Tag Archives: RSA

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy

I came across an article in The Atlantic recently that expressed the opinion that empathy might be overrated. You’ll note that the way the headline is written: “Empathy: Overrated?” should already tell us that the answer is no (via Betteridge’s law of headlines). While from the outset, I’m already noticing my bias against the idea of empathy being overrated, I did my best to read the piece with an open mind and I’m glad I did because there are a few passages that I think are important to highlight from the “con” side of empathy:

The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.

Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles,” Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.

Bloom raises some really good points here, but I don’t know if it’s fair to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of empathy. There’s been an extremely strong misinformation movement that I’d “blame” before I’d blame empathy.

The point about empathy exacerbating social inequalities is also a bit curious to me. While we may be more inclined be to empathetic to people who look like us, that doesn’t preclude us from being empathetic to people who don’t look like us and to that end, wouldn’t being at least marginally more empathetic to people who don’t look like us be better than not being empathetic to them at all (if we’re to look at it from a cold, calculated, and objective standpoint)?

Lastly, and most importantly, I’m worried about this point that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to want to impose harsh punishments on people. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the study that Bloom is referring to in this article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, so I won’t attempt to critique the study’s methodology, but I will say this: isn’t campaigning for less empathy taking us a step back? If we’re looking at the progression of humans, I think it’s probably fair to say that empathy is something that we’ve developed along the way. It’s growth. It’s positive (I mean that it’s an addition to our species, rather than when positive is meant to indicate a judgment). Wouldn’t it be better for us — as a species — to incorporate this new phenomenon of empathy as we continue to grow?

This idea reminds me of Ken Wilber and his work. In particular, the idea that we start with x, move to y, and then find a way to integrate our understanding of x and y to move to a third stage, let’s call it xy. It seems to me that we’ve learned about this thing called empathy (stage x), and now we’re learning about how it can sometimes have a negative effect on us. As a result, there’s this backlash or movement against empathy (stage y). So now, we’ve got to move to place where we can integrate the two (stage xy).


Finally, I wanted to talk about one more thing that Bloom said:

At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?

“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”

I like Paul Bloom and I’ve even written about him before, but I wonder if this is a misunderstanding of empathy. Or maybe more accurately, the way that the study defines empathy is different from the way that others may define empathy. The way that I remember empathy is that understanding is a component of empathy. I wrote a post about this a little while back and included a helpful short from the RSA:

What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 12.48.00 PMWhen you search for empathy on Google, you get almost 10,000,000 results. When you search for sympathy on Google, you get almost 25,000,000 results. I bet if we could look at historical search results in Google, I bet that we’d see a big trend where the number of search results for empathy has been increasing. The closest thing we can do to this is a search of all the books that contain the word empathy (at least the ones that have been digitized by Google). How? Using Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The chart above shows the mentions of empathy and sympathy starting in 1800 and ending in 2008. As we can see, empathy was hardly mentioned at all when compared to sympathy until the 1920s. That makes me wonder if there might have been some writings about empathy around the time of the Great Depression. What’s noteworthy though, is the steady increase in mentions of empathy. Granted, it’s still in only a fraction (0.0005%) of books, but it’s still progress.

Sympathy, on the other hand, we can see has steadily declined since the early 1900s. However, there’s been a small blip in sympathy since the mid-2000s. I would guess that this may have to do with the title question of this post: the difference between sympathy and empathy.

There’ve probably been several books written about the differences between empathy and sympathy in the last 5 or 10 years. So, do you know the difference between the two? I have to admit, even as an undergraduate in psychology, I’d often find myself googling the difference between the two terms. About a month ago, I came across a great video from the RSA that quickly explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. Of course, there’s a slight bias towards empathy in the video, but I think you’ll agree — empathetic is far better than sympathetic.

In case you’re inspired to be a champion of empathy or want some more information about programs that are helping to increase the level of empathy, I’d suggest checking out Ashoka: Empathy.

And if you want a bit more information about how empathy has shaped our society and continues to shape it, then I highly recommend checking out the RSA Animate video of Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization:

Twenty Online Talks That Will Change Your Life, Part 2

Yesterday, I began going through one of The Guardian’s articles about 20 online talks that could change your life. We got through the first 10 talks yesterday. In this post, we’ll look at the last 10 talks.

11. Shaking Hands With Death – Terry Pratchett

12. The Voices in My Head – Eleanor Longden

If you have no experience with schizophrenia, Longden’s talk will certainly change that. It’s important to note, not everyone comes as ‘far’ as she did. Nonetheless, I hope her story fosters empathy within you.

13. Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101 – Albert Bartlett

I don’t remember when I first saw this lecture from Bartlett, but I know that it was probably one of the first lectures I watched on the internet (maybe 15 years ago?). If you’re captivated by headlines like “Crime Doubles in a Decade,” or you’re confused about inflation then you’ll learn a lot in the first half of the video. As someone who majored (second major) in sociology, I can certainly empathize with the idea of a Malthusian catastrophe. I suppose I’m putting stock in the fact that something will change before it gets to that. You may be tired of hearing that people of time X couldn’t have predicted what life would be like in time Y, but I’d say that this is a big factor in why I think we’re not hurtling toward the future that Bartlett explains. Of course, I could be wrong, but I really think that something will change before it comes to this.

14. The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren

15. The Secret Powers of Time – Philip Zimbardo

If you’ve ever taken PSYC 100, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Zimbardo. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, his famous experiment will: the Stanford Prison Experiment. I remember watching the RSA Animate version of this talk a couple of years ago. Zimbardo shines a light where you might not have been looking: your relationship to time.

16. The secret to desire in a long-term relationship – Esther Perel

17. Printing a human kidney – Anthony Atala

In 2011 when this talk was given, the idea of 3D printing was brand new. To some, it may still be. I remember talking about it last year in the context of rapid technological change. If you’re still fuzzy on 3D printing, this is an enlightening place to start.

18. Do schools kill creativity? – Ken Robinson

If you’ve ever watched a TEDTalk, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this one from Ken Robinson. As of this time last year, it was the most watched TEDTalk – ever – with almost 15,000,000 views. If you haven’t seen this one, spend the next 20 minutes doing just that.

19. Sugar: The Bitter Truth – Robert Lustig

20. Moral behavior in animals – Frans de Waal


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Why We Lie, Cheat, and Steal: The Truth About Dishonesty

I’ve just finished the 5th week of my 4th year of graduate school. For folks that have been in graduate school this long, there’s usually a development of research interests. Because of the nature of my time in graduate school (1 year in a PhD program, 1 year completing my first Master’s, and now into year two of an MBA), I never really had to declare my research interests or choose a dissertation topic. Though, for my first master’s, I did have to write a final paper. That final paper was on a topic that, if I were asked, would probably appear on a list of my “research interests.” It was on intuition and decision-making. Ironically, I’m working with a professor at George Mason University to test whether or not one can improve the conditions for one’s intuition (in the context of decision-making).

If I were to list another research interest, I’d have to say that it’d be on the topic of ethics or morals. Ironically, during my time as an undergrad, I worked on a research project with a psychology professor where we were examining (among other things) people’s moral judgments. I’ve had an RSA Animate talk bookmarked for about two weeks and I just finished watching it — I think you’ll enjoy it.

It was given by Dan Ariely on the content of his new book: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Ariely is also the researcher I referenced a few months ago when I was talking about the research on American’s perceptions and misperceptions of wealth inequality. I’ve pulled a few important quotes from the video:

“The magnitude of dishonesty we see in society is by good people who think they’re doing good, but in fact cheating just a little bit, but because there’s so many of them — of us — it has a tremendous economic impact.”

“You can’t go and say to yourselves, chef really want their food to be eaten. And it’s really owned by a conglomerate that is really not that good. Some things lend themselves to a much higher degree of rationalization.”

“At some point, many people switch and start cheating all the time. And we call this switching point the ‘what the hell’ effect. It turns out we don’t have to be 100% good to think of ourselves as good. But if at some point you don’t think of yourself as good, you might as well enjoy. And many people, by the way, report this same thing with diets.”

“Your motivation influences how you see reality.”

There is No Such Thing As “Left-Brain” and “Right-Brain”

Let me just begin by saying that before I knew better, I often referred to the “left-brain” and the “right-brain.” When I got old enough (and studied the brain a little bit), I learned that those are just colloquial terms that referred to the functions most commonly found in the left hemisphere and the functions most commonly found in the right hemisphere. While I understand the importance of using labels to effectively communicate what could be perceived as complicated theories, I think it’s important that we don’t talk about the ‘left-brain’ and the ‘right-brain.’

The primary reason for this — there is only “one” brain, for which there are two hemispheres. When we begin to talk about the ‘left-brain’ and the ‘right-brain,’ it severs us from reality (even slightly). The secondary reason — we’re now learning a great deal about . This is the idea that — essentially — the brain can change. Through environmental, behavioral, or other changes, the actual structure of the brain can change. I recently came across a great RSA talk by on “The Divided Brain.” I’ve included a few quotes that I found worth repeating. Below, you’ll find the video embedded.

On empathy:

“If you can stand back & see that the other individual is an individual like me, who might have interests & values & feelings like mine, then you can make a bond.”

On imagination being in the right hemisphere and reason being in the left hemisphere:

“Let me make it very clear: for imagination you need both hemispheres. Let me make it very clear: for reason you need both hemispheres.”

In case you don’t watch the video the whole way through, he closes with a :

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”

Altruism, To Give or To Take: Economics & American Public Policy, Part 1

Give, open hand, giving, world, earth, give a gift, gift giving, A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I wanted to do a series of posts on American Public Policy. This first post will be about America’s economic policy. As a disclaimer, I should say, economics can be a very academic field, in that there are hundreds of programs around the world that offer doctoral study in economics, so anything that I can say about economics in 1000 words or less is going to pale in comparison. However, I do think I’ve stumbled upon a possible explanation as to the economic “mess” that American economics finds itself in…

I was watching some of the older videos posted by the RSA, (I’ve mentioned them before), and I came across one by a couple of author’s whose blog is rated quite highly. I’ve read Freakonomics, but I haven’t read Superfreakonomics, so if the connection I’m going to make is made in the book (but not in this 10-minute video), you’ll have to forgive me. Anyways, in the video, they are talking about altruism as it relates to economics, but not necessarily to economic policy. Take a look:

The most interesting parts are the last 2 and a half minutes. The speaker is explaining studies done by John List where he has participants, in this case, called dictators, who have the ability to give up to $10 to an unwitting stranger (who won’t know the person who is giving them the money and therefore, is unable to thank them afterwards). Give, open hand, giving, money, cash, give a gift, gift giving, On average, people gave around $3. List then altered the experiment to allow ‘dictators’ to also be allowed to take up to $1 from the stranger (again, the stranger would not know the person who is taking the money from them). So, on a range, the dictators could give the stranger anywhere from $10 to ($1) [brackets implying that the stranger is losing a dollar]. List found that the most common choice was $0 (but the average giving was around $1.50). One more alteration… dictators could now give up to $10 or take up to $10 from the stranger. On average, under these conditions, people steal about $1.30, as opposed to giving.

When I first watched this video, I couldn’t help but make the leap to ‘real-world’ examples of these findings at play. I think about what happened leading up to the events of 2008 and I see parallels. I think back to the movie Inside Job and the ‘simple’ way that is explained as to what happened (of course, this is just one perspective as to what happened leading up to the collapse). People of the financial services industry, in my opinion, are not inherently bad. Give, open hand, giving, world, earth, give a gift, gift giving, love, share, sharingIn fact, just the opposite. As I argued that politicians are inherently good, I think the same case could be made for those who were, in part, responsible for the collapse of the financial system.

To make it explicit: people who work in the financial services industry, like the “dictators” in the studies done above, were, in a sense, given the opportunity to take money from strangers without having to face these strangers. On a range of giving money from $10 to taking $10, the people who work in this industry, in my opinion, were able to freely take money from people without having to face any repercussions. It’s not that they were malicious and they wanted to hurt people. I think it’s more that they were given the opportunity (and as the study above shows), given the opportunity, people usually take it. [As an aside: in the video, they talk specifically about students of economics as it relates to the ultimatum game and how they would take 2 cents because 2 cents is better than none. I think this economics-mentality of some money is better than no money is what sways the amount of money that the financial industry took from citizens who were otherwise clueless as to what was happening.]

Moreover, in the dictator game described above, the range was from giving $10 to taking $10. In this real-world example, I think we could “hold” the giving $10 side of the scale, but the taking side of the scale could be moved to “infinity.” Give, open hand, giving, world, earth, give a gift, gift giving, Meaning, sure, there is a set number of dollars that they are able to give to citizens, but they are unlimited in what they can take from citizens. As this scale is tipped into the ‘taking side,’ I think we would find that people, on average, are more likely to take a greater number of dollars. I haven’t read any of List’s studies, but it’d be interesting to see if he has done any work where the scale is tipped in the other direction (give up to $1 and take up to $10) to see if that average of taking $1.30 from a stranger changes. My guess is that it would.

I think there are a couple of great documentaries (and hoards of books) that I’ve found rather enlightening on the topic with regard to economic policy. I mentioned Inside Job above and would recommend it to get a different perspective on what happened in the late-2000’s. I also think that Capitalism: A Love Story was educational. I understand that Michael Moore is very liberal and as such, his movies come across that way, but I still think it’s important to take in viewpoints that are different from one’s own. Additionally, and maybe my favo[u]rite on this topic, is The Corporation. It was a Canadian documentary done almost 10 years ago now about the pathological disorders of “corporations” as they are, legally, persons.

Give, open hand, giving, world, earth, give a gift, gift giving, love, share, sharingOverall, given the information in these documentaries and various books, and the results of the studies done by List, I think that this speaks to a broader issue with regard to economic policy. We can’t necessarily fault those who, when given the chance to take money, do so. Instead, I think we need to put regulations (read: public policy) in place. These regulations would limit the scope of people’s ability to take money. To put it in terms of the dictator game, instead of having people able to give or take up to $10 from a stranger, I’d like to see the limit be that they can’t take anything from the stranger. Let’s limit their ability to be able to give up to $10 and take nothing. As List found, on average, given these conditions, people are more likely to give around $3 — to complete strangers.

Politicians Are Inherently Good

I believe that people are inherently good and because I believe that politicians are people, too, I also believe that politicians are inherently good. [.] You’ll find many about the topic as to whether people are good and you’ll also find many people in general debating this topic (, , and ). Some people think it’s clear that . You’ll even find academic articles written on the subject of humans inherent goodness ( and ). While I acknowledge the religious component to this debate, from everything I’ve seen of people, I think they are inherently good.

Yes, there are heinous acts committed everyday around the world, but I don’t think that people are doing these things in their “right mind.” That is, I think that there is some form of . I think that people couldn’t do some of the things that they do without being, in some way, detached from what they are doing. While the human condition encompasses a wide variety of human behavior, I don’t think that humans, without being (unaware) to some extent, of what they are doing, that they could do what they do (when they harm other humans).

I am in the process of working on a series of posts where I make the claim that is way behind and while this implicates the politicians who, by the very nature of the system, are directly involved with the writing and publishing of American public policy, I do not think that politicians are deliberately (and maliciously, that’s key) making it this way. I think that because of the way that the system of the American government is set up and the system of the American media, it’s much easier for American politicians to get away with the kinds of things they get away with, but I don’t think there is harmful intent.

Some may call me idealistic, but I believe that (most) humans on the planet, given an opportunity to help a fellow human, would do so. When presented with an , I think that most humans will do what they can to help someone out. More importantly, I think that those who wouldn’t help out are still human, but are expressing what would call, “.”

We can understand this a little easier by looking at some of the things that  has to say: “The thoughts that go through your mind, of course, are linked to the collective mind of the culture you live in – humanity as a whole. They are not your thoughts as such, but you pick them up from the collective… You believe in every thought that arises and you derive your sense of who you are from what your mind is telling you who you are.”

And then pair them with the lens of : “…when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer…”

Inherently people are good. While I understand that some people my disagree, this is a topic that I have a hard time honestly taking a step back and hearing both sides. I think that people always, always mean well. Like I said earlier, yes, there are some “bad” things that happen in the world, but I do not think that its intentionally harmful (and I really hope not, too). I think that psychology’s perspective on the shadow, along with viewpoints from spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie help us to understand why some people may do “bad things,” and still, inherently, be good people.

Lastly, I wanted to offer a perspective from someone who I think has something important to say on this topic. wrote, what I think, is one of the more important books of this generation. It came out in 2010 and it has already been translated into more than 30 languages. He gave (50 minutes), which was then turned into a . The implications are profound and I have included the animated speech below for your viewing pleasure.