Is Empathy Good or Bad? Alan Alda Speaks with Paul Bloom

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

Paul: When you have a book titled “Against Empathy,” you get some cranky people. And what I find ironic is I get these emails saying, “You’re a monster. You don’t appreciate empathy as a source of goodness. I oughta come to your house and beat you up.”
When I read that Paul Bloom had written a book about empathy I was delighted. Then, when I read that the book was against empathy, I thought it was a typo.
I knew Paul. Years earlier, I had interviewed him in a garden at Yale where he’s a professor of psychology. He’s a serious person, who thinks a lot about what leads to moral behavior, and here was trashing empathy. I knew I had to have him on the show.
Alan: 00:00 Paul, I’m so glad to be talking to you. When I was writing this last book of mine, I was thinking about you and writing about you and reading about you, because I had all this stuff about empathy in the book, and you have this wonderful book called, “Against Empathy.” So I can’t wait to compare notes with you about empathy.
Paul: 00:19 Well thanks, thanks for having me here. I loved your book, even though it’s very pro-empathy. I think, I’ll forgive you that. I think when we started talking and realized we agree on a lot of things, we’re talking … To some extent we’re disagreeing only in the sense that I’m talking about one thing, you’re talking about another thing.
Paul: 00:38 On the other hand, I think there’s some things that you and I might push up against-
Alan: 00:42 That’s good, I hope so. My slogan is, I don’t think I’m really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by the other person. It’s kind of a radical idea, but I’ll be listening for how you can change me positively in a way I don’t expect.
Paul: 01:00 I guess I’ll do the same, then.
Alan: 01:02 Well, if you want to, that would be great.
Paul: 01:05 I’ll give it my best shot.
Alan: 01:06 Yeah. So tell us your deepest feelings about feeling, about empathy. Empathy is not the same as feeling, but just let’s attack empathy first. I want to hear this.
Paul: 01:19 So here’s the punchline, we’re going to make distinctions later on and get in the weeds, but here’s the punchline. I’m interested in how we could best make moral decisions, how we can be good people. And one very common answer is we should use our empathy, we should be swayed by our connection with others by feeling what other people feel. And what I argue in the book is that that’s really mistaken, and I’ll just quickly run my three reasons.
Paul: 01:42 One is that empathy is very biased. I’m much more likely to feel empathy for my friends and my family than for strangers, for people who look like me, for attractive people. And so to the extent we rely on empathy we just turn out to be racist and sexist and biased.
Paul: 01:58 A second problem is that empathy’s innumerate. So as moral people, we recognize that 100 lives is worth more than 10, which is worth more than one. But empathy zooms in on the individuals and actually is to sort of perverse consequences where we focus on one as having more value than 100.
Paul: 02:15 And finally, empathy could be manipulated, and this is actually something that comes up in the political season, political context, where often demagogues and people with all sorts of agendas evoke empathy for the suffering of some group. Victims of crime, people who lose their jobs, people who suffer at the hands of others. And they use your empathy for that group to motivate hatred towards some out group. So a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, for instance, is done by telling terrible stories about the victims of crime by immigrants, and then using that to fuel your anger towards other people.
Paul: 02:53 So for these sorts of reasons and others, I’m very skeptical about empathy’s power in moral decision-making. But, and in fact I think that we have alternatives. We can, instead of being driven by empathy, be driven by compassion, by love, by concern. And instead of making decisions based on the sway of our feelings, we could do it based on more rational deliberations. So my book is called “Against Empathy,” but the sub-title is “The Case for Rational Compassion.”
Alan: 03:21 So rational compassion, it sounds like a call for compassion triggered by rationality rather than triggered by empathy.
Paul: 03:32 So it’s a call for two separate things, and it acknowledges what you’re saying, which is that they blend together in a certain way. But you need compassion, you need to care for other people. If you didn’t care about other people, you wouldn’t do anything, no matter how wise you are. But once you care about other people, once I value you and want to improve your life, or I want to make the world a better place, I want to give to a charity. Once I’m there, I have to figure out what to do.
Paul: 03:56 And I think when it comes to figuring out what to do, then you need rationality. You need to weigh the costs and the benefits. So in giving to charity, if you decide to give to charity, that might be because you want to help people, you feel compassion. But if you just give to the charity that has the prettiest picture or the most dramatic appeal, you might not make the world better, you might make it worse. And so I think you need the rationality to tell you what to do.
Alan: 04:17 I think probably a large part of the objection, or a large measure of what seems objectionable about what you say about empathy is because we haven’t really defined what we mean by “empathy.” We don’t all agree on the same definition. An awful lot of us think that empathy makes you compassionate, that it is, and some, many people think it is just another form of compassion or another word for compassion. That if you have more empathy, you’ll want to help people. Not necessarily, in my opinion.
Paul: 04:53 Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. People use the term in all sorts of ways, and some of the responses to my book are, ” You moron, you’re not talking about empathy, you’re talking about sympathy.” Or, “You’re talking about concern or identification. Empathy means this.” And then people very confidently say what empathy means, and they all say something different, but they’re all very angry and very confident.
Alan: 05:13 Do you, you got threats?
Paul: 05:15 I got the, I gotta say for the most part the response to my book has been great. And by great I don’t mean everybody’s agreeing with me, I mean people have engaged in ideas. I’ve gotten in academic, scholarly discussions with colleagues and friends. I get letters from people who are, so they say, “Oh, you’re totally wrong about this.” And we go back and forth, changed my mind about a thing or two. And that’s great.
Paul: 05:39 But when you have a book titled “Against Empathy,” you get some cranky people. And what I find ironic is I get these emails saying, “You’re a monster. You don’t appreciate empathy as a source of goodness. I oughta come to your house and beat you up.” And I’m thinking, “There’s something really self-refuting about this sort of reaction.”
Alan: 06:00 The person living in the font of empathy himself.
Paul: 06:03 Exactly, flowing with empathy. Giving me advice on how to be a good person. And he’s going to teach me a lesson by dammit.
Alan: 06:08 That’s like I used to say, “I hate judgmental people. They oughta be strung up.”
Paul: 06:13 Exactly.
Paul: 06:49 I think that this is a great point to introduce something which is important, which you mentioned before, which is empathy is different meanings. And there’s one sense of that where I think it’s exactly true. So a lot of your work focuses on knowing what’s another person is thinking-
Alan: 07:05 Well having a good estimate of it, I don’t think you can really know.
Paul: 07:09 Having, trying, aspiring towards it.
Alan: 07:11 Yeah.
Paul: 07:11 What they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. And you, and I’m going to talk about this, but you make a terrific case that in order to communicate as a scientist doing persuasion, you need that. If you don’t know how another person’s taking what you’re saying, if you’re not understanding them, it’s going to be very difficult to do that. And I think empathy in that sense does something else, too.
Paul: 07:31 If you don’t know what makes people tick, what they’re thinking, what they like, it’s very hard to make their lives better. I mean it’s something as mundane as giving you a present. For me to give you a present I have to know what you like. Or something as general as shaping domestic policy or going to war, you have to know what people want in order to make their lives better.
Alan: 07:51 Or giving a village 100 toilets when they don’t have water. If the toilets need to flush, it’s a good idea to find out what they really need.
Paul: 08:01 And those sort of examples are what I get into when I talk about for charity why going with your gut feelings is often a mistake for something like charity. You have to sort of very carefully listen to people, see what they want, see what they need, and see what’ll make their lives better.
Alan: 08:16 There’s no doubt that when we look at the way that we came into the world at this point in our evolution, we come in with the ability to reason and the ability to feel out other people. We’re highly social animals, so it sounds like we need both of those traits integrated in the best possible way to make any progress. How does that strike you?
Paul: 08:42 That strikes me as right, I’ve done research with my wife, Karen, when you visited us at Yale a while ago.
Alan: 08:48 Yeah, yeah, I loved her research.
Paul: 08:51 And her research looks at the moral and intellectual capacities of young babies and you find that, young as you look at, they have some understanding of the world. They’re capable of some moral judgments, and they have some caring for other people. Some level of compassion, it differs from person to person. But the project we face as people trying to be good people is to integrate them properly. Is to figure out, so just to take one thing, we’re very naturally drawn to help people who look like us, who are part of our group, our family, our friends.
Paul: 09:23 And for moral life, this is as it should be. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I love my kids a lot more than I love other kids. But if I’m a policy maker or I want to sort of just do anything in a broad scale, I should put that aside. I certainly shouldn’t favor white people over black people, I shouldn’t favor men over women. So a lot of things which are natural and hardwired we want to transcend we want to sort of think, “Well that’s not the right way to do it. That’s how evolution wires up and that made sense, but now we have other goals and we have to do things differently.”
Alan: 09:56 Yeah, we have more things to think about. The more we think we’re in charge of our destiny, there are more things we have to worry about than what we were given when we came into the world, given by evolution. We have to marshal them in some way. And if we don’t, we’ll be solving problems in a stone age way, probably.
Paul: 10:21 There’s some line by Katherine Hepburn towards Humphrey Bogart, I think in “African Queen,” where he just explains, “Why, it’s just human nature.” And she says, I don’t have the exact quote, but, “Human nature is what we’re here to rise above.” And I think that that’s true.
Alan: 10:34 I often think that we do have destructive tendencies, but that doesn’t have to define us. We have, there are things in nature, to simply say, “Nature made me this way so that’s why I behave in a sexist way, a violent way, a biased way.” That’s not good enough because nature also gave us the common cold and cancer, and we don’t settle for that. We don’t think, “Well nature gave it to me, so I oughta be happy I got it.” We work against it.
Paul: 11:06 I think that’s exactly right. I think policy makers, or just everyday people, there’s usually two things at once. You have to acknowledge these facts about human nature. If you didn’t appreciate that people could be violent or sexist or racist or whatever, you’re not going to understand people. You’re not going to get good policy.
Paul: 11:22 But then we could say, “Okay, there’s these aspects of us. How do we override them?” I was born with terrible eyesight, but I have contact lenses, problem solved. Well social problems don’t get solved as easily, but the logic is the same. Just because we’re born in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.
Alan: 11:40 Yeah, I agree. And I don’t see empathy as a solution to our problems. In fact, there’s what I call “dark empathy” where I do have a pretty good estimate of what you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, what you’re going through, what your perspective is, and I use it against you. Interrogators do that, the interrogator is not looking out for your best interests, he’s looking for any sign he can to exploit what you’re going through.
Alan: 12:37 Torturers, sales people, unprincipled sales people, many politicians. Just, “What do they want to hear? How can I appeal to that whether I’m going to accomplish it or not?” And that aside, it seems to me that empathy is an almost indispensable tool for communication. At least I would say it can really help a lot. I mean just basically, and you were mentioning this before. We have the common expression, “Know your audience.” And empathy, for me, is a way of being in touch with your audience and knowing them in real-time, not just in stereotypical ways.
Alan: 13:23 I’m not just talking to a group of high school kids, that’s a generalization. I’m talking to them now, at this moment, after lunch when their lids are at half mast. And not only that, they have different opinions, they have different ways of understanding me and I’m trying to find out what’s the best way they get me. It’s reading them, it’s entering into who they are at this moment. So I find empathy very helpful in that regard, but only as a tool. I don’t think it makes us moral people.
Paul: 13:55 I think that’s right, so we’re talking now about empathy in the sense of understanding, or trying to understand, what’s going on in someone else’s head. And you’re right, one way to see it is it’s a form of intelligence. So somebody will call it social intelligence or emotional intelligence.
Alan: 14:08 Or theory of mind.
Paul: 14:09 Theory of mind, mentalizing, mind reading. But like any form of intelligence, it could be used in all sorts of ways. So you’re totally right, if I want to make your life much better, it really helps me to know what’s going on in your head. If I want to make your life much worse, if I want to bully you or torture you, humiliate you, get something out of you, it really helps to know what’s going on in your head.
Paul: 14:31 So some of the best people in the world I think are very good at this, and so are some of the very worst people in the world. There’s nothing worse than a psychopath who really understands other people. But the point of a teaching, and this is a lot of the theme of your book about teaching and communicating, is exactly right. And one specific way of thinking about it, it’s something I’ve done some research on with my students, is what’s called a “Curse of Knowledge.”
Alan: 14:56 Oh, I love that notion, yeah.
Paul: 14:59 And the idea, as you know, the idea is that in order to teach I have to understand, I have to teach you something I know that you don’t know. I have to understand that you don’t know it, but it’s very hard to appreciate this. We naturally assume that everybody, one, the curse of knowledge is if you know something you assume other people know it. And of course, successful teaching involves getting around that. But it’s very difficult, it’s very difficult. It’s always, we always expect things to come easier to other people than they do because we can’t discount the fact we already know it.
Alan: 15:35 Yeah, there’s this feeling in us, and it happens to all of us where you think about the other person. “Come on, it’s just not that hard. I got it, why don’t you have it?” And it’s partly because we don’t remember the steps we had to go through when we were ignorant of this.
Paul: 16:20 I’ve read your book, there are stories there. I think one demonstration of it is a lot of scientists trying to explain what they do to people, which is, they just can’t put aside the fact that they’ve been living in this world and have all this knowledge. And so it’s just uninterpretable to people, and it’s-
Alan: 16:44 So I have the same problem, and I’m trying to help solve the problem. It’s a universal problem, I’ll be sitting at dinner next to someone I don’t know, some big dinner. And they’ll say, “So what are you doing now?” I say, “Well, I help people communicate better. Scientists and doctors, I have this Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University .”
Alan: 17:08 And I see their brain shuts down, because they don’t know what I’m talking about. And to me, all of those words have meaning, and they have interesting stories, and it’s a human thing I’m doing, which if I would remember what it’s like to not have heard those terms before, I mean even the word “communication” they think, “What does he mean, communicating science? What is that?”
Alan: 17:35 And it means a number of things that are very specific. Making yourself clear to the public, making yourself clear to Congress so you can get the government to fund science. Making yourself clear to people in your own lab. Making yourself clear to people in another discipline who are almost in the same position as an educated layperson, but they don’t speak your language. So I suffer from the same thing. It really takes effort to think, “Wait a minute, who am I talking to here?” And this is where I find empathy helpful. “Who am I talking to? What are they going through? What does that look on their face mean with the first sentence I say? They’re in trouble, I gotta help them out of that trouble because they’re not going to understand what I’m saying.” It’s not to help them so much as to be able to be clear.
Paul: 18:30 Yeah. And I think when you succeed at that, there’s actually rewards. There’s rewards beyond people don’t think you’re boring and walk away from you.
Alan: 18:40 That’s a big reward.
Paul: 18:42 That’s a big reward. But there’s lots of different reward that, it’s often a challenge to get your ideas clear to somebody, to have the cognitive empathy to understand, theory of mind to make it click. But when you do and you make your ideas clear and solid and concrete, often you kind of look at what you said and say, “Wow, so I guess that’s what I do.”
Alan: 19:03 Yeah, right.
Paul: 19:05 And sometimes a lot of people in my business don’t like doing that, they don’t like teaching a director course, they don’t like talking to general audience. And I think there’s a lot of things going on. It’s very, as you said, it’s difficult. But another thing is I think they feel if they put what they do in plain English, they’d realize, “Oh that’s not that much.” And it could be humbling.
Paul: 19:26 I’ve given talks at my son’s school to eighth graders. And then they ask my questions like, “Who care about that?” And everything. And I’m like, “I don’t know.” It’s very challenging. I’d rather talk to my colleagues who, of course, will nod and play along as we do.
Alan: 19:44 The idea that somebody might not care about what you have to say is a really important idea. Why should they care? Just because you do it every day doesn’t mean they should care about it. You care about it for some reason, why do you care about it?
Paul: 20:00 Yeah.
Alan: 20:01 If you can get back to that, then you’re on the road to a human connection with the person you’re talking to.
Paul: 20:07 That’s right. The dumbest thing I’ve ever heard an administrator say. I was at Yale and somebody was giving a lecture on how to communicate with the public. And he said, “What people want to hear is the stuff that’s of practical value.” Having to do with their pocketbook and their sex life and so on. And I had to think, “Yeah people like to hear that.” But you think of the most popular books and popular speakers, you think of Steven J. Gould who talked about dinosaurs. And Carl Sagan, who talked about the universe. It’s hard to imagine less practical topics-
Alan: 20:37 What to do with your dinosaur.
Paul: 20:39 Yeah, yeah. Exactly how many stars are there, that’s really going to be very helpful. But people love that stuff, I think in part because Gould and Sagan and successful communicators capture the excitement. And despite what this administrator, who will remain nameless, said, people are really interested in interesting things. They’re interested in science, they’re interested in how the mind works and how the universe is structured and where dinosaurs come from and so on.
Paul: 21:06 And if you could convey this with the excitement, it’s just irresistible.
I had expected a little more of a wrestling match with Paul. Now here we were agreeing on everything. I asked him to try his best to attack empathy in a way I just couldn’t accept, and he was ready for me—when we come back…
This is Clear and Vivid. I’m Alan Alda. Now back to my conversation with Paul Bloom.
Alan: 21:11 All right, we’ve been very gooey agreeing with one another. I want to hear you tell me something that I find hard to accept. What are some of the more inflammatory things you can say about empathy, that I might not go with?
Paul: 21:31 I’ll give you one. I think if you’re prone to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes, not just understand them, but feel what they feel, it will make you less effective as a helper, less effective as a good person.
Alan: 21:46 Okay, that’s not totally inflammatory, but I feel the heat. There’s a little heat there.
Paul: 21:52 A little touch of it.
Alan: 21:53 Yeah, so go ahead. So why is that true, do you believe?
Paul: 21:56 Well, it’s actually, it’s an insight that the Buddhists had a long time ago. But as Buddhist theologians would always ask the question, “How could you be a good person?” And what they say is, “Look, don’t go around with, what they call, sentimental compassion.” Which is what I call empathy. “Don’t feel the suffering of others, because it will burn you out.” They talked about burnout centuries before somebody in the 70s made up that term. It will exhaust you.
Paul: 22:27 I got emails, when I started writing about empathy, I got an email from somebody who worked in the 9/11, the Towers. And she couldn’t do it. She spent a few days and it just killed her, she just felt too much anxiety, too much pain for the suffering of people. And so she wrote me saying, “I now kind of understand, based on what you’re saying, what’s up here. Which is that I thought that I didn’t care or cared in the wrong way. It’s that I felt the pain too much.”
Paul: 22:53 A lot of studies show that if you feel the pain of those around you a lot, you’ll withdraw. You’ll develop physical symptoms, you’ll become miserable. And maybe worst of all you’ll start to focus on yourself.
Alan: 23:05 Yeah, and that happens with doctors now, almost half of physicians are facing burnout where they are emotionally exhausted. They don’t have a feeling of accomplishment, they’re withdrawing from empathic care, and they tend to make more mistakes. Errors are borne of that disengagement, to some extent. But here’s the thing, unfortunately I’m back with this gooey agreement with you because everything you said makes sense to me.
Alan: 23:38 With the addition that I think it’s good practice, if you’re helping somebody, to get in touch with their empathy radio or their transmitter or whatever, the empathy engine to get to rev that up. You really should help them know how to get into the empathic stance, and how to get out of it. So you’re not swamped with the emotions of the other person. Because it’s quicksand, you can go down deeper and deeper and deeper. You gotta be able to take care of yourself to take care of the other person.
Alan: 24:17 It’s like they say on the airplane, “Put on your oxygen mask first and let the little kid wait until you’ve got yours on.”
Paul: 24:26 And people who are good at helping other people, therapists for instance, good therapists, have the sort of distance. So in some way, to put this, to try to be as inflammatory as possible-
Alan: 24:38 Yes, please, you gotta try harder.
Paul: 24:39 I gotta try harder, this is so unusual to find somebody who agrees with me. Is to say, “Don’t listen to your heart when it comes to making moral decisions.” And almost paradoxically, the best way to help people, people you love, people you care for, people you’re professionally assigned to help, is to get some distance from them. So a good therapist cares for her client, understands her client, but doesn’t feel her client’s pain.
Paul: 25:08 If I go to my shrink and I’m having an anxiety attack and I’m all anxious and I’m all crying and everything, I don’t want her to burst into tears and say, “It’s unbearable, it’s horrible.” I want her to give me-
Alan: 25:19 It’s a funny scene.
Paul: 25:20 It is a good scene.
Alan: 25:21 It’s a great sketch.
Paul: 25:22 We’re both weeping, I bring her over the tissues, say, “You okay?” “It’s so, your life is so awful. I can’t bear it.” But she’s good at her job, but she gives me this sort of shrink look and stares and says, “So how does that make you feel?”
Paul: 25:37 And I’m thinking, “Well don’t you want to cry with me?” But you know, it’s not effective. It’s bad for her, if she met 50-minute sessions, eight people a day, people in the most extremes of sadness and misery and felt all that, she wouldn’t last a week. But it also makes her ineffective. And even for a friend, if I come to a friend and I’m really messed up, I want my friend to care about me. I don’t want my friend to get engulfed in my sadness.
Alan: 26:07 Yeah, and I had a friend who went to a doctor with foot pains, and the doctor looked at the foot for a minute and then thrust his head into his head and said, “Oh my God, you’ve got plantar fascitis!” She thought she had an incurable disease. Couple of good foot pads would cure her.
Paul: 26:07 Yeah, that sounds like an awful doctor.
Alan: 26:30 But he had had it once, and he understood what her pain and discomfort was going to be, and got swamped by it. But on the other hand, see how this strikes you. It seems to me that the more empathic I am to other people, and I work on it a lot, I look people in the eye, I try to pay attention to their face while I’m talking to them. I find myself better able to observe them and pick up their signals.
Alan: 27:06 So I like empathy a lot, I use it. But what I notice is that it also makes me aware of my own feelings more, and when I’m in a state that’s mainly dominated by my feelings, I’m having an emotional reaction to somebody I’m talking with, I hear a check on that from the rational part of me. And the same thing goes in the other direction, if I’m figuring out a problem, and probably especially when having to do with people, “How do I handle this difficult person?” A check on the rationality comes from the emotional stuff boiling in me. There are checks and balances going on between feeling and rationality. How does that strike you?
Paul: 28:55 You’re saying something I’ve actually never heard before but it seems right, which is the act of doing that could make you more clear on your own thoughts and feelings.
Alan: 29:14 I think it does.
Paul: 29:15 Yeah, I think it does too. I think to some extent it’s a little bit like mindfulness meditation where often we just get caught up in things. We’re just kind of swaying with these strong feelings. But if I’m going to slow down and hear what you have to say and try to make sense of what’s going on, what are you getting at, what are you worried about? That slowing down lets me get a little bit of distance not only from looking at perspective on your feelings, but also on my own. It sort of slows things down and steps back, I like the checks and balances analogy there.
Alan: 29:48 And I guess we have to be aware all the time of the difference, the distinction I think we both make between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy, for me, is trying to be aware of what the other person is thinking. Whereas emotional empathy is trying to be aware of what they’re feeling, what they’re going through. And two of them together add up to a perspective. You can take on, or try to take on, the other person’s perspective. The thing that might not be saying in plain words, but how they’re responding to the world and to you.
Paul: 30:29 So I chop things up slightly differently, this may just be terminological. What I’m most interested in my book, and most worried about, isn’t so much the attempt to understand or to appreciate, but more the sort of catching the feelings of others. Getting caught up in their faith.
Alan: 30:43 Ah, see, that’s a bit different because I look at it as a tool, not as a condition that I fall into. It can be a trap in the jungle and you can’t get out of it.
Alan: 31:52 Do you think, getting back to the notion you talked about earlier on, that you tend to make bad decisions using empathy too much. For instance, you’re more concerned about the baby trapped in the well than you are about the millions of babies starving at the same time in another country who don’t have a camera on them. So is that one of the primary dangers, you think, of having, what is it? Having too much empathy or making decisions based on empathy? What’s the problem?
Paul: 32:37 I think there’s problems with having too much empathy, but my main concern is broader than that. It’s making decisions based on the sort of human connection, based on being caught up in other peoples’ feelings and other peoples’ worries and dread and sadness. It’s so easy for me to imagine the suffering of somebody just like me, you know? A white guy, speaks English, born in this land, maybe a professor. This person, I get so caught up, I get so upset worrying about somebody like me. That’s the way our minds work.
Paul: 33:13 What about somebody starving to death in sub-Saharan Africa? It’s hard for it to move me. What about 100 people, 1000 people? Emotionally, nothing. And this is common sense, but there’s also a lot of science behind it-
Alan: 33:28 Well when you come to the rational realization that the moral thing to do is to help the people starving in South Africa, is it possible for you to come to that totally rationally? Can’t you have, don’t you need some element of resonating with the suffering that must be taking place in the specific instances when so many people are starving?
Paul: 33:54 I don’t think so, I think what you need is you need to care about people. Otherwise you wouldn’t be giving charity in the first place. You know, I sometimes give money to Ox Fam, and I don’t give as much as I should, but I give some money to Ox Fam not because I imagine the good it will do and I think about it, but because I’ve been persuaded that that money makes the most difference.
Alan: 34:49 How were you persuaded? What was it, there was an appeal to your intellect alone? I find that hard to believe.
Paul: 34:56 It actually, and this may be, it may put me at a strange, but it was. There’s websites by that rank charities and say, “This one will do the most good. Give to this malaria one, or this one involving small villages-”
Alan: 35:13 So that’s based on numeracy? In other words, this’ll do the most good because the greatest number of people will benefit? Or what?
Paul: 35:21 Well, now we get to some really difficult questions of how you measure good. And there’s really hard questions. So simple numeracy doesn’t seem right, simple extent of benefit doesn’t seem right. But I think as rational people, there are some questions that actually do have answers. So just an example, the philosopher Peter Singer, for a sum of money that’s not enormous, you could allow 100 people to have operations that will restore their sight. That are blind, but they can be cured with a simple operation. Should you do that, or should you give the same money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to add to their coffers?
Alan: 36:01 So that they have something to look at …
Paul: 36:08 That’s a quick response.
Alan: 36:12 See, there’s a reason for everything.
Paul: 36:14 You know, and I think there’s all sorts of reasons that we give to charity. We might want to impress people, we might want to do something to increase our reputation. But if you really want to help people, some things do more good than others. Look, I’m a professor at Yale University, I know people. I sometimes meet with donors, like there’s a meeting where I’m supposed to meet the donor and talk to the donor. And I always wonder, you know, “You’re giving $1 million to Yale? Really? You know, we have a lot of money.”
Alan: 36:43 Remind me not to send you out asking for money.
Paul: 36:45 Yeah, somewhere there’s a Dean at Yale listening to this and saying, “Oh damn.” Now they’re crossing me off a list. But I really feel that way, and if you ask people, “Why are you giving $1 million to Yale?” They often say, “Because I feel emotionally tied to the place, because of this, because of that.” But the truth is giving to Yale is like giving money to the Canadian Federal Government. They have a lot of it, and $1 million could make an enormous difference to peoples’ lives.
Paul: 37:13 And you don’t have to sort of put yourself in these peoples’ shoes and everything. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be blind and then to see to know that it’s a really good thing.
Alan: 37:20 Yeah, that’s true. But I think of how, no matter how intellectually satisfying it might be to cure the greatest number of people with blindness, the way you even hear about it is liable to have an emotional content that gets into your head that makes you resonate with it.
Alan: 37:45 For instance, children, programs that feed children or educate children in another country often use stories and pictures about individual children so that we … Now, is that because we’re sick with too much empathy and they should rather do it in a more orderly, intellectual way? Would they be as successful?
Paul: 38:11 No, they wouldn’t be. I think we’re imperfect creatures and if somebody was foolish enough to put me in charge of a charity and I had to advertise for it, it’d choose the cutest children and I’d put pictures up, show them pictures and movies and do the same thing every other charity does.
Paul: 38:28 But here’s the thing. As people deciding where to give our money and where to give our resources, we should be aware that the cuteness of the picture and the persuasive tactics actually are kind of disengaged from the good the charity does. There’s a lot of charities which have gorgeous stories and wonderful pictures and all sorts of perfect techniques, and then you look at them closely and they aren’t making things better, some of them are making things worse.
Alan: 38:53 And that’s why you need, I think, these checks and balances where you respond however you do emotionally, but then you check it against research. So I share your distrust of the emotional, totally emotional decision. But you go, I just remembered. I wrote down something you said, and this I think we could disagree about. I’m desperate to find something we don’t agree on.
Paul: 39:47 We’ll get there.
Alan: 39:48 Yeah, we just have to keep trying. You talked about empathy, I think, as something that feels good and that there’s, maybe people might think there’s good empathy and bad empathy like cholesterol, good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. But you said, “It’s not cholesterol, it’s sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.” That’s pretty extreme.
Paul: 40:16 It is extreme, and you say, and it sounds very reasonable, we should have a combination of empathy and rationality when deciding how to act, when deciding what charities to give to and so on. If you start looking at modern politics, you see empathy all over the place in appeals to, “Support this, go against this.” Arguments over healthcare, which incredibly complicated and seems to me the case where rationality would be needed the most, are often involve politicians reaching into their breast pocket, pulling out a letter, and saying, “I’m going to read you a letter by a seven-year-old.” And I think as an audience we should go, “Boo!” Like you think we’re idiots?
Alan: 42:05 I agree, they’re so cynically presented. There’s the lady up in the balcony.
Paul: 42:09 Every State of the Union speech, I don’t know when it started. Democrat, Republican, Obama, Trump, they have people in the balcony. “Let me now point out to this guy who lost all of his children due to gun violence.”
Alan: 42:20 “Stand up and take a bow.”
Paul: 42:22 “This man lost his wife to Obamacare.”
Alan: 42:25 “This one lost even more children.”
Paul: 42:27 That’s true, and they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. But just like-
Alan: 42:31 Well, they believe it works anyway.
Paul: 43:02 They work, but we could also step back and say, “I see the pull that this has, I reject it.”
Alan: 43:08 Yeah, I see what you mean now, that’s a really good argument. And it’s totally wiped out the other question I was going to ask you. I’m so overcome with agreement with something I didn’t agree with before. You changed me a little.
Paul: 43:24 Just a little.
Alan: 43:24 Yeah, nothing serious
Alan: 46:52 Well, I always, as I said in the beginning, I always hope to be changed by something I don’t agree with. But it’s not always the obvious statement on top, I don’t necessarily agree with what you have to say. But I might be moved by and agree with and be inspired by what’s underneath that, what brought you to that conclusion is maybe your hope for a better world.
Alan: 47:19 And as we talk, as you and I talk, part of what we might not agree about is that I don’t look at empathy as a way to make the world better or to lead people to moral behavior. I just look at it as a tool for communication. Your complaint about empathy is mainly based on your idea that that’s not the best way to have a moral world.
Paul: 47:43 That’s right.
Alan: 47:43 So we’re not so much in disagreement, but I love your veering toward a better world, that you’re putting your thinking into how can we be better people? I think that’s wonderful.
Paul: 47:56 I like, and I like the idea you’re talking about, as seeing empathy as a tool to achieve certain ends.
Alan: 48:04 This finally got so gooey, we’re … Our time is up now, and I’ve had a wonderful talk with you, I hope it leads to more talks over a glass of beer sometime.
Paul: 48:16 Thank you so much for inviting me here.
Alan: 48:18 So we do these seven quick questions at the end, if you don’t mind. Okay number one, what do you wish you really understood?
Paul: 48:46 Sports. I know some sports, but I really wish I was really into the major sports. I feel that we can be, it’s a source of pleasure I haven’t been connected to.
Alan: 48:57 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Paul: 49:04 About me, my good intentions.
Alan: 49:08 That you really have-
Paul: 49:09 I really have good intentions.
Alan: 49:12 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Paul: 49:16 I was on a radio show to talk about my book on the psychology of pleasure, and I was just on the phone, I had no idea who they are. And the first question the guy asked is, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
Alan: 49:31 And you were talking about the psychology-
Paul: 49:32 I was talking about the psychology of pleasure, and I had, he just asked … I found out later he just asks all those people that question. And I said, “No.” And then he said, “Well do you believe in God at all?” And I said, “No.” And then he said, “Well we forgive you.” And then he continued the interview. But that was the strangest one.
Alan: 49:48 So good to know you got his forgiveness. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Paul: 49:59 I actually tend not to, I’m often I think, in social situations, somewhat quiet. So I often like compulsive talkers because I can just listen to them.
Alan: 50:14 You have too much empathy.
Paul: 50:17 This is actually, you say that as sarcastically, but part of the book is self-therapy. I’m always feeling other people’s pain and getting in trouble for it.
Alan: 50:26 That’s the most interesting you say today, I love that. Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel any empathy?
Paul: 50:37 Yeah, I sometimes encounter, honestly never in my everyday life. But you read about these people, you hear about these people who, some tiny proportion of the world who seem to have no goodness in them, no soul, honest-to-God psychopath. And I can’t imagine what it’s like to be them.
Alan: 51:20 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Paul: 51:31 I think the best way to deliver bad news is to get someone else to deliver it.
Alan: 51:31 The pigeon.
Paul: 51:37 The pigeon, I’ll whisper into the pigeon’s ear and say, “Fly my pigeon, fly.” The answer is if I could all do it email, I’ve never broken up with anybody by email. Some things you have to do in person, but email because I could carefully craft it and then send it.
Alan: 51:56 Well I’ll be watching for a pigeon in my mailbox. What, this is the last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Paul: 52:36 The truth is, I might be unusual in that way, but it would take a lot. I know people who say, “Oh if I discovered my friend was racist or sexist or committed a crime, I would dissolve their friendship.” And I understand that, but I actually, you’d have to seem really, really bad. I just recognize that people are complicated, there’s a lot of evil in all of us, and it’s part of the package.
Alan: 53:00 Great, thank you so much. I really had a great time. Thank you.
Paul: 53:03 That was a lot of fun, thank you very much.
Alan: 53:04 Thank you.

This has been clear and vivid, at least I hope so.

When I first read his book, I thought Paul Bloom and I were on opposite sides on the value of empathy. Turns out, Paul and I have more in common when it comes to empathy than I first thought. His book is called, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” and it can really stimulate a conversation.

Paul, who is the Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Prof of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University, is the author of 7 books in all. He’s also a frequent contributing writer for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. You can find his books on Amazon or visit his web site at:

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd. Our associate producer is Sarah Chase, sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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