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Publisher's Summary

A controversial call to arms, Against Empathy argues that the natural impulse to share the feelings of others can lead to immoral choices in both public policy and in our intimate relationships with friends and family.

Most people, including many policy makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers, have encouraged us to be more empathetic - to feel the pain and pleasure of others. Yale researcher and author Paul Bloom argues that this is a mistake. Far from leading 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 often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it and draw upon a more distanced compassion.

Based on groundbreaking scientific findings, Against Empathy makes the case that some of the worst decisions that individuals and nations make - who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to put in prison - are too often motivated by honest yet misplaced emotions. With clear and witty prose, Bloom demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from culture and education to foreign policy and war. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and ultimately more moral.

Bound to be controversial, Against Empathy shows us that when it comes to major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our empathetic emotions is often the most compassionate choice we can make.

©2016 Paul Bloom (P)2016 HarperCollins Publishers

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 04-24-17

Empathy betrays us only when...

"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

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 lends 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.

15 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Starts strong, fizzles out.

I liked what this book was getting at. I've always felt that appeals to empathy to fix the world's problems sounded flimsy, and so it was refreshing to hear someone make the case for why we shouldn't rely on our gut instincts for how we treat others. Empathy, as the author points out, is prejudiced and can't handle large numbers of people, and so it's wholly inadequate in the face of modern poverty, injustice, violence and hunger.

Great, so that's one chapter. The rest is downhill.

The chapter on why we should—and can—use reason instead of empathy is remarkably hand-wavy. There is so much research happening right now into how charitable work can be objectively assessed and improved (think Bill Gates), but instead of putting that forward, he makes an off-the-top-of-the-head argument that people are smart. He discusses the research into innate human biases and systemic irrationality, but he doesn't explain—actually, doesn't seem to grasp—how these biases can be managed with practical strategies (see: Moneyball). There was an important argument to made here. He didn't make it.

Bloom is right to not want to get lost in definitional arguments, and yet, in a practical sense, I do think he used empathy too narrowly. By requiring it to be the experience of emotions people see in others, he leaves out people understanding the emotions they see in others through past experience. When This American Life profiled black scholarship students failing out of university because they felt they didn't belong there, I vividly understood how terrible that was thanks to my own experience as a poor, rural white kid in a wealthy university. Empathy based on understanding, rather than raw emotion, doesn't suffer the shortcomings related to burnout Bloom lists, although it still faces many of the same challenges related to bias and innumeracy. If Bloom had included empathy in the sense of "understanding," it would have kept his core argument in-tact while making it more reasonable.

Honestly, you can basically skip this book if you've read Adam Smith (Theory of Moral Sentiments), Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker (Better Angels of our Nature), and Jonathan Haidt. He quotes them all extensively and doesn't add a great deal. All you need to know is that we should rely on numbers more for moral decisions than the emotional reactions we get from the suffering of others, because we find it easier to relate emotionally to people like ourselves, which leaves out most of the human race. Also we can't emotionally resonate with more than one person effectively, so we can too easily ignore the suffering of thousands.

There, saved you $20.

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Empathy is like soda, tempting, delicious, and bad

If you could sum up Against Empathy in three words, what would they be?

You're being manipulated

What other book might you compare Against Empathy to and why?

The means by which good people are manipulated to do evil is not obvious to anyone. Other books that explore misleading emotions could be Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Tavris & Aronson, Strangers to Ourselves by Tim Wilson, You Are Not So Smart by McRaney, Influence by Cialdini, Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert, and Haidt's Righteous Mind

Which scene was your favorite?

The chapter on violent conflict had some chilling stuff. Hows do you get a morally good man to torture, degrade and execute another man in cold blood? Make the good man a liberating soldier, make the tortured a Nazi prison guard, then evoke empathy for the prisoners.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Tried to but I have to sleep sometime...

Any additional comments?

After reading this book I watched Captain America: Civil War, and the lens of this book gave me a very different experience of the movie. Everyone is empathizing with someone, that empathy motivates their actions, and everyone nearly dies as a result. How do you manipulate even a superhero? Empathy.

13 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Finally my lack of empathy is justified

Being against empathy is like being against kittens, as the author notes early in the book. The author is more than aware that empathy, in the eyes of most people, is pure, blessed goodness. The only thing that is wrong with empathy is that we have too little of it. If you also think so, then you should read this book. I believe it will convince you that empathy is sometimes not so good, and in some cases, especially in the moral realm where you'd think it does the most good, it can even do a lot of damage.

The book starts out defining what empathy is. This is essential because people tend to have different definitions. Bloom defines empathy as feeling what someone else is feeling i.e. mirroring their emotions. It is thus distinct from compassion which does not require you to feel what the other is feeling. You can comfort and help a child who is afraid of lightning without being afraid yourself. You can also have compassion for groups of people, like refugees or children in Africa, but once you start mirroring their feelings, you will most likely begin focusing on one or a few individuals. This spotlight nature of empathy is one of its major problems - people feel more empathy for the one homicide victim than for the thousands of victims who die in an earthquake. Our charity donations too frequently reflect this “identifiable victim effect” which means that we don't send our money to where they would have done the most good.

Bloom continue to argue that even in more intimate relationships, such as between doctors and patients and between husband and wives, empathy may not be all good. For instance, we don’t want our doctor to feel the same anxiety we feel when we describe our mental or physical symptoms and what caused them. We want the doctor to be compassionate but not empathic. Still, despite his provocative title, Bloom isn't categorical in his denunciation of empathy. In fact, he is good at making the argument for empathy even though he always goes on to reject the argument. A more precise yet less exciting title might have been, the case against empathy.

The book also contained an unexpected academic heavyweight fight. I didn't count how many times Bloom pointed out distinctions between his view and Simon Baron Cohen's view - but by the end of the book, it is crystal clear that they do not agree about empathy. Baron Cohen seems to believe that empathy is what makes us good and prevents us from doing evil. Bloom argues the opposite, or at least almost the opposite. I have read several books by Baron Cohen, and they are usually good books, but this book is even better.

The book is a nice antidote if you have previously read books about how irrational and emotionally driven we are. I am thinking of, for instance, Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman which argues that we are to a large extent governed by our lazy system one which is prone to many biases. Bloom, in the last chapter of this book, points out that we are actually, for the most part, very rational. However, doing rational things like drinking when you are thirsty or buying the house with the right number of rooms and good location is not news. Like the media, which tends to mostly report when things go wrong, Psychology journals mostly reports when we do surprising and irrational things. The rational part is taken for granted, and because it is so obvious, it is forgotten.

If I could, I would have given this book 5.5 stars. It is that good in my opinion. Bloom is funny and knowledgeable, and he is a great writer. This highly original book also took only ~6h to read, so the insight per page is super high here. I insist that you read it!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Smart, informative and grounded by evidence

I very much enjoyed this book. Without the intention, this actually became a self help book for me. I have always believed myself to be an empath. I have found that this emotional pull has caused me a lot of unnecessary grief and unhealthy levels of stress. I never knew how I could find a way out of this self destructive and reactionary behavior. This book laid out facts about empathy that I had not known before. I feel more equipt to control my empathetic impulses and instead choose to act within the bounds of reason with a measured rational response. Reading this book spared me many circular frustrating talks with my therapist. I believe that I can see my empathic nature more clearly now. It was informative and the facts about empathy were based in scientific research. I will go forward with a new mindset on this subject and I am grateful for it.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Tepid, arbitrary

Narration is on point.

The content is meh. There are a few interesting points, but this feels like an essay that was expanded into a book. I stuck around until the end because Bloom's other works are /so/ good.

I appreciated the subtle nods at Black Mirror. I was overjoyed to finish a modern psychology book without the Marshmallow test being mentioned, but 5 minutes from the end it of course makes an appearance.

Bottom line: if you like Bloom (or Very Bad Wizards), buy it. If not, read another book by Bloom, and save this for last.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Excellent. Dare I say rational!!

This was a great listen. Really enjoyed the performance as well as the ideas. Love that Bloom its willing to say where he might be overstating something.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Good Concept, Well, but not Rigorously, Executed

What did you love best about Against Empathy?

The concept is interesting and well cashed out with experimental results. Bloom provides good reasons to think empathy isn’t always useful (and is usually not useful).

How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?

Bloom is not a philosopher and his philosophical arguments are weak in many spots.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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will make you reconsider your mental models

Paul Bloom's attention to detail in constructing his argument is careful and persuasive. For review, listen to his podcast with Sam Harris.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Interesting if you haven't considered the premise

This book covered some interesting topics that most authors do not touch, but after digging deeper into the text you start to realize that the basic ideas here seem intuitive to an unnerving degree. Most of this premise can be summarized as follows: you should care about others up to the point of feeling their pain. If this idea interests you, you will find the parts of this book you haven't already considered to be quite engaging.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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