“We’re fascinated by people falling in wells. We’re horrified by attractive girls who are abducted,” said Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Ragan Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.
In the cases of children in wells and abducted girls, Bloom showed how news stories with an individual focus often garner more attention than stories about larger-scale tragedies. When we are empathetic, we imagine ourselves in another person’s situation. But empathy is often narrowly focused, myopic, and biased.
“We are more likely to have empathy for people who look like us," Bloom said. “Bias is part and parcel of how empathy works.”
Bloom gave his talk, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” at Franklin & Marshall College’s Jan. 25 Common Hour, a community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session. A distinguished scientist and award-winning author with an international reputation, Bloom has published more than 100 articles in top scientific journals.
In his talk, he discussed the danger of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, explaining empathy can be exclusive and can lead to impulsive decisions. Rather, Bloom argues that actions be made with rational compassion, concern, kindness, love, and morality.
“I’m against empathy as a way to determine what the right thing to do is, and I’m against empathy as a motivator to do things,” said Bloom.
While some may argue that empathy is always a force for good, Bloom argued that it can also be used as an end, especially in terms of public policy. It’s also impractical for helping professions, like emergency medical technicians or therapists.
“I want my therapist to care about me,” said Bloom, “but I don’t want her to feel my pain.”
In the case of a drowning child, for example, Bloom said we can care for the child without having to feel what it's like to drown ourselves. “Although it’s very tempting to put yourself in other people’s shoes, it’s a moral trainwreck,” he said.
The engaging talk was followed by questions from the community.
“When it comes to choosing how to act, I wouldn’t use your emotions. I’d choose rationality,” said Bloom.