[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study, and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind in what makes peak performance tick with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we start with a dive into evolutionary psychology and how biases have been programmed into you by millions of years of evolution. We look at why our guest condemns the concept of empathy, how science demonstrates that empathy has no correlation with doing good in the world. How empathy creates disastrous outcomes and more with our guest Dr. Paul Bloom.
The Science of Success continues to grow with more with more than 780,000 downloads, listeners in over 200 countries, hitting number one in New and Noteworthy, and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to awesome podcasts, and more.
Because of that, we created an epic resource just for you. A detailed guide called How To Organize and Remember Everything. You can get it completely free by texting the world “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, It’s a guide we created called How To Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to our website, scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we discussed the paradox of happiness, why pursuing it makes you less happy, and what you can do about it. We dug into the research about what really makes people happy. We broke down happiness into its essential components and discussed how to cultivate it, and much more with our guest Tal Ben Shahar. If you want to live a happier life, listen to that episode.
[0:02:20.8] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Paul Bloom. Paul is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University and received his PhD form MIT. He is the co-editor of the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences and the author of several books including Just Babies, The Origins of Good and Evil, and most recently, Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion.
Paul, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:02:45.1] PB: Hey, thanks for having me on.
[0:02:46.9] MB: Well we’re very excited to have you on here. For listeners who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit about your background and your story.
[0:02:54.3] PB: I’m Canadian, born in Montreal. For a long time I thought I’d become a clinical psychologist and treat children. My brother’s autistic, which is why I got into psychology, but I began to become increasingly entranced with broader philosophical questions and experimental research.
Now, I’m a professor at Yale University in New Haven, I study babies, I study adults, I study toddlers in between, and in between doing experimental research, I write books and articles for a popular audience.
[0:03:22.4] MB: I’d love to begin by diving into some of the research that you’ve done on babies, which I find really fascinating. Would you share kind of some of those findings?
[0:03:29.6] PB: Yeah, absolutely. This is work done in collaboration with my colleagues at Yale, particularly Karen Wynn who is my wife and collaborator. She runs this infant lab and we do all sorts of experiments on babies looking at their social understanding, their physical understanding, and recently about their moral understanding; their understanding of right and wrong.
This might seem crazy to talk about a six month old having a moral understanding but we discovered some really cool things. For instance, you can show babies a one act play where there’s somebody trying to do something like trying to get up a hill. Then a good guy comes and gently nudges our character up the hill. Then another guy comes, a bad guy, and shoves him down. If I was to ask you, show you the film, and you can look at online on my webpage, if you looked at the film you’d say, “Well, yeah, one guy’s a nice guy, the other guy’s a jerk.”
So we wanted to see what babies felt about this. You can’t ask babies, they can’t tell you but they do all sorts of things. We found out that babies prefer to reach for the good guy than for the bad guy. They prefer to give treats to the good guy or versus the bad guy. They prefer to take away treats from the bad guy over the good guy. That’s just one example. We’ve done many experiments of this sort and it finds that babies long before their first birthday have some sort of understanding of right and wrong.
Other studies find that babies have some sort of compassion. They like to help others, they like to support others. One body of my research explores the moral powers of the baby. At the same time though, the morality we have inborn with us, the product of evolution is in some ways very limited. Babies don’t have a natural compassion for strangers, they are insensitive to sort of moral insights like the wrongness of slavery or racism and sexism.
After writing my baby book, Just Babies, and after thinking about this issues, I began to struggle with the question of what makes us different from babies and what makes a person a good person? That led to a lot of my work now on empathy and the emotions.
[0:05:37.4] MB: So, do babies have a kind of initial or in-born prejudices and biases?
[0:05:43.5] PB: They do and they don’t. It’s not like a baby is born and, you know, doesn’t like black people, or doesn’t like gay people, or Asian people. Babies don’t have any specific biases but they are very quick to develop them. Very early on, for instance, babies prefer to look at people who look like those that they’re raised with.
A baby who is raised with all white people will prefer to look at white people, all black people look at black people. In one study involving Ethiopians in Israel, babies get to look at white people and black people, those babies don’t show any preference.
It’s not just sort of looking and you can say, “Well who cares about what babies like to look at?” Later on, these preferences manifest themselves in all sorts of biases like who they prefer to interact with, who they prefer to give toys to. Some of the best work has looked at a really surprising source of bias that’s extremely powerful. More powerful than gender, more powerful than race, and it’s language.
Very early on, as young as you can test, babies prefer people who speak the same language that they do and they prefer to interact with them, they prefer to make friends with them. Even a slight accent pisses babies off and they prefer to go for somebody who doesn’t have the accent. Of course you see the same sort of biases in adults. Although for adults, It’s more complicated, adults view some accents better than others.
But one reason why we believe that language is so important for the baby is that language is a wonderful queue to social group and if somebody speaks a different language than you or even a different accent, it’s an excellent indicator they’re not from your community. Because babies are extremely prone to split the world up into “in group” versus “out group”, they look towards language as a way to do it.
[0:07:27.3] MB: Tell me a little bit more about the kind of in group, out group distinction and how babies draw that?
[0:07:33.7] PB: Well, the question could be asked about babies and could be asked about you and me. There’s no human who is perfectly impartial from one group to another. There’s nobody who loves their own child to exactly the same extent that they love someone else’s child. There’s no one who doesn’t feel more of a connection to their friends and their lovers and their family than to strangers. We split the world up to “in group” and “out group” and that way, we split it up into countries, we split it up into ethnicities and to clubs.
One of the findings from baby studies is that babies are extremely willing to do so. They come in predisposed to break the world into us versus them. You can demonstrate that in the most minimal ways. One experiment that’s been done with adults, has recently been extended to kids. You just randomly put them up. You say, you guys, for adults who say, “Let’s flip a coin. Heads go in this corner, tails go in this corner.” It’s utterly random, it’s obvious it’s random, for kids, you hand out different colored gloves and it turns out, even this ridiculously small manipulation ends us splitting people up has a powerful effect.
We prefer our own group even if it’s just a heads group or the tails group. The yellow gloves or the blue gloves group. We like to give them more and we are happier punishing the other group. One of the aspects of human nature which I think is caused, maybe the most trouble is present from the very get go.
[0:09:02.9] MB: I think there’s a study that you’ve talked about in the past revolving around kind of babies and graham crackers or something like that. I’d love for you to share that research example.
[0:09:12.0] PB: This is some work done by Karen Wynn. You do a study where babies get to choose between two things they like and I think — I forget exactly. I think they’re graham crackers versus cheerios. Babies, you know, like one versus other, whatever. They choose one. Then they want someone else to make a choice and the weird thing that you wouldn’t have expected as babies are very sensitive to what the other person does.
They like when somebody chooses the same thing that they do and they get annoyed when somebody doesn’t. In some of the studies, they get so annoyed when somebody chooses something different. I choose graham crackers, you choose cheerios, they get so annoyed that they want to see that person punished.
And Karen in her work sees this as a sort of grounds for ideological conflict later on where as adults, we can get enraged when someone makes different choices from us. Now, when the stakes are very high, like going to war or abortion laws or whatever, that’s kind of understandable. But even when the stakes are ridiculously low, we freak out. This too I think is part of our initial equipment.
[0:10:22.0] MB: For listeners who may not have as good of an understanding of kind of the concept of evolutionary psychology and how this biases sort of get programmed into us via evolution, I’d love for you to just kind of explain that concept.
[0:10:36.0] PB: Well, just like our bodies, our brains are the products of natural selection. What this means is, the fact that we think the way we do that we have to taste and motivations and desires that we have is to a large extent because our ancestors who did this reproduced more than those that didn’t.
This is pretty obvious for some things. It’s kind of a no brainer why people like sex. People like sex because their ancestors who didn’t like sex or would rather copulate with a rock or a tree didn’t produce offspring while their ancestors that did like sex did considerably better at producing offspring, it’s why we love our children.
If you didn’t love your children, if you ate your children, well, your children won’t do too well in life. It’s why we prefer to drink water than to eat mud, a lot of our taste and desires at the low level make perfect sense for a creature that’s been evolved through survival and reproduction. This pertains to morality as well. It was one thought before the time of Darwin, that evolution is sort of red and tooth and claw; evolution is a relentlessly selfish force, making us care only for ourselves. We know and Darwin knew that his is nonsense.
Evolution makes us kind because creatures who are kind in certain special ways, like favoring their family over their friends, engaging in long term alliances and mutual benefit. Animals like that do better than animals that don’t. If you and I were in the Savannah and you cooperated with people and helped them out and took care of your family and all I cared about was myself, well your genes would do better than mine.
Evolution has shaped our morality as well but this is kind of a tragic part because from an evolutionary point of view, who gives a damn about strangers? Strangers are nothing. Strangers are at best potential threats and so the fact that we right now recognize that we owe a moral obligation to the strangers, we can’t kill them, we can even help them under some circumstances.
Suggest that we’ve used our intelligence to transcend evolution. Of course we do this all the time, we evolve perceptual systems that allow us to look over the world and see trees and water and so on. But through science, we understand what we’re really seeing are objects that are composed of tiny particles and fields of energy.
Similarly, we have a sort of stone age morality that’s evolved through evolution but we’re also smart enough to transcend it. The user are capacity for introspection and for generalization and logic. To realize that some of our innate morality’s unfair and capricious and that we could do better.
[0:13:19.5] MB: I think that really dove tails into your somewhat controversial view on the concept of empathy. Before we kind of dive into that, I’d love to understand, how do you define the concept of empathy?
[0:13:32.3] PB: Yeah, that’s a good question because people see the title of my book Against Empathy and they freak out. I have a collection of emails like you wouldn’t believe. I think it’s because it has different meanings. One of the issues.
Some people use empathy just to mean everything good. We should have more empathy means we should be kind, we should be loving, we should be moral and I have no objection to that. Other people use empathy in a narrower sense, having an understanding. I don’t have an objection to that either.
Although, understanding other people is morally neutral. You do need to understand other people to make the world a better place. You also need to understand other people if you’re going to seduce them or calm them or torture them or bully them.
The sort of empathy I’m interested in is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world as they do, feeling their pain and a lot of people have argued, this is really fundamental to morality. Empathy serves as a spotlight that zooms us in on people and makes them matter. What I argue in my book is that this is mistaken.
That empathy has all sorts of terrible effects. It makes us biased because we empathize with those who look like us and who are attractive and who belong to our group over others. It’s innumerate because empathy makes us value the one over the many, and at least capricious and arbitrary and often cruel acts. A lot of violence is prompted by empathy for a victim. At least the stupid policy decisions. It’s because of empathy that governments and populations care more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about a crisis like climate change.
Even in personal relationships, empathy can mess you up. An example I like to think about, because it’s from my own life is that if my teenage son comes up to me and he’s freaking out because he hasn’t done his homework and it’s due tomorrow and he’s very anxious. I’m not being a good father if I feel empathy from, I feel his anxiety and I share his anxiety and get anxious myself. I’m best as a parent if I have some distance, if it’s a, “Dude, calm down, let’s take a break, let’s go for a walk,” and I love him and I understand him but I don’t feel what he feels.
I think it’s the same for friendships, it’s the same for romantic relationships. If I’m really depressed, I don’t want my wife to see me and get depressed herself. I want her to try to cheer me up and try to make my life better. What we want from people and what makes it a better world isn’t echoing their feelings. It’s responding lovingly and intelligently to them.
[0:16:06.5] MB: Your definition is empathy is essentially the feeling of sharing the emotions or kind of actually feeling the pain or whatever someone else is feeling as opposed to this sort of broader understanding that might encompass compassion and other things that are sort of, could be defined as distinct from looking at it from kind of the psychology literature.
[0:16:29.1] PB: That’s exactly right. I’m using it the way a lot of people in the field use it. I’m not the language police. I’m totally comfortable with empathy anyway they want. Some people use empathy to fold together all sorts of things, some that are good, some that are bad.
The point of my book, the point of my argument isn’t about how to use the words. It’s about how we should live our lives and the case I make is that feeling the feelings of others, whatever you choose to call it is a really lousy moral guide, it leads to messy policy, it leads to bad relationships and we’re so much better when we try to understand people, when we care for people, when we care about people but we don’t feel their pain.
[0:17:14.7] MB: When people hear your stance about empathy, what are some of the kind of typical reactions?
[0:17:21.3] PB: I’ve been making this argument for a while and I’ve gotten some great responses, some very intelligent responses. People will argue that maybe empathy isn’t perfect but without it, we couldn’t be moral people if we didn’t feel other’s suffering, we’d never be motivated to help them.
People argue that those without empathy are cruel people, they’re psychopaths, they’re monsters, people argue that children start off being empathic and then compassion and other things and learn from it, it’s an important start and there’s many other arguments and I think it turns out that all of them are mistaken. I think for instance, there’s a lot of evidence that you could be kind to somebody and care about them and you can also want to make it a better world in general without feeling empathy.
It turns out there’s been a lot of research where you measure people’s empathy and then you see, how does that connect with what kind of good person they are? The answer is, it doesn’t. If I wanted to know whether you’re going to try to rob me or kill me or even just you know, talk badly about me. Your score on empathy test will tell me very little, actually, pretty much nothing.
The real predictors of bad behavior in people are a kind of malicious nature and lack of self-control. Empathy in whatever sense, feeling the pain of others, understanding others seems to play no role at all in good behavior or bad behavior.
[0:18:49.6] MB: That’s the finding that’s backed up by a lot of science right? It’s not just kind of conjecture.
[0:18:54.6] PB: Absolutely. There is an industry involving testing people’s empathy and looking at the relationships between their behavior, there’s a lot of research where you put people in FMRI scanners and you look at the brain responses, reflecting to empathy.
One of the cool findings for instance is, you know, there’s this metaphor I think made most famous by Bill Clinton where you say I feel your pain. It turns out, we literally feel other people’s pain. If I was to watch you get stabbed in the hand and my brain was wired up to an FMRI machine, it would reveal that parts of my brain would light up, that would be pretty much the same parts that would light up if my own hand was being stabbed.
There’s a lot of research on this. The research shows what I’ve been saying, the research shows that the individual measures of empathy don’t predict good behavior, bad behavior, they show that the neural measures of empathy are tremendously biased. This brings us back to the in group, out group work we were talking about before.
They did a study in Europe where they tested European soccer fans, you’re sitting there, your brain is all being measured and you want somebody else being shocked and half the people are told, “You see this guy being shocked? He’s a fan of your soccer team.” Turns out, when you do this, people say, they feel high empathy and their brain’s reflective. Parts of the brains light up that correspond to empathy.
Then, in another group, they’re told exactly the same thing but they’re told, “See this guy? He’s a fan of another soccer team.” You do that, the neural correlates of empathy shut down, you don’t feel empathy and in fact, you watch him be shocked, you feel a bit of pleasure. The studies confirm what we knew from other sources which is how incredibly biased empathy can be.
[0:20:39.2] MB: I’d love to dig in a little bit more to kind of the bias effects on empathy and you know, things like racial bias et cetera and how they can impact or how empathy can kind of negatively create outcomes.
[0:20:51.6] PB: There’s bias in a couple of ways, there’s sort of a natural bias we carry with us. One study looked at people’s empathic reactions to suffering of those they found disgusting, like homeless people or drug addicts. It turns out, the empathy is just silent. If someone grosses you out, you don’t feel their pain at all, you don’t feel anything for them.
Others studies find that attractiveness plays a real role. If there’s an attractive eight year old girl, a pretty little eight year old girl and she’s in pain, you freak out, you feel great empathy. Someone less attractive, someone maybe a bit scary, no empathy at all.
Our natural empathic responses are biased and similarly, empathy can be moved around by politicians, by rhetoricians, by people who want to make a moral point, to try to get you to feel empathy for this person or that person. Sometimes it’s done for causes you might think of as good, like when you direct a lot of concern and focus on the drowned Syrian child.
Where you say, “Look, you used to feel great empathy for his family and the suffering must have gone through. So let’s use that to motivate some good policy.” But often, empathy is directed to get you to hate people. If I want to get you to support attacking some other country or expelling some group from the United States. One excellent way to do so is to tell you about this group’s victims and get you to feel empathy for them.
It’s an observation as old as the Adam Smith in the 1700’s, which is when you watch somebody suffer, you feel empathy for them, you feel commensurate rage for those who have caused that suffering. This is no secret among those who want to motivate cruelty and violence.
[0:22:30.9] MB: You touched on a number of examples in the past of ways that empathy can negatively impact public policy. I’d love to hear the story of, I think it’s Willy Horton, or some of the other examples that you’ve shared previously about how kind of one story of empathy can lead us to make what ends up being a really terrible decision.
[0:22:52.4] PB: There catalytic examples of this, you might say that right now, going through the politics that we’re reeling with at this very moment; bailing out a company because you feel bad for its workers may have great short term effects for the workers and then sort of scratch your empathic itch but have horrible long term effects in the future.
Let’s go to the Willy Horton case. The Willy Horton case from the 1980’s, it came up during the presidential election between the competition, between Michael Dukakis and his republican opponent and what came out was, when Dukakis was governor, he had a furlough program and then the furlough program where prisoners are released for a little while, someone named Willy Horton was released.
Willy Horton went out and did some terrible things; he raped somebody, he assaulted somebody and Willy Horton was a large and threatening African American. So his opponents put pictures of Willy Horton everywhere. As soon as this incident happened, furlough program was shut down. Dukakis was condemned to apologize for it over and over again while people were stoked up by the terrible things that this man had done.
Now, it turns out that this for a little program by most measures made the world a better place. That is, even including the crimes that were done by prisoners released and furloughed, the fact that the furlough program exists led to less crime overall and so a rational person would say, “Well let’s do the numbers, apparently the furlough program is doing good.” But that’s not how we think. That’s not how the mind works. With the mind, we are swayed by these sympathetic cases.
Our empathy is triggered and so we end up doing acts like shutting down the furlough program that in the end cause more harm than good. I mean another example just to get you thinking about is a hypothetical example where imagine there is a vaccine program and a little girl gets very sick. We’d probably shut down the program even if a dozen people are saved by the program each year because you could empathize with the suffering of a little girl who gets sick and her family and everything.
But you can’t empathize the suffering of people who would have got sick but didn’t. Empathy works in the here and now. It feeds off real cases of suffering and ignores other considerations or take a third example, which is an example I begin my book with, which is school shootings, mass shootings. I begin my book with the story of Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, this horrific mass murder of 20 children and I point out that this causes an enormous amount of focus and concern.
And many people would view it as the biggest policy problem we have but it also turns out that when it comes to murders, to homicides in the United States, mass shootings take up about 0.1% of them. What that means is if you could snap your fingers and make it so that there would never be a mass shooting in the United States again, nobody would notice. It would be indistinguishable from random noise and so these are cases where a good, wise, compassionate policy maker says:
“I’m going to ignore the pull of my emotions. Particularly I’m going to ignore my racists bias, I’m going to ignore these things that really cause my tears to flow and ask myself the hard question of how to make the world a better place,” and I think these are cases where empathy leads us astray. I think there’s individual cases, there’s cases of charitable giving, there’s a lot of people who give to charity and I used to be one of them and still am to some extent.
Where I give to things for some sentimental reasons, for the cuteness of the picture, for personal connections and this is a lousy way to do it. When we give to charity we shouldn’t be trying to give ourselves a warm glow or happy buzz. We should be trying to make the world a better place and so I’d like to see a shift away from empathy based decisions towards decisions that are based on reason.
[0:26:43.0] MB: And, you know, it’s funny, the example that you give at the beginning of the book about mass shootings and I think it was 500 deaths from that in the last 10 years or I don’t remember the exact stats, but that made me think of another instance. I was watching the news the other day and they were arguing about terrorism and they threw out the stat of how many people have died from terrorism in the United States in the last 10 or 15 years and it was 150 people.
I mean it was a staggeringly low number when you think about the fact that it’s such a huge focal point and that example and the Willie Horton example for me, of course when I picked up the book I think I had the reaction to everybody. It was like, “Why is this guy against empathy?” and the more I start understanding that and those concepts of how this one vivid story, which can really mislead us into making what are objectively worst decisions for our society. It was pretty fascinating.
[0:27:43.2] PB: I find these stories very moving in how they illustrate in how we can go wrong and it’s not that we should blame empathy for everything. There’s all sorts of other things going on here. For the Willie Horton case, certainly racism played a huge role. I think even if empathy was stripped from our heads, powerful stories will always move us but the argument I make in my book is empathy is so vulnerable to these biases. Empathy always searches for the one.
It always zooms us in on the one person. It ignores the many, it ignores hypotheticals, it ignores statistics and so it misguides us over what’s important or what matters and it leads to lousy policy and this brings us back to our earlier discussions of definitions of empathy, which is the solution isn’t that we should become cold blooded monsters. The solution is that we should still feel for people, feel real kindness and concern and compassion for people, but we should try to rid ourselves of the habit that we have of zooming in on individuals.
And so towards the end of my book, I discuss the distinction between empathy and compassion, between feeling the pain of others — empathy — versus just wanting to help them — compassion. I even talk about some fascinating work on meditation and meditative practices which both illustrate the distinction. They get people to do empathy training, they get people to do compassion training, they find all sorts of differences.
But also, they showed it as possible to make yourself somewhat less empathic but also kinder, which I think would be an indispensable skill for all of us. But particularly people like doctors and nurses and first responders and police and firefighters, people who deal with emotional and difficult situations. The best of them can shut down empathic responses while still caring for other people.
[0:29:38.2] MB: I’d love to dig into that a little bit more, the distinction between empathy and compassion and we’ve actually had a previous episode where we went deep on the concept of compassion and distinguished it from empathy. In that episode, we touched a little bit on the idea of the main negative thing about empathy, was the idea of empathy burnout and how you can become overwhelmed with trying to bear the cross of feel the emotions of the suffering of others and if you instead focus on how to help them, you can be more proactive. But I would love to hear a little bit more about your take on the distinction between those two things.
[0:30:11.9] PB: So my take is exactly that take where I got into it actually by reading a bit of Buddhist philosophy. There’s a lot of Buddhist philosophy which asks the question of, “How are you to be a good person,” and how a Buddhist philosopher’s distinguish between what they call sentimental compassion and great compassion and sentimental compassion is what we’ve been talking about as empathy. It’s feeling other people’s pain and feeling other people’s suffering.
The Buddhist scholars say, “Don’t do this. It might give you a short term buzz but in the long run, it’s bad for you. It will burn you out, it will exhaust you”. People, the term burnout I think is from the 70’s but hundreds of years ago people worry about this. So the alternative is great compassion, which I’m just calling compassion, which is caring about people, loving them but not feeling their pain and the cool thing is that this great compassion seems to be pleasant, invigorating, energizing.
It makes you a better person but it also makes you a happier person and so a lot of contemporary meditative practice uses — it’s called loving kindness meditation. It uses these techniques to motivate people to be better people and one argument is that they work so well because the meditative practice dampens your empathic responses and a lot of what I’ve been talking about now is theology and philosophy and so on but there’s real evidence for this.
There’s some wonderful work done by the neuroscientist, Tanya Singer in collaboration with the biologist and Buddhist monk, Mathew Ricard, where they put people in scanners and they have them meditate in different ways, exercised their empathy or exercised their compassion and they find all sorts of different responses and what they find is inevitably you were just much better feeling compassionate.
[0:31:56.2] MB: I’m curious, you touched on earlier and I’m starting to think about how can somebody listening start to implement this in their lives? What is a concept of a warm glow altruist?
[0:32:08.9] PB: I’m not sure where the phrase came from but it was discussed by the philosopher Peter Singer where he talks about how some people give to charity and he says, some people give to charity, what they do is they have some money and they spread it around to all different charities.” They give a little bit to Ox fam and a bit to Save the Whales and a bit to their local arts community and a bit to their high school football team and they won’t give that much anytime.
They spread it around and this is either consciously or unconsciously, a wonderful tactic to feel good about yourself. Each of the different charities you give, you had a little dopamine blast of feel good. But Singer points out, if you want to feel good you’ve come across a great technique. If you want to make the world a better place, if you really want to help people, do it differently. If you really want to help people, figure out where your money and your resources could do the most good and put them there.
Ignore pictures of adorable babies, but what you should do is go online and see what people say with these charity. Does the charity tests it outcomes? Is it effective? Try to figure out how to make the world a better place and this applies even beyond money. I have a friend of mine who is a wealthy Yale professor and she would go work in a homeless shelter and there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes the world a better place but the problem was she was doing this instead of giving money.
And the truth is with her salary she could have given a lot more money to do a lot more good than her time at the homeless shelter, which could have done by anybody and that sounds, I know I’ve talked to people, that sounds really cold. It sounds cold and unromantic and what about the warm feelings of connection and so on? And my response is it depends on what you want. If you want to feel good about yourself like a special person, a real helper, get a real connection and make yourself a man of the people and all that stuff, well there’s all sorts of things you do. Be a warm glow giver.
But if you want to really help people, do something different. So it depends on your goals. My feeling is and I am an endless optimist about human nature is that most people really care about other people who want to make the world a better place and if you remind them, if you prompt them. If you get them to recognize that their emotional pulls are a poor guide to their behavior, they will work hard in doing better. I know I have.
[0:34:35.3] MB: And I think that that to me was the crux of this argument and helped me really understand it, which is what you just said, that your emotional pulls often mislead you and that if we zoom out from the spotlight of getting really caught up and the emotions and the vividness and the story, we can make what are objectively more rational, more statistically relevant and important interventions as opposed to getting caught up in this emotional whirlwind.
[0:35:10.7] PB: That’s a perfect summary of my argument and you know some people could be skeptical. You asked about responses to my ideas and one response I often get is, “Well maybe you’re right but what are we going to do about it? We’re always going to captured by our emotions and our gut feelings.”
But again, I’m more optimistic and I give an analogy to racism which is we’re naturally racists. There’s a thousand studies showing we’re biased to favor our own. Even in cases where we really don’t want to and don’t think we are, but does that mean we have to throw up our hands and say we’re stuck with it? Not at all.
There’s all sorts of ways we can circumvent and avoid our racism. We can engage in practices that diminish it. We could set up technical means within our society like blind reviewing or quota systems that — and they are very different ideas what they share is they take the decision out of our hands. They avoid our biases. If you want to be a good person, you should be aware of your biases, both your moral biases but also your rational biases and so on and then think hard about how to override them.
[0:36:17.4] MB: I think that’s a great point as well which is that in order to move beyond these biases, we first have to cultivate an awareness of them and in many ways, the dialogue around this can often cut off the conversation before we really get to the point of acknowledging and accepting that biases do exists.
[0:36:39.4] PB: That’s right. So to some extent I think the great contribution of psychology to modern times has been making us aware of our biases and limitations. Where some psychologist go wrong, I think, is that they jump to the conclusion that we are nothing more than our biases and limitations and I think instead there’s a duality that we’ve been talking about. We are biased, we are limited, we are swayed by irrational things but we’re also smart enough to know it.
We can use our intelligence and our self-control and our desire to make a real difference to try to override the more emotional parts of ourselves and we’re just talking here about making decisions, making moral decisions and moral actions. I have nothing against empathy in general. Empathy is a wonderful source of pleasure, of intimacy, it’s part of sex, it’s part of sports, it’s part of reading a novel or watching a movie. It’s just as a moral guide, it’s a sort of thing that we should really distrust.
[0:37:38.9] MB: You know for a man who is against empathy, I think you have a very uplifting view of the direction of the human future and I think that’s a great way to think about it in the sense of, I think you are totally right that many psychologists think that we get almost too far to the other extreme in saying, “We can’t overcome any of these biases.” But I really like your uplifting perspective that we have to be aware and know that these biases are real but we also have the logic and the reason and the ability to move beyond them and build a better future.
[0:38:13.0] PB: Yeah, I mean you could see it. You could see the intellectual history not just of psychology but how people talk in newspapers and in blogs and online and how we think about ourselves where there was a time of enlightenment where we thought of ourselves as perfectly rational beings, for the most part, the age of reason.
And then it swung and where we are now is basically many of my colleagues will say, “People are idiots. We’re just incredibly limited, we’re just so foolish in so many ways,” and one of the many goals in my book is to try to push that pendulum back a bit to acknowledge all of these limitations but also to have this optimistic view that puts a lot of focus on our reason.
After all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about our biases. We wouldn’t know there were biases unless we had this other more powerful, more rationale capacity.
[0:39:07.6] MB: So for somebody who is listening and wants to concretely implement the concepts we’ve been talking about in their lives, what’s one simple piece of homework that you would give them as a starting place?
[0:39:21.2] PB: Well one thing, which we touched upon a few times here is meditative practice, which is something that I am working on myself. But I think there is a more general answer, which is — and this is an answer regarding all of our biases, which is when you are very calm and not caught up in anything look at your life and look at your decisions and try to contemplate the extent to which you’re being held swayed by irrational biases.
And then if you think you are, if you think for instance that some of your actions are short sighted or too empathic or racist or something like that and you don’t like it, you could work to combat it and you could work to combat it in clever ways. I have a friend of mine he gives the simplest example; he wants to give to charity but he knows that when it comes when he’s asked to give to charity he says, “Well I have other personal ways I could use the money. I could go out for a drink or whatever.”
He feels bad about this. He doesn’t feel that this is the right way to live but he can’t fight it. So at one point he said, “Look here’s what I should do” and he set up automatic deductions on his paycheck. Very easy to do so now, he could still change his mind. He could shut it down but now he doesn’t have to decide whether to help, he doesn’t decide whether not to help. He changed what the baseline is.
It’s sort of the moral equivalent if you’re on a diet of not keeping giant bags of M&M’s in your house. The moral equivalent if you’re trying to give up smoking, don’t go to a bar where everybody is smoking. We could be smart enough to recognize, “I am going to fall into this trap,” but to then think and plan ahead so that the trap could be circumvented and that in very general terms is, I think, how we can help defeat those aspects of ourselves that we believe should be defeated.
[0:41:12.2] MB: For listeners who want to learn more, where can people find you and your books online?
[0:41:17.9] PB: I have an academic website, which you could find by just typing in Paul Bloom Yale. But I’m mostly on Twitter these days. I’m just one word paulbloom@yale and I endlessly tweet about these issues, about academic gossip, about politics and some excellent bad jokes. So that’s where I recommend people to go to.
[0:41:37.9] MB: Well Paul, thank you so much for sharing this insights. This has been a fascinating conversation and I think on the surface, it seems very controversial to be opposed to empathy. But I think peeling back the hood a little bit there’s a lot of merit to this framework and your understanding of reality and I think the acknowledgement that we have biases but also the rational optimism that we can work through them and build a better future is something that’s really inspiring. So thank you so much for being on the show and for sharing this wisdom.
[0:42:09.3] PB: Thank you so much for having me on. This has been a wonderful conversation.
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