Tag Archives: Understanding

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).

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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:

You Are Exactly Where You’re Supposed To Be

By being a good listener, people often come to me for advice. Maybe this is why I decided to get into (or maybe I got into psychology because I’m such a good listener?) One of the common themes I recall has to do with people asking about some iteration of “.” I’d be lying if, I, myself, never considered that I took “the wrong road.”

The advice that stems from this title is simple: you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

In short: if “here” weren’t where you were supposed to be, you’d be somewhere else.

After I continually repeat some iteration of these two phrases (the title and the one in the previous sentence), the advice-seeker’s demeanor begins to soften in a way that lets me know that they’ve taken ‘it’ in. It’s one of my favorite pieces of advice (along with ““) Why? Because it gives the advice-seeker the permission to stop second-guessing themselves, something that our culture is rife with. It lets the person be okay with where they are and in another way, gives them permission to stop wishing they were somewhere else.

Of course, someone may choose to continue to wish they were somewhere else, but this philosophy can be — at least a little bit — liberating.

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An extension of this phrase can be used when someone is still in the ‘before’ stage of their decision. That is, I just described how it can be used ‘after’ someone’s made a decision, but it can also be offered before a decision is made. When someone is trying to decide between two paths, again, it can be kind of freeing when you realize that no matter which way you choose, it will be the ‘right’ way.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not offering this phrase/post as a “tweet-worthy” canned piece of advice. There’s a whole philosophy (see either or ) behind this way of thinking and some folks subscribe to it. I’m not advocating one subscribe to it in some or all instances, but I would suggest one take the time to consider it.

If You Can’t Explain It Simply, You Don’t Understand It Well Enough

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite historical figures: Albert Einstein. Although, there is some as to whether or not he actually said it. In today’s fast-paced internet climate, it’s important to be mindful of attribution. Remember the one that made the rounds during ? I’m sure you’ve seen attributed to Mandela. And one of the lesser known misquotes, H. Whitman when . I’ve read a lot of Einstein’s work (more than the average person, that is), and I would say that it sounds like something he would say.

I’ve had and as a result, have been exposed to quite a bit of jargon. The psychological literature has a fair bit of jargon. Part of that is necessary because researchers of psychology are — at times — creating new ways of understanding human behavior. Through this new understanding, new language is sometimes necessary.

In the business degree I’m currently working on (nearly halfway done!), I’ve been exposed to quite a few disciplines: economics, finance, marketing, operations, etc. All with their own unique set of jargon. Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep the jargon straight as some words used in one discipline are the same words used in another discipline — but in a different context or with a different meaning.

Jargon can be quite useful when communicating with people who understand the jargon. The “in-group,” as it were. However, jargon has a tendency to severely exclude the “out-group.” Sometimes this is intentional, but I’d rather talk about the unintentional exclusionary nature of jargon. And that’s why I chose the Einstein quote as the title of this post.

“If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” As I said, jargon can be useful — at times — but at other times, it can be really painful. That is, it can be quite demeaning to be in a group of people who are speaking in what may seem like a foreign language, while you sit there trying to make sense of it. Part of the problem is that, sometimes, people using the jargon really don’t understand the material well enough to explain it to you in analogous terms. There’s also just the habit of using certain words when talking about certain concepts and as a result, it can take a concerted effort to not use jargon.

Don’t get me wrong, I like jargon. I enjoy expanding my understanding of language and the different words we have to describe things. (Today, I just learned what eleemosynary means: charitable or philanthropic.) Although, I think it is important to take note of one’s company. If you’re working on a project and not everyone is of the same understanding of the topic, it is of paramount importance that the language used be accessible to all (or most) parties involved.

For anyone that has been on the receiving end of jargon-filled discussion, there is likely greater compassion when noticing that someone else is experiencing a sense of , with regard to jargon. Maybe this all stems from a person’s . This is one of the personality traits from the “.”

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It’s ironic that in a post about jargon, I find myself slipping into the habit of using some jargon to explain things. That’s how easy it can be to not notice that you’re doing it. The next time you’re in a conversation with someone or in a group-setting, take notice of the reactions of those people around you, particularly, when you hear a piece of jargon spoken. I bet you could use it as an opportunity to quietly explain the concept in more accessible terms and you just might make someone’s day.