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Choose Empathy – Practice Makes Perfect

By Shlomo Maital


Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It contrasts with sympathy, which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”.

   Surely empathy is a fundamental basis of all that is good in society. And it has been, long before moral philosopher (not economist!) Adam Smith wrote about “fellow-feelings” in his 1759 book Theory of Moral Sentiments.

   Well — leave it to the professors to challenge even the most common-sense ideas. Unfortunately I played this silly game myself for decades. Here’s how it works: Strap on your revolver, tie the holster to your thigh, and go looking for the fastest gun in town. Challenge him to a gunfight. If you win you become famous. If you lose, well — in publish or perish nobody dies. You get to try again.

     Take empathy, for instance. What could be bad? Well —   Yale University Professor Paul Bloom’s 2016 book Against Empathy argues: “many agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices.”   Basically, Bloom writes, we feel empathy mainly towards those who are like us, so this is part of the tribalism and identity politics that fracture society today around the world.  This is an utterly wrong-headed definition of empathy, that begs the question.

   I much prefer Jamil Zaki’s position, in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. (Crown Books: June 2019). Zaki is head of the Stanford Univ. Social Neuroscience Lab. He echoes former President Barack Obama’s observation that “the US is suffering from an ‘empathy deficit’“. He cites evidence that people today are less caring (about others) than we were 30 years ago.   Based on experiments in his lab, Zaki shows that empathy is not a fixed trait, one we are born with in fixed amounts.   Instead it is a skill, or even a ‘muscle’, that can be strengthened through effort, and through practice. He brings examples, like Washington, D.C. police officers seeking to reduce police violence by changing their culture toward empathy.  

   Zaki told Shankar Vedantam, on the Hidden Brain podcast, “…empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.” I wonder, Professor Bloom, how in the world can THAT be a cause of tribalism?

   So, what can you do to strengthen your empathy muscles? Here’s my suggestion. Try the “opposing minds” exercise. Think about a principle you hold strongly. Say – the right of migrants to seek safe haven, health care and education in wealthy nations. (Zaki himself was born and raised in Florida, but his name sounds like he was a child of immigrants). Now, make the case for the precise opposite: Exclude all migrants. Is it possible to empathize even with those whom you may regard as ‘racist’?   Do you weaken – or strengthen – your own belief through such empathy? And if the ‘racists’ did the same, would we perhaps find more common ground, for consensual action?  



Understanding the Brexit Disaster:

Ask the Psychologists!

By Shlomo Maital

I’ve been glued to our TV, for weeks, watching the British debate in Parliament what to do next about Brexit. I’ve watched how the world’s oldest elected Parliament cannot find a majority for anything – except, maybe, NOT to crash out of the EU. I’ve watched how the Trump-like PM Boris Johnson tries to circumvent Parliament, in the name of democracy but instead mortally wounding it. I studied for a year in Manchester, and feel deeply sorry for the people of Britain – and am trying to understand how they got into this pickle.

     Enter the psychologists. In the excellent podcast Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedanta, the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert was recently interviewed. He spoke about this – we humans are incorrigibly bad at predicting the future,, specifically, in predicting how we will feel in future about a decision made in the present.

   The British people voted narrowly (52 for, 48 against) to leave the EU, in 2016. Mainly they voted for “take our country back”, a slogan pushed by pro-Brexit politicians, driven by anger at the flood of migrants crossing the English Channel that under EU rules could not be stopped.

     But what about other aspects of leaving the EU? What about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border? What about all the EU citizens living in Britain? What about trade, tariffs, customs? Then-PM David Cameron, who initiated the referendum, never believed it would pass, and never developed realistic future scenarios about how leaving the EU would be done. Former PM Theresa May stubbornly pushed the same leave-EU proposal to Parliament three times – despite zero chance of it passing.

       Professor Gilbert explains, basically, that when we make a decision, we are pretty hopeless about predicting how we will feel about it. As the Brits learn more about what leaving the EU means – crashing out with no deal, in particular, as Johnson obsessively wants — I believe they regret their initial vote in 2016. In particular — if only 1.5 per cent of those who voted “leave” now change their mind and would vote ‘stay’ – the referendum would be reversed.   Yet — cynics, in the name of democracy, say “the result of a referendum is set in stone” – even though Parliament, elected by the people, can change its mind a dozen times a day, also in the name of democracy.

     Basically – people are flawed in how they predict how they will feel about a decision in the future. We know this from the work of psychologists, and from our own introspection.

     Conclusion: Do another referendum on “leave or stay”. Take into account that humans are flawed. Give the British people another chance.

       But Johnson and pro-Brexit politicians insist this is undemocratic. Wrong.

       The 2016 referendum was terribly flawed. The British people were not told the full story. They voted on the basis of a narrow idea, ‘take our country back’. They weren’t told, how precisely this would be done.

       So – do it again. Offer clear precise scenarios. And offer a clear ‘leave’ plan, including Ireland.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019