Empathy is not a virtue, psychologist argues

Expert says empathy is inherently biased

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of the new book Against Empathy uses clinical studies to back his unusual argument: practicing empathy is a "bad idea."

"I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts," Bloom's book reads.

According to Bloom, empathy is inherently biased, and because of this, "in the moral domain... empathy leads us astray."

Bloom clarifies that when he talks about empathy, he means a very narrow definition of the term—not compassion or sympathy, which he says people often confuse with empathy.

"By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people," Bloom said in an interview with Vox's Sean Illing. "And that's different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it, I care about you, but I don't necessarily pick up your feelings."

The problem with true empathy, Bloom says, is that it can cloud the ability to make sound moral decisions.

"Empathy zooms me in on one but it doesn't attend to the difference between one and 100 or one and 1,000," argues Bloom. Previous research has found that people donate more after hearing the story of one person in need than they do after hearing the same story—and statistics about millions of others in need.

It's also nice if that one person happens to remind you of yourself. Bloom says human nature is such that we will always feel more empathy for someone who looks like us or speaks like us than we do for people outside our own culture.

"This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level," Bloom says, citing laboratory experiments on bias.  

We need to talk about implicit bias

Bloom offers an—admittedly controversial—example of the bias empathy can cause. In courtrooms, he says empathy can lead juries to make unfair judgments about victim testimonies.

"If the victim is an articulate, attractive, white woman, it's going to be so much more powerful than if the victim is a sullen, African-American man who doesn't like to talk about his feelings," says Bloom.

Bloom does admit there are times the inherent bias of empathy is acceptable. For example, he says having empathy—and a little bias—for our children or family members isn't all that bad. But he cautions that it's not particularly useful for making ethical decisions.

"When it comes to moral reasoning, empathy is just a bad idea," Bloom concludes. "It just throws in bias and innumeracy and confusion... my point is that there are better and more reliable tools" (Illing, Vox, 1/19).

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