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Your Unlearning Report

Empathy Is Bad, You’re Not as Racist as You Thought, and Believing in Luck Won’t Help Your Golf Game

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

For a skeptic, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that some previously cherished truth has been overturned by new evidence. It is in that spirit that I offer the following Unlearning Report.

Empathy Is Bad

Everybody loves empathy. Former President Barack Obama often spoke about our “empathy deficit” and the need to “see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us” (Obama 2006). Amazon.com lists over 1,500 books with “empathy” in their titles or subtitles, and the Internet is replete with blogs and YouTube videos on the subject. Yes, everybody loves empathy—everybody except Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

It seems wrong to be against something so kind and well meaning as empathy, but in his new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom builds a strong argument for empathy as a destructive emotion. He suggests that empathy is innumerate and myopic and that more good can be done by adopting “rational compassion,” a more detached form of caring.

For example, Bloom cites the research of C. Daniel Batson and colleagues (1995) who told study participants about a ten-year-old girl who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for a treatment that would relieve her pain. The participants were told that they could move her ahead in the line, and when simply asked what to do, most said that the girl must wait because there were others ahead of her in line. However, when they were asked to imagine what she felt, they were more likely to choose to move her up the line. In this case, empathy made participants bend the rules unfairly.

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