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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

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New York Post Best Book of 2016

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.

Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, Bloom makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations—who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison—are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions. With precision and wit, he demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and—yes—ultimately more moral.

Brilliantly argued, urgent and humane, AGAINST EMPATHY shows us that, when it comes to both major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make.

285 pages, Hardcover

First published December 6, 2016

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About the author

Paul Bloom

27 books606 followers
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. His newest book--Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil--is coming out in November. Paul Bloom lives in New Haven with his wife and two sons.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 709 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
January 22, 2020
I’ve been on an odd sort of journey with this book. First of all, I came to it as a bit of a convert. You see, I’ve been doing research at work into intercultural understanding and multiculturalism, and a lot of the theory around that starts from the premise that for students to become interculturally understanding they first need to learn empathy. This hardly seems controversial – I mean, we have all read To Kill a Mockingbird, and so walking a mile in my shoes seems to be pretty good advice. But then, in the middle of last year, I mentioned to the woman who sits beside me at work that I was starting to think empathy might not be the unbridled good that I’d always taken it to be. I was almost expecting to be told to not be so bloody-minded and contrary, but instead she suggested I read Megan Boler’s ‘The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating multiculturalism’s gaze’. There’s only one thing worse than being a smartarse academic who challenges the otherwise unchallengeable – and that is being late to the game. Damn! If there is any consolation to be found, it is in the fact that this book was published in 2016, and Boler’s article was printed in 1997 – so, I’m not the only one late here.

There were things that annoyed me about this book. I was really surprised that it spent quite so much time referencing pop-psy books and writers. I mean, people like Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell and Sam Harris. The author is a professor of psychology at Yale. I know this book is written for a popular audience, but that still seems deeply strange behaviour to me. You might not think so, but one of the first things they teach you when you are becoming an academic is to go for the source of ideas, rather than the popularisers. I have problems with both Harris and Pinker – so, amusingly enough, I experienced precisely the heightened sense of cynicism he was discussing throughout this book right from the off. I’m happy to admit that the problem is my own bias – but even given my bias, it still strikes me as strange that someone in his position wouldn't be using academic references and standards more, even while writing for a popular audience.

Okay, so what is the problem with apple pie and motherhood? Or rather empathy? Well, as he says here, one of the problems is that empathy provides something of a spotlight. You can’t show empathy to more than one person at a time. If empathy means walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, well, that’s a mile in only one person’s shoes you can walk at any given time. And since there are over 7 billion people in the world, well, that’s a lot of walking you are going to have to do. By the way, 7 billion miles is another 50% further again out into space as the journey from here to Pluto. And as Boler makes clear, the problem with empathy is that there are people’s shoes that are simply not going to fit you - I'm never going to really know what it feels like to be intersexual or transexual - and my best intentioned guesses are likely to be well off the mark. And there will be shoes you simply will never be able to bring yourself to put your foot inside. But does that then mean those people do not deserve your empathy or the potential benefits that come from your empathy? Does it mean they ought to be treated badly? Am I only required to feel sympathy for people I can ultimately ‘understand’ and put myself in their place?

A case in point. My daughter spent a year in Japan and while she was there she went out with a Japanese boy for a while. One night he decided to give her a real treat. They went to an up market restaurant and he ordered Fugo for them – fugo is otherwise known as the fish that kills. Well, sort of – because actually most fugo is now farmed, rather than caught in the ocean, and so it never gets to eat the algae it would use to produce the poison that can kill you. You know, it is the same old story, when myth and fact conflict, print the myth. That wasn’t the part of the story that bothered my daughter, though – you know, the part about her new boyfriend trying to poison her. The problem was that the fish arrived at the table very much alive (at least to my daughter's eyes) – it had been filleted alive only moments before arriving at the table, and so the fillets were still moving on the plate - 'moving'? 'Quivering'? Anyway, she told her boyfriend that there was simply no way she could bring herself to put an ‘alive’ piece of fish into her mouth. Her boyfriend looked at her dumbfounded - not least because this was probably costing him an arm and a leg, and kept saying to her – ‘but it’s so fresh – it’s so delicious’. This cultural difference was so great and so fascinating to her that she ended up writing her Honours thesis around it.

This is basically my criticism of this book. While there is lots of discussion about empathy, and the problems of empathy – and most of these I agree with (you know, nationalism neatly divides the world into those you can and can’t feel empathy for) I think one of the mechanisms that helps ensure empathy cannot develop that is underestimated in this book is disgust. You know, as Pinker himself says in one of his books, the reason for food taboos in cultures is to ensure that you don’t end up marrying someone from outside your ‘group’ – and these food taboos are always taboos to do with meat. No religion bars the eating of carrots – but eating pork…or eating alive fish... And if you can’t share food with someone, it is very hard to develop any other form of relationship with them. This is part of the reason why Christianity, which from the very beginning sought to be a universal religion, rejected the food taboos of the commandments in the Old Testament. A companion is literally someone you eat with (from the Latin for ‘with bread’) – stopping people from eating together puts a significant obstacle in the way of them becoming friends.

But the other thing that annoyed me about this is something else I’ve been reading about lately – that the most effective way to overcome cultural differences (to develop empathy, to get people to understand each other despite their cultural differences) is to do what you can to get them to actively work together toward a common goal. A really good book on this is O’Connor’s The Nature of Prejudice.

Which then brings me to my final concern with this book – it’s the ‘we just need to be more rational’ bias it displays. I’ve got nothing against reason, per se, but he ends this book by saying that reason is objective (basically the same for everyone no matter their background) and so it is our main hope. And, to be honest, as much as I would quite like that to be the case, it isn’t hard to see the number of times ‘reason’ has been used to demonise entire populations. You know, one of this guy’s heroes, as I've already mentioned, is Sam Harris – and Sam's ‘all of Islam is evil’ approach to world politics seems to me to be lacking both empathy and compassion (and 'reason' if it comes to that). It makes me a bit ill to think of how he has used his 'reason' to effectively justify god knows how many millions of deaths since 9/11.

Like I said at the beginning of this review – I don’t think empathy is enough, I might even agree that empathy is worse at achieving positive relations between cultures than it is generally made out to, but I also think that we know the answer to how to address this. We need to actively find ways to achieve transformation based on different cultures working together towards common ends as equals. This has been proven time and again to be the most effective way to end conflict and to encourage people to recognise their common humanity. If ‘reason’ leads us to Sam Harris and his 'Islam is evil' rubbish – we have no hope at all.

Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
July 28, 2017
"Empathy is what makes us human; it's what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide."
- Paul Bloom, Against Empathy

description

I'm a sucker for pop psychology or moral philosophy or moral politics books. Kinda my jam. I'm also a fan of books that flip certain general assumptions about what is an absolute good. I remember first reading a book called In Defense of Elitism years ago after my freshman year in college. It was a catchy title, and fairly interesting little treatise, and it made me think. Bloom's 'Against Empathy' fits into the same category as William A. Henry III defense of Elitist behavior. Neither is saying it is good to be bad. They are just saying we need to still examine our character heroes and assumptions about what really is a good.

Basically, Paul Bloom (a professor of psychology at Yale) is arguing that using empathy to make decisions about policy, etc., is perhaps a bad idea. He is specifically talking about the Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" kinda empathy, not the I can identify that you are in pain, cognitive psychology. Because of certain biases built into our brain, using empathy as a guide instead of rationality, rules, and reason typically leads to us making inferior social and political choices. We are replacing something that might be better done with our brain with an inferior tool, guided by our heart and our emotions. That is it. He has narrowed the definition of empathy down to "feeling what others feel" and makes sure to NOT conflate empathy with morality or compassion. His arguments are mainly valid, from my perspective. His title is clever. His prose and stories are so, so. I think the book is worth the time, but it wasn't great writing and a bit padded and repetitive. Otherwise, yeah, I feel it.
Profile Image for Joachim Stoop.
706 reviews470 followers
February 5, 2017
This was not a very clear, graspable, usable book.
There are lots of valid points here and he uses a flood of empirical data.
But while he says he hates endless discussions about connotations, I found the explanation and meaning of the title all about linguistic nuance. I actually find the title a bit of a sales pitch.
'Against empathy'. Yes, but fom page one he defends himself against possible misunderstandings. He based this entire book on possible critique against his title, instead of just making his case.

Here are some of his most remarkable quotes:

"As this book comes to an end, I worry that I have given the impression that I’m against empathy. Well, I am—but only in the moral domain. And even here I don’t deny that empathy can sometimes have good results."

This is 6 pages from the end:
"I’ve been playing defense up to now. I’ve been arguing that evidence and theory from neuroscience, social psychology, and cognitive psychology don’t prove our everyday irrationality. But I haven’t yet made a positive case for our everyday rationality, for the role of reasoning and intelligence in our lives. I’ll do this now."

"This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument I’ve been making throughout this book. And it is supported by neuroscience research."

"The concern about empathy is not that its consequences are always bad, then. It’s that its negatives outweigh its positives—and that there are better alternatives."
Profile Image for Leo Walsh.
Author 3 books93 followers
January 27, 2020
I first stumbled on Yale developmental psychologist Paul Bloom reading a New Yorker editorial called The Baby In the Well: The case against empathy . It was an interesting dissection of empathy. Not because it's bad, but because it forces people into crappy decisions.

For instance, people across America felt the mourning Sandy Hook parents’ pain as they followed media coverage of the mass murder in horror. Understandable. Dead kids suck, and if you cannot feel a grieving parent's pain, you ain't worth the genetic information it took to birth you.

That’s good. It’s the sort of thing that bolsters my faith in humanity. And in the New Yorker article and his earlier books, Bloom provides ample experimental evidence proving humans have good hearts. We’re more prosocial than libertarians or economists would have you believe.

Thing is, thousands sent money to Sandy Hook, an upper-middle-class enclave. And yet in the same year as Sandy Hook, with little fanfare, Congress voted to lower Food Stamp benefits to poor parents, who were already struggling. Politicians and talking heads justified the change using rationalizations, most often victim blaming. Regardless, the result was to rob poor kids of food in order to give tax breaks to billionaires.

That’s bad. And the sort of thing that makes my heart fall, destroying my faith in humanity.

Bloom uses these events to illustrate a problem. We often make unwise choices BECAUSE we’ve got good hearts. So to be effective humans, we need to think AND feel. Neither head nor heart alone will do, but we need both. After all, feeding poor kids will improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of America's neediest. And investing in those food stamp recipients and their children pays off, costing us as a society less to feed, house and clothe the poor now than to house them in jails later. There's data to prove it. While pouring money into the coffers of the well-heeled if devastated Sandy Hook parents will not improve their lives.

This thought-provoking article stayed with me. So when I heard Bloom expanded the editorial in the book Against Empathy, I purchased it. Sad to say, Bloom disappointed me.

He’d already covered the book’s best parts in the shorter editorial, but expands a little here, offering more evidence and a more nuanced exploration. And then Bloom expands into broader arguments of moral philosophy. Problem is, his thoughts seem only half-formed and often contradictory. Sad for such an accomplished expert with so firm a grasp on the facts.

The book’s biggest issue is that Bloom falls into the trap that snapped Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Bloom starts with an interesting premise, but hems and haws.

I think Bloom is trying to say we need to think lest people manipulate our emotions. We all felt sad for Sandy Hook because of the media coverage. But the millions of starving kids Congress’ cuts hurt stayed hidden in thousands of ghettos, trailer parks, and homeless shelters. The millions are an abstraction while the shooting victims specific, making the pain their parents experienced palpable.

Ergo, we send money to an affluent community, kicking sand into the face of poor families.

Bloom traces this failure to a well-documented psychological bias. Humans excel at emotional specifics, sucking with abstractions since thinking takes work. The powerful (and calculating sociopaths) often exploit to manipulate regular people.

After this solid start, Bloom’s argument stumbles, growing incoherent. In one breath, he praises empathy. In the next, he trashes it by pointing to its failings. Worse, his alternatives are a disorganized mishmash.

Bloom's most emphatic suggestion is stepping back to think about moral issues, applying a Utilitarian calculus to moral decisions — “good of the many exceeds the good of the one.” Thing is, he ignores cases where this utilitarian approach fails. For instance, there’s little doubt that many people are better off for purchasing cheap sneakers at Walmart. Until you learn that they’re often constructed with slave-like labor.

No one likes slave labor, and if you're a relatively well-off Yale psychologist with an MD for a wife like Bloom, you can pay a premium, purchasing fair-trade shoes. But if you're a working poor or middle-class person, you often cannot afford to pay the premium. You may like "fair-trade" as a concept. but you end up with the cheaper Walmart shoes because you can afford them.

Therein lies the rub with many Utilitarian solutions. They tilt towards the upper classes and seem ignorant of the struggles happening below them. Of course, once these are taken into account you can calculate a better Utilitarian response... but what unseen results are you missing? As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Bloom also flirts with Buddhistic-style active compassion instead of knee-jerk, maudlin empathy, but falters. Too bad, since the Buddhist prescription seems apt. It allows you to feel people’s pain, while “walking around” the compulsive action. So instead of knee-jerking into sending money to affluent Sandy Hook parents, you could feel their pain. But stand pat against yanking food from poor kids.

At least, I think these are Bloom's points. But his argument gets so muddled I’m not sure. Which is why Against Empathy is a book I should have liked, but didn’t. Ergo two-stars.
5 reviews19 followers
April 9, 2022
"Against Empathy" does a nice job summarizing all the limitations of empathy, and our altruistic drives more generally, such as being nicer to our kin and neighbors, and being especially prone to newsworthy suffering and insensitive to numbers, scale, and efficacy. Paul rightly points out that our logical arguments and conscious deliberation often lead us toward more utilitarian considerations that are a better way to do good. In the process he reviews a ton of interesting experiments and anecdotes in a thoroughly readable book.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,001 reviews217 followers
April 18, 2017
Bloom is not really against empathy as in kindness, compassion, other-regard. He's against a kind of empathy that is short-sighted, selfish (as in simple self-regard), that stops us from thinking and using our moral conscience. When he discusses compassion it's in the context of "cognitive empathy" and not "affective empathy." He quotes Adam Smith a lot.

I wished for more emphasis on how empathy depends on a certain selfish or self-regarding feeling. I had this sense a lot while reading Leslie Jamison's Empathy Exams: that why do we have to rely on this emotion that "I feel it inside myself - as if it's happening to me - and so that's why I have compassion for this person"? Doesn't this "only if I pretend it's happening to me" mindset seem a little meager? Maybe I can still feel compassion without understanding exactly what you are experiencing? Would I be more helpful if I put MY emotions aside and looked at the situation?

Bloom is worried that empathy will limit us - make us identify only with certain people and not others. He finds empathy suspect. This is a challenge to argue, since it seems as if we're always talking about empathy in the culture these days. (And I know from personal experience that so much becomes clear when it finally occurs to one that the reason a close family-member is utterly thoughtless is that he is deficient in the ability to "put himself in another's shoes." - Empathy is invaluable as a starting point to human relations.)

Bloom does go off on tangents that don't always seem exactly pertinent to his argument but he is responding to critics - it isn't a traditional scholarly book and more conversational. But not necessarily easy reading either.

Is Paul Bloom a social conservative? I don't pick up on that myself and I think I would, but I may have read some critiques of his Just Babies that suggest that. I don't think he is a jerk anyway.

I agree with him for the most part - but it feels as if the book is unfinished and he spends much time responding to his critics rather than advancing his actual position. I suppose it is a work in progress, which I understand. His subtitle - the case for rational compassion - isn't borne out. He talks very little about compassion itself, and what this rational compassion looks like in the world. He's very interested in rationality, which is of course suspect these days (neuroscience in the courtroom; claims to refute the existence of free will through brain imaging results).

Fascinating reading. I expect to hear more about this subject - the value of empathy and whether we shouldn't put so much stake in it; alternatives to empathy that are as important and more so - from Bloom and other thinkers.
126 reviews95 followers
March 23, 2018

I heard a lot about this book. In fact, a friend of mine suggested that I should read this book. The title itself is quite titillating.

As I began to read this book, I found it quite irritating. Half through the book, the writer is still busy explaining what he means by empathy. It is not an easy case to make for 'against empathy,' he tried but I did not find him convincing. Very often, in the book, I felt that he was supporting, and very mildly suggesting, something dangerous that human beings should be more cold and rational to make better decisions and in order to be more effective.

In order to support his thesis, he gives well-known examples from real life and tells us how individuals, masses, and even nation states sometimes make bad decisions guided by empathy, but I found that quite sweeping. For instance, I do not think that nation-states act out of empathy, their decisions are more often cold-blooded and rational in nature. First, they make a mess by exerting power over by intervening in other countries' internal affairs, by waging wars for resources and so forth. However, only when a situation goes out of hand, they have to act in the reverse direction, that is to soften or contain the mess.

The particular incidents that he mentions from the contemporary American life and his claims that how people in the grip of empathy make false and dangerous decisions. This notion seems to be wrought with some sort inscrutable (bad) agenda.

To help one person (spectacularly) while remaining oblivious to many others in a similar situation is a misplaced feature of empathy. Of course, this is so in certain contexts, but it is not something that happens very often. I also do not think that helping one community, people, a region that way (irrationally) is a bad practice and that all the larger issues of injustice and inequality in the world occur due to excessive (ab)use of empathy. In fact, I believe that we should be a bit less reason-oriented, reason has failed us many times. During world wars, nations were not dropping bombs on one another out of empathy, they were using extreme forms for reasons to destroy one another.

As one reads this book, in some milder ways, he is suggesting his fellow Americans something else; that acting out of empathy and sending money to war-torn and conflicted zones and to far-flung areas is not required. It is false, misplaced and irrational, and therefore it should be discontinued. And then adds, we need to control our emotions and do it in a 'rational' way for better results. (One way of doing so, is not to be moved by emotions, I found this notion banal.)

When one looks at the world, we see that we are already very reason-oriented. In a world that insists on 'wall buildings,' we need more empathy. Of course, those on the right side of the wall and those who seek to strengthen such borders already show that they have learned their lesson well. They are 'against empathy' anyways.

On a very basic level, we know that if one is too empathetic, one might not be effective or able to function normally, and in this sense, empathy is useless and negative. But we know this. We do not need science, the so-called modern findings in different fields to tell us something as basic as that. Having said this, without empathy, how would we be? We would be 'less.'

If empathy falters, and we have come to a point where we should discard it as something regressive or destructive. I wonder if, then, the sequel of this book could be 'against love.'







Profile Image for Ceil.
388 reviews14 followers
December 17, 2016
Really wanted to like this book, having long suspected that "I feel your pain" is part of an anti-logic, anti-rational trend that glorifies individual feelings above all. Aside from setting up some useful distinctions (empathy v compassion, etc.), the author muses at length on examples of linguistic legerdemain around the concept. Nothing particularly useful here.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,726 reviews4,080 followers
July 13, 2018
Hmm, I thought I would enjoy this more than I did – or at least that I would be more stimulated by it than I was. It takes balls to title your book Against Empathy, but that's somewhat undermined by the fact that the author spends so much time reiterating a) what he means by empathy and b) that he is in fact very much pro-kindness and compassion. Bloom's definition of 'empathy' is the practice of feeling for a person/group by trying to feel their pain, i.e. putting yourself 'in someone else's shoes'. This is absolutely fine, but it's repeated so often that it sometimes feels like it's being mentioned every three or four pages, especially in the first half of the book. It could have been defined in the introduction and left at that.

Against Empathy is, imo, not so much an argument against empathy as it is a meticulous separation of the specific concept of empathy from the other values it is often conflated with, such as kindness, compassion, generosity, etc. Bloom believes that empathy can be a poor moral guide. This is most apparent in cases where too much empathy might hinder a person's judgement. For example, an extremely empathic doctor might not be best placed to help a patient; an extremely empathic parent would likely be overprotective to a suffocating degree; charitable acts that centre empathy often do more to assuage the giver's guilt than to help the greatest number of people in the most efficient way. Instead, a combination of rational decision-making and diffused compassion should replace empathy in our process of moral reasoning.

There's a decent and persuasive argument at the heart of Against Empathy, but as a book it is repetitive and feels very padded out. Having read it, I feel like I have a much clearer idea of what Bloom thinks is good and useful about being rational, kind and compassionate than what he finds bad and harmful about empathy. I originally put the word 'ironically' at the beginning of that sentence, but I wonder if that was the point after all.

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Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews484 followers
February 21, 2017
Absolutely BRILLIANT! This is a must read for anyone interested in things like:
decision-making
empathy
ingroup/outgroup dynamics
policy making
social constructs
inequality
logic v. emotional regulation on a grand scale

Why out of 293 Goodreads reviews does this book only have a 3.75? I can't say for sure, especially since I have not taken the time to read all the negative reviews, but I suspect they come from people who pride themselves on being "a good person", because they identify as an empathetic person. They see that as a positive thing, no matter what the result of their emotional decisions. But, just as we came to understand that oxytocin is not just the "love and trust drug" and that it is also a key regulator of ingroup/ outgroup thinking (which results in poor treatment for the outgroup), humans are now beginning to understand the downside, and in fact often immoral side, of empathy. Empathy too often results in local empathy that is the equivalent of being on teams, which results in team-like dynamics. The reality is that often when you empathize with one person or one side of an argument, you close yourself off to the other side or the other person. I am not talking about giving 2 sides of an argument equal billing. For example, if one person is being racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive, the logical course of action is not to give both sides equal empathy or equal consideration. That is not what this book is about.

This book is about how to follow multiple lines of logic and not let knee-jerk local empathetic reactions to your favorite people or favorite causes blind you to the realities of decision-making. There are better ways, if you follow the logic all the way out *and* use your emotions, to come up with the best outcomes -- no matter if they are for your personal life, for the wellbeing of whole societies, or affect things on a global scale.

Empathy can often lead to dynamics that involve impulsivity, manipulation, logical inconsistencies, and suboptimal outcomes. This is one of the most exciting books in the social sciences to come in a long time. A+

** Note: Bloom also clarified what he has come to understand since writing Just Babies. As new evidence filtered in, he saw that he was mistaken about some things and updated his thinking and shared that with his reader. I love any author who updates based on new evidence and is willing to own up to it. (Are you taking notes Dawkins?)
Profile Image for Sandra.
232 reviews63 followers
December 2, 2018
Paul Bloom puts empathy in a jar and attempts to dissect it. It does not work, not outside the evolutionary context. We are in 2018, not 1958.

This is a magazine article, fluffed up to a length of a book.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,003 followers
October 22, 2018
Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

“Against empathy? How could anyone be against empathy?”

That was probably my first reaction too, because I and the people around me are all focused on being good to other people, and empathy seems to offer a way to do that. It seems to offer us insight, so we know the right things to say and do. But Paul Bloom’s contention is that empathy doesn’t always lead us in the right direction: he reminds the reader that empathy is what makes us focus on one sick child whose name and face we know, even if we don’t actually know the child is even real, over tens or hundreds of other sick children. Empathy can focus us powerfully on feeling how a single other person “must” be feeling — and therein lies the problem. It’s hard, if not impossible, to empathise with everyone in a whole crowd, and our instincts aren’t always accurate in guessing how other people feel. If they were, then we’d never say exactly the wrong thing when we want to comfort someone who is sad — we’d know what to say.

What Bloom isn’t against is compassion: he speaks admiringly of the Buddhist ideal of compassion without attachment, for instance. Compassion linked with reason can indeed guide us to do good, to do the moral thing, to ensure he hurt the least number of people. But empathy — pure “I feel what you feel” emotional attachment leads us astray, and Bloom argues that point well.

To empathise is a human emotion that many of us share, and Bloom isn’t claiming it’s inherently a bad thing. That would be to misread the book entirely. Honestly, despite often thinking that empathy is a virtue and people can do more of it, I find it difficult to disagree with Bloom’s conclusions. Part of that is that he writes really clearly, which makes it easy to knee-jerk believe that he’s right, but I think I’ll still be thinking about (and agreeing with) this in a few days, weeks, months.

Time to look up Effective Altruism again, and do something with the information this time.
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 9 books308 followers
September 16, 2021
Em 2016, Paul Bloom lançou este livro e com ele criou uma enorme confusão em redor do conceito de empatia. Na altura passei os olhos pelo livro, mas como não passava de um artigo aumentado com múltiplas histórias de suporte, não lhe dei muito valor, apesar de concordar com os traços gerais da proposta aqui apresentada. Não dei grande importância porque, julgava eu, o alerta de Bloom era mais dirigido aos media do que propriamente aos cientistas. Entretanto revisitei o livro, e percebi que na tentativa de dar força ao que quer dizer, Bloom acaba por cometer alguns, muitos, excessos, e foi por isso que resolvi aprofundar a leitura e escrever este texto.
...
... continuar a ler no blog: https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.com...
Profile Image for Диана.
70 reviews
May 1, 2018
This book is defeating a straw man.
Author is presenting a couple of reasons to think that what he calls empathy - feeling exactly what another person feels - is not always leading us to perform the best action, is not always good for the empathiser, and is not at the core of morality. But no one of the thinkers who have argued for the benefits of empathy actually claim the views Bloom is against, and few if any thinkers out there would define empathy in his limited way. The rhetoric of this book is misleading, as author would make it sound as if he is presenting a drastic position, but he is either misrepresenting what other thinkers hold, or making a series of completely uninteresting and unsurprising claims in a bad style and cheating language. Or both.
Despite defeating a straw man - what should be an easy target - the argument is incoherent at times as Bloom seems to be contradicting himself a couple of times without making a good enough effort to make his position clear. Also he is not presenting others' positions with sufficient accuracy or charity. The whole book feels like cheating, trying to make the reader believe that the author is right, sometimes resorting to emotional strategies like jokes and exclamation marks, without actually making the issues any much clearer in the reader's mind.
There is a way to speak about complex issues in a simple manner, without cheating or otherwise suffocating the reader's intelligence. This book doesn't get close to it.
The only reason I give it a second star is that I am writing a thesis on empathy, and a few of the references will be useful to me. But I won't be able, in my own writing, to engage with Bloom's argument, because it is a bad argument. If you are looking for a more thoughtful argument about the negatives of empathy, perhaps check the philosopher Jesse Prinz, it will be less a waste of time than reading this book.
PS: What I really like about this book is the cover. The cover is great - just look at it. Best of minimalist design. 5 stars to the person who came up with it.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
778 reviews42 followers
February 7, 2017
I saw the title of this book and I had to read it. I mean, who could be opposed to empathy? Does he want us to stop being nice to each other?

The subtitle of the book offers a clue: Bloom would prefer us to be compassionate in more rational ways. When we 'put ourselves in others' shoes,' which is what many mean by the term empathy, it can lead to some irrational, even horrifying results. Whether it's making feel-good donations rather than researching to see where our charitable contributions would do the most good, or torturing enemies in the hopes of helping the people we like, that particular type of empathy can be too insular.

So in the end, Bloom doesn't want us to stop being kind, but rather to examine our motives and the results more deeply.
Profile Image for Wayland Smith.
Author 22 books59 followers
October 26, 2017
The author makes some interesting arguments about how empathy can lead public policy, and personal decisions, astray. It's written a bit dryly, and he goes through a few contortions with some of his logic at times. The short version is he more or less seems to think people should be a bit more Vulcan, and he's really big into that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one" expression. It's an exercise in philosophy which made a few interesting points, but overall I had to push a bit to finish it.

Also, on a somewhat personal note, if you're going to make comic book references, do your research. Superman's big enemy is Lex LUTHOR, not LUTHER. Minor point, but for someone who quotes so many sources, he really should pay better attention.

Wasn't horrible, but wasn't that interesting in my humble opinion. The chapters were, at one point, individual essays. They might be better that way, spaced out a bit.
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews123 followers
January 27, 2019
This book offers a great argument against what we think of as empathy in psychology: the ability to feel what others feel.
Though the book was written by a prominent child psychologist I failed to find anything about psychology that I did not know already. Also the author failed to offer any explanation about why empathy came to be from evolutionary perspective. So I can say that this book was mostly a philosophical, ethical arguement against the use of empathy as our moral compass.
The writing style was in Steven Pinker called "classic style". And it was page turner.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,229 reviews167 followers
October 24, 2020
I'm much more a "think with your head, not with your heart" person, so this was right up my alley.

I was surprised at the (mostly) balanced discussion Bloom held here. He focuses more on the social-science and psych aspects, rather than specific political agendas. He makes the very logical observation that people care more about their immediate family and friends, rather than society at large. Therefore, one must be careful before using feelings to make policy decisions.

So why the three stars? Nothing really blew me away. He dances around the distinction between sympathy, empathy, and compassion for a while. He seems to spend most of his time on the defensive, addressing counterarguments, (trying to convince feelings-people that he's not against feelings), rather than making his own arguments. You can hear the influence of people like Gladwell (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking), but Bloom himself never gets down to brass tacks to fully present his own case. Like Ariely, (Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions), Bloom cites lots of studies and makes lots of witty observations, but not much else.

The audiobook was produced by my former coworker, Katie Ostrowka.
Profile Image for Blair.
118 reviews80 followers
November 30, 2018
Gibberish.

Sure, if you randomly open the book anywhere the story being told will make sense. Try to combine these stories into a coherent message, and all you get is an ever shifting definition of empathy that amounts to “something that leads to bad choices”. So we make poor decisions when we rely only on emotion. Who knew?

At best, we can treat this work like the I Ching to inspire conversation. As a whole, it is gibberish.
Profile Image for fromcouchtomoon.
311 reviews65 followers
February 12, 2017
Interesting argument, but misleading title, as it's not empathy he's railing against, but small-mindedness. Packaged to be provocative without being as provocative as claimed.
Profile Image for H.A. Leuschel.
Author 5 books249 followers
October 14, 2021
This is a fascinating read that offers an intelligent and stimulating discussion about why empathy is not only overrated but when looked at more closely can lead to bad decisions, prejudice and myopic and counterproductive behaviour.

Take a simple thought experiment: you are telling your GP about the pain that you are currently experiencing and as you describe the symptoms, his facial expression starts to take on a pained look, he gets more and more distressed as you describe what the pain is like, where it’s located and you watch your doctor looking physically affected, scrunching his shoulders and rubbing the areas where you are describing the location of your pain. The doctor’s behaviour is likely to increase the patient’s worry and shows that empathy – the feeling with someone – is not reassuring, will influence the professional’s state of mind and capacity for an objective examination and suggestion for treatment.

I offered an extreme example and I’d argue that imagining the opposite of empathy which would be a doctor distracted, cold and lacking any sympathy is equally distressing and counterproductive for a patient in need of help.

What Bloom is aiming to show though is that empathy can be more problematic than we are led to believe and that rational empathy or compassion and care is a better approach to assist someone in distress.

He examines the negative effects via a series of evidence-based arguments that give the following result:

1, You can only identify with one person when you empathise which restricts your view on the overall situation. This fact can mean that many others deserving of sympathy will not be considered.

2, Empathy can make you blind or myopic to the concerns for future generations because you focus on only one aspect of a situation.

3, Empathy is often prejudiced because it is easy to identify with family, friends, people similar to us in culture and outlook but more difficult to apply towards strangers who we struggle to identify with.

4, Empathy leads to an emotional rather than a rational response.

5, The selfish aspect of empathic care leads to ineffective responses – i.e. we take care of someone’s frustration not because we care but because we wish to reduce the impact their emotion is having on us, the frustration (felt vicariously) it creates in us.

As my previous example of the doctor patient situation shows, too much empathy means that the doctor not only recognises the pain but is himself in pain due to emphatic distress. This stops him to do a good job, or worse, do his job at all because his pain is increasingly more painful until he has to tend to his own before he can consider a solution for his patient.

What the patient needs is a doctor who is fully present, listens carefully and calmly collects the information he needs to assess the reason for the medical complaint. This can be done without feeling with the person in need of care because a doctor has learned to associate symptoms with pathologies and his genuine attention to detail without emotional distraction is paramount to the ability in facing many patients in a day. Compassion and focused care are therefore distinguished from emotional empathy because it creates the opportunity for the patient to talk about all their problems without fear of shocking the doctor who in turn is able o make the correct diagnosis and treatment so both of them can move on to their next task.

‘In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the others well-being. Compassion is feeling for not feeling with the other.’

Therefore, empathy impacts on our rationality and good moral decision making. In one sense it is a useful tool to understand that pain can be shared, such as grief for a loved one, the severity of an injury or show how much we do care for our friends and family. In another sense, it reduces our vision to a small group of people, at the expense of others equally worthy of concern and consideration.

Hence, rational compassion is to be favoured – objective, logical analysis of costs and benefits, with a sympathetic approach that allows for a detached but beneficial concern for the wellbeing of others. Bloom argues this with fascinating evidence, well-presented logic and – pardon the pun – empathetic conviction. We could learn a lot from that outlook to become better parents, friends and citizens of the world. Once we are aware of the difference between sympathy – the feeling for (I notice that you’re in pain) and empathy – the feeling with (I feel your pain) we can assist others better.

‘Not only can compassion and kindness exist independently of empathy, they are some times opposed. Sometimes we are better people if we suppress our empathic feelings.’

The Book in three words: engaging, intelligent and thoughtful

I’d love to know your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it!
Profile Image for Nella ☾ of Bookland.
714 reviews91 followers
January 21, 2022
Interesting points were made; not groundbreaking or anything but Bloom certainly made me think about the cost-benefits of empathy and how it affects politics, society, and interpersonal relationships.
Profile Image for Uhtred.
249 reviews11 followers
May 3, 2020
This book struck me for the title: for years we have been surrounded by messages that enhance empathy, which offer it as a solution to all social, corporate and condominium problems. So, a Yale scholar who analyzes empathy from a scientific-psychological and not simplistic-goodistic point of view, immediately attracted me. Bloom's thesis is rather counter-current, given that he tries to demonstrate that empathy, understood as "putting yourself in the shoes of others" is a bad adviser if you want to make right decisions. Quite the opposite of the answer you would get if you interview ordinary people, but also the many social media "gurus" who want to teach us how to be successful in business or politics.
In fact, usually, empathy is always-and-only seen as a positive concept: it has good press, it is always present on the lips of politicians, it is the subject of study by great scholars but also the man in the street perceives that it is a good thing, that when it is absent there is indifference, cynicism, insensitivity. In general everyone thinks that if there was more empathy the world would be better.
Well, the title of the book, so fiercely aggressive that it had attracted me, in the book is very diluted: the thesis that Bloom wants to demonstrate, is demonstrated very well and very clearly in the first 50 pages, the rest is just a repetition of the concepts, with various examples which, however interesting and shareable, add nothing to the thesis demonstrated. Bloom, in essence, differentiates empathy so well in its various aspects and conceptions, to isolate it in such a way that you can only say he is right: if empathy is understood as synonymous with morality, compassion, kindness, it is impossible to speak bad of it ; but if we understand it in its narrowest meaning, that is, as the ability to make the feelings of others our own, then things change a lot. Bloom says that empathy then becomes like a stage beacon, which illuminates only one thing very well, leaving the rest of the scene in the shadows. You can see very well who is in front of you, you "feel" all his problems and you want to do something for him, without wondering if this is right or if this can penalize others. Which others, since they are not in the eye of the stage lighthouse, disappear in our eyes.
Bloom argues that an excess of empathy can suggest a choice of heart, even where a choice of brain is needed. The example he gives is that of people induced to advance a little girl on the waiting list for access to medical treatment if it is given the opportunity to know her story and identify with her point of view, even if this it means bypassing other subjects (who they don’t know anything about).
Bloom then analyzes the exploitation of empathy by politicians and public administrators, who ride this sentimentality to direct the public's attention towards this or that group, emphasizing that too much empathy means manipulable voters, while it would be necessary for people to maintain a detached sense of compassion and attention to others, supported by reason, cost-benefit analysis and a longer-term vision than the immediate here and now.
Bloom says that if one does not want to give alms to a beggar, it is not necessarily indifferent; it may be that he needs to help others by following the rules. He may not like to give money if he doesn't know where that money goes. A choice that has nothing to do with selfishness, but with being sure that altruism is effective.
To substantiate even more the concept that sometimes we are in a hurry to emphasize the good of empathy but we are blind to its costs, Bloom recalls the case of a dog suffering from ebola which in Dallas aroused such compassion that were spent to treat it 27 thousand dollars of public money, an absurd figure that would have been good for many patients unable to pay for their medicines; but the dog had become a media phenomenon, while the poors were unknown and uninteresting to journalists.
Bloom then tells us how declaring himself against empathy can be dangerous, as the supporters of empathy are very fierce. When Bloom dared to write against empathy on the New Yorker he was overwhelmed: the article was called an intellectual disgrace, the stupidest thing ever written, and the author was a moral monster.
Obviously this is not the case, and Bloom in the book indicates scientific research which, while searching for it, has not found relationships between little empathy and aggression or cruelty. For my part, I confirm: I am not particularly empathetic yet I usually do not insult people and beat them.
In essence, a book that promises too much in the title, but which is still a good read if we want to understand a little more about this world and also about ourselves.
Profile Image for Ryan.
962 reviews
August 11, 2021
I once gave a presentation entitled something like "Generating Empathetic Responses Through Cognitive Role Taking in Writing." I asked my audience, all teachers like me, how many of us assumed developing empathy in others was a good thing. All hands rose.

I agreed with my audience that empathy is pretty much a great thing.

I say that because I still remember those times when I powerfully felt the wrongness of something by immersing myself in a situation through writing. Somehow, merely thinking abstractly and concluding that something was wrong did not carry as much power as feeling that something was wrong. At the time, my primary concerns about empathy were that 1) we probably overrate its efficacy in promoting action and 2) there's a danger that we overwrite the feelings of others. But, on the whole, empathy strikes me as pretty useful and admirable.

In Against Empathy, Bloom argues that we should hesitate to praise emotional empathy or to assign moral weight to conclusions drawn from it. The book is less polemical than the title suggests. Although he gives credit to the power and influence of intuition, he's largely a defender of rationality. I was particularly interested in Bloom's ability to reference past scholars, such as Adam Smith, contemporary scholars, such as Jonathan Haidt or Steven Pinker, and to finally contextualize his conclusions within everyday experiences. My favorite section documented a psychologist's interactions with a Buddhist monk who distinguished empathetic meditation from compassionate meditation.

All in all, Against Empathy is easy to recommend. (The other text on this subject that I tend to recommend is Keen's Empathy and the Novel.) I do still recommend attempting to write from within the shoes of others, perhaps now more than ever actually, but I also recommend researching empathy's limitations before recommending it as a go-to or complete solution.
Profile Image for Bookworm.
1,799 reviews59 followers
February 6, 2017
Author has a case...unfortunately it's buried. I was perfectly open to reading Bloom's dissertation that there is *too much* empathy, rather than the need for more. This seemed highly relevant to recent events, plus as a general rule: why is it that certain events get far more attention and time when others don't? Does empathy affect our judgment too much? 
 
Unfortunately, Bloom's message is completely muddled and buried in what seems like a word salad. He goes off too long and too many times on examples that are supposed to better enlighten the reader but instead messes his point. He does perhaps have a point, but it's difficult to sift through the rest of of it to actually find out what he's actually trying to say.
 
I'm not saying the author should have held my hand, but after outlining what each chapter is supposed to convey I expected a book that had been mapped out much better. From what I understand this is an extension of various newspaper articles. Honestly, I would recommend reading those instead. This book really doesn't do what the author is trying to get across and therefore he fails to make his case. 
 
There are points that are probably worth considering and Bloom's thesis was worth expanding upon. It's pity the book doesn't accomplish what it set out to do.
 
Skip the book.
Profile Image for Daniel.
606 reviews80 followers
February 26, 2017
This is one of those rare books that challenge my assumption about morality and it is great. Empathy is the ability for us to feel what others feel. It has recently been touted as the most important attribute for successful and moral lives. It turns out that it is probably false.

Empathy is:
1. Narrow minded (we feel more for people who are like us, attractive etc)
2. Innumerate (we don't feel more sad if 5000 people suffer vs 1 person. Indeed it may be that we feel more for one person who is spot lighted by the media, then the ignored millions)
3. Able to lead us to make poor judgements (favouring the person who is spotlighted than the others equally deserving but unspotlighted ones.)
4. Able to paralysed someone if they feel too much (Doctors and Lawyers)
5. Not moral by itself and can lead equally to helping or avoiding
6. Not the best marker for benevolence. Rational thinking is.

I was changed from being sceptical when I read the prologue to being convinced at the end. Good book.
Profile Image for Erica.
368 reviews
February 3, 2017
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. It definitely generated some good conversation and has given me a lot to talk about. But I think it would have been effectively done as an essay. In many places it seemed to just be going around in circles.
The key issue at hand is the role of empathy in moral judgments, not overall in relationships, storytelling, etc. As long as you keep that frame of reference very clearly in mind while you read, I think you can get something out of it.
Profile Image for Samuel.
36 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2017
Full of interesting content and discussion but the only problem was that his arguments, though grounded in sound reason and fact fell short in impact. I was left at the end of each chapter rather dissapointed that his arguments didn't have enough grit and bravado to both feel wholesome in its explaintory power and have that badass feel of being a contrarian.
Profile Image for Omar.
199 reviews
May 16, 2022
“But how could empathy steer us wrong?….Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others. It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”

“Now we will never live in a world without empathy—or without anger, shame, or hate for that matter. And I wouldn’t want to live in such a world. All these sentiments add to our lives in various ways. But I do think we can create a culture where these emotions are put in their proper place”

It’s a provocative title and argument, but he’s just making the case for more logic and less emotions with our thinking as empathy can be an unreliable source for decision making and can have negative consequences while leading us astray, particularly on large scale matters. Instead, he thinks we can show compassion without trying to understand how others are feeling, which can guide moral behaviour more rationally ( i.e. less bias, less dehumanization of out-group, proportionate attention to issues, etc)-- and I think he may be correct. However, on a personal level empathy is essential to cultivate intimacy. Also, I did like his point that from a Darwinian perspective that we humans may not be built for an egalitarian world—a harsh truth.

tl;dr:

rational compassion = good and ideal for governing moral behaviour

cognitive empathy = useful, but is morally neutral and can be deployed for immoral purposes

emotional empathy = flawed & misleading for governing moral behaviour
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