy interior in modern blues and grays? What more could people want?

Or is it maybe that classy is old-fashioned. Maybe these things don’t sell anymore.

I love old books, films, chandeliers, even houses. Often these things sell at a perplexing yet welcome discount.  Has it always been this way – that old things are cheap?

Writing up my list of the Christmas gifts I want to give, I realised that I strongly prefer older things. I think it’s from reading too many XIX century novels…

Which would you rather get for Christmas, a new iPhone or an antique chandelier? 

It turns out that the iPhone is about five times the price. This raises another point: did old things always go at a discount?

And finally, maybe that’s why Stanley’s closed down. Perhaps their bet was on people’s vanity, a desire for a classy place to shorten the protracted winters nights. But it never caught on.

Trying to be old without actually being old may be a hard sell. 

I am not Atlas, nor was meant to be

The New Year forces us to do a reality check. Accomplishments. Failures. Expectations. Sage books. Bad politics. Mistletoe. The CO2 from sparkling wine hitting you in the nose. Deep breaths and realisations. Shy wishes for the future.

The light and exciting feeling of starting something big pushes me on.

Coming to conclusions reminds me of herding cats. In a big dark room.

Conclusions lead to learning. I want to learn. Learning means order and understanding. Sometimes, stormy randomness prevents linear learning. What was it all for then I wonder? Just to be lived?

A sarky friend of mine calls this “the syndrome of searching for deeper meaning”, a disorder more prevalent in women. One step away from calling me a conspiracy theorist, the sneaky fk!

Why do I want to learn? To feel less pain by stepping on the same rake, as the Russians would say? I prefer the more subtle term, adaptation.

I resolve this by looking for ways to tame uncertainty. Work around it. Turn anxiety into excitement. Think probabilistically. Find people who have the same thoughts and dreams. Remember that I can always rely on myself.

My temptation to justify, to over-explain, to over-plan and catch that finer insight comes from a heightened, unhealthy sense of personal responsibility.

Aged 5, I fell and hurt myself during play. Nothing major. My grandmother came over. I expected her to help me up and console me. Hold me and tell me it’s all ok. She lifted me alright, but then gave out to me for not looking where I was going.

I think I am still running on that software. I always look for ways in which I caused what happened to me.

In some ways, it’s helpful. In others, I am Atlas with the weight of the world on my shoulders. Why haven’t I given up that horrible mentality?

Personal responsibility motivates like nothing else. It’s the fuel of making dreams come true, so it’s hard to give it up.

My learning from this is that feeling like Atlas is frighteningly egocentric. I am not Atlas, nor was meant to be. The world will keep on turning without my help.

What makes me want to bang my head against the wall is the obviousness of it all. Again and again, I arrive at these thoughts. However, it seems that understanding what is within my control is a daily exercise. Thinking about it every day is vital to being productive and at peace.

Meanwhile, I am building up my progress report from September to the end of November. Be ready with yours for 1 December 😉

Mood: T.S. Eliot

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

It’s good to be reminded that the life goes on without me trying to control it

I took the day off yesterday. For the first time in I don’t know how long.

Being a bit of a rebel, I chose the day that bookings start for a course I run.

Contrary to my expectation, my email wasn’t full of people wondering where I was. After all, how dare I not get back to them within 30 minutes?

I did have about 110 unread emails, but nothing unmanageable.

It’s good to be reminded that the life goes on without me trying to control it.

When you put it like that, I can see the appeal of nihilistic thinking. But even if I am a lowly non-flaggelated bacterium living on the eye of a blue-eyed giant, I want to be good at being such a bacterium.

According to my family, interactions with me felt qualitatively different today, now that I was rested. A remark I didn’t specifically seek out.

I also slept much longer than I normally do, suggesting that I was able to break out of fight or flight. (Alternative explanation: Merlot).

The morning was a haze: I dreamt of being with my friends, who travel to places man hasn’t really spent much time in, occasionally interrupted by some more frontal part of my brain reminding me of items from my list, concerning appointments and credit card details.

I also realised just how little time I actually spend producing anything. Instead, I expend a huge amount of energy on being in that anticipatory stressed state. Like Rocky waiting to be punched in the stomach.

I guess there isn’t really a way around that one.

“We never just hear music”

Music profoundly changes our emotions. Sound has the potential to turn our feelings inside out.

In September, I committed to bringing my mother to the theatre. Local theatres do a lot of film screenings, I found with disappointment. Among them, I spotted The Graduate. I don’t understand why, but I love the film.

The events and characters are grim. The atmosphere is anxious. The ending is certainly filled with angst. But that’s not the aftertaste it leaves.

I rooted out The Graduate in college. Third year of medicine, a year dedicated to learning ginormous amounts of information, weighed heavy on my mind.

It was the weekend. Alone, I had nothing to do other than study and the mood dwindled. Somehow The Graduate lifted me out of melancholy.

I reckon it is down to the soundtrack. Amazing.

In an essay filled to the brim with reference to science, a music cognition scientist (yes, that’s a thing), says:

We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in cultural expectations, personal memory and the need to move.

The revelation reminded me of something a friend said. She shocked me with a simple truth: you start having sex long before you enter the bedroom.

So yeah, our perception runs away from reality at the first chance it gets. I am sitting here imagining: in a film about Macbeth, what soundtrack would I choose? And when you think about it like that, you see that music manipulates emotion like nothing else.