Against Empathy Summary By Paul Bloom

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In Against Empathy (2016), Paul Bloom goes against conventional wisdom and presents a novel argument - that empathy is actually responsible for many bad decisions.

Drawing on a wealth of scientific evidence, the book provides an insightful insight into how empathy can be more harmful than helpful in certain scenarios.

The book offers thought-provoking concepts as to why we should think twice about relying solely on our empathy for decision-making.

Through his critical analysis, Bloom encourages us to take a step back from our emotions and think more deeply about the situations before us if we want to make better decisions in life.

Against Empathy

Book Name: Against Empathy (The Case for Rational Compassion)

Author(s): Paul Bloom

Rating: 4.2/5

Reading Time: 16 Minutes

Categories: Psychology

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Author Bio

Paul Bloom is an acclaimed professor at Yale University who specializes in the study of ethics, religion and language, and how they impact people's perceptions.

He has written extensively on these topics and his articles have been featured in prominent outlets such as the New York Times, The Guardian and Slate.

Bloom is also the author of several books, such as Just Babies, How Pleasure Works and Descartes’ Baby, which examine important psychological issues with a thought-provoking and compelling approach.

If you're looking for insight into the psychology of human behavior from an expert source, then Paul Bloom's Against Empathy is certainly worth checking out!

Why Our Empathy Is Biased and How We Can Move Beyond It


Empathy is an emotion that we all feel when faced with the sorrow of another.

It brings us together and allows us to reach out in compassion and understanding.

However, it can also be an unreliable compass when interpreting events.

Against Empathy outlines why relying on empathy alone isn’t always a good idea.

It explains how tragedies can evoke more emotion from one group than another, and how mirror neurons help to make decisions faster – but not necessarily better.

Moreover, it points out that liking something doesn’t always mean it’s the right choice so even charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum of admiration.

In other words, empathy can lead us down wrong paths if we don’t take into account a larger view of reality and its consequences.

What Is Empathy? Understanding the Different Types of Compassion and Sympathy

Empathy is an emotional response that allows us to understand and feel what others go through.

We can find examples of it in practice by looking at the aftermath of public tragedies such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where people felt an emotional connection even though they didn’t know any of the victims.

We also saw this emotion manifest physical effects when John Updike described feeling a tightness in his throat whenever his grandmother had one of her “choking fits” at the dinner table.

At its best, empathy helps us to relate to our fellow humans and respond with true compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, cognitive empathy – which is the ability to understand a person’s emotions without actually feeling them ourselves – can be used by con artists and bullies who exploit their victim’s weaknesses without having any genuine sympathy.

The Need for Balanced Empathy to Achieve Positive Change in Society

Positive Change in Society

Today, empathy is an incredibly popular topic.

From books and editorials to conferences, YouTube channels and blogs, it seems like everyone has something to say on the subject of empathy.

People are looking for ways that empathy can improve their lives – both on a personal level and in the world around them.

We’ve seen how quickly one-sided empathy can lead to a widening of conflicts through the “Black Lives Matter” protests in 2014; those who argued that police officers lacked empathy for the black community were pitted against those who believed protesters showed too little appreciation of the dangers and stress that law enforcement face.

To find a solution, both sides must come together with understanding and compassion for one another.

Fostering empathy is possible through individual experience.

In some cases people might gain more insight into others’ situations when they themselves are presented with challenges – such as parents of special needs children being especially compassionate towards other families in similar circumstances.

Empathy can also be nurtured between family members by posing questions like “How would you feel if someone treated you that way?”

Mirror Neurons: How Our Brain Neuro-Mirrors Other’s Feelings and Experiences

Empathy is not just a matter of feeling someone’s emotions, but a neurological response that allows us to share and understand the experiences of others.

Studies by Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti show that when someone performs an action, the exact same neural responses are triggered in onlookers.

This effect is due to mirror neurons, which were likely developed over time in order for our ancestors to better learn from one another.

Research has proven that even if we can’t see an individual’s reaction firsthand, we still experience the same neurological response when digesting their pain.

A 2005 study showed us that people experienced an equal degree of hurt whether they watched a person experience it or simply read about it on paper.

Similarly, seeing someone else’s disgust can make us feel disgusted too, as seen with the notoriously nauseating viral video ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ in 2007.

The across-the-board neurological similarity among humans speaks volumes about our capacity for empathy and understanding one another — something all of us could surely benefit from more of today!

The Different Reasons Behind Performing Good Deeds: From Empathy to Logic to Faith

Morality, logic and spirituality can all lead to better decisions than empathy.

One need not put themselves in the shoes of a loved one or anyone else to recognize the right course of action.

As Chinese philosopher Mencius said: if you saw a child drowning in a river, why would you rescue them? Being kind to others is its own reward – often it doesn’t involve empathy at all.

Take Zell Kravinsky – he donated $45 million to charity and one of his kidneys to a stranger.

While this act is truly noble, Kravinsky himself attributed the decision more to logic than empathy; he recognized that the risk was minimal compared with rewards huge – so it just made sense.

Likewise, some people may be moved by spiritual faith or religious values rather than feelings of empathy to do good deeds for others.

Leslie Jamison encountered one such person when she told Jason Baldwin how much she admired his ability to forgive those who wronged him – he simply said it was the Christian thing to do and had nothing to do with empathy at all.

The Dangers of Selective Empathy: When the Outrage of a Few Crowds Out the Plight of the Many

Dangers of Selective Empathy

Empathy is a powerful emotion that can be used to do immense good, but it can also be a double-edged sword.

It’s easy to relate to those closest to us, but when it comes to those further away or different from us, the level of empathy begins to drop off.

We are biased in how we express our empathy and this can be dangerous.

For example, expressions of sympathy for victims of a tragedy such as Sandy Hook school shooting were much more pronounced than for mass shootings or murders that happen every day around the world.

This kind of selective empathy can be dangerous because it leads us to make decisions which favor a small minority at the expense of the majority.

Take the example of Rebecca Smith whose life was nearly taken due to a tainted vaccine dose.

It would be understandable then if you felt strong empathy for her and wanted to campaign against the vaccine makers; however, that same vaccine saves thousands of lives every day and while they are just faceless statistics – so no one identifies with their plight – their stories should not fall by the wayside either.

It’s clear then that whileempathy is an incredible force, it is also selective, biased and even dangerous.

We Can Easily Lose Our Capacity for Empathy When Faced With Negative Perceptions of Others

Our sense of empathy is often influenced by our beliefs and perceptions.

This was revealed in a study known as the Blame Game conducted by neuroscientist Jean Decety.

In this study, participants were asked to watch videos of people with AIDS appearing in pain and struggling to cope.

They were told which people had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion and which had developed it from intravenous drug use.

The results showed that the majority of viewers felt less empathy for those suffering due to their past drug use, proving that our emotions can be influenced by preconceived notions we have about people.

A similar study conducted by Grit Hein found that a person’s neural response also changed depending on whether they saw someone as “one of us” or “one of them” – if the other person shared their soccer team allegiance, their neural activity revealed greater compassion; if they supported a rival club, they felt less empathy.

Disgust has also been shown to reduce our capacity for empathy – psychologists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske found that when participants were shown photographs of certain types of people (such as drug addicts or homeless individuals), their neurological responses tended to reveal both disgust and a lack of understanding for them.

Empathy Can Lead Us to Make Irrational Decisions – Beware of Putting Present Feelings Ahead of Lasting Solutions

Irrational Decisions

Empathy is often short-term focused and leads to bad decisions.

When a child begs for a toy, most parents understand the urge but also know that they shouldn’t give in every time or else they’ll be spoiling their children.

We can use this analogy for any decision made by relying solely on our empathy, without thinking about any long-term consequences.

Take Western organizations which attempt to help those suffering from starvation, poverty and disease in other countries.

If their focus is on providing temporary fixes without consideration of economic reform or sustainability, these people continue to suffer even after foreign aid runs out.

If an issue requires a long-term solution, charitable donations are better used when invested education and job training courses instead of immediate relief efforts.

A great example of sympathy leading to an irrational decision is highlighted in the Make-a-Wish Foundation case study where money was spent on gifting Miles Scott his dream of being ‘mini Batman’ for the day instead heavily needed monetary assistance towards nets that would save families from malaria.

This goes to show that while empathy can push us towards helping those in need in the short term, we should also think ahead and prioritize our investments accordingly so that more lives can be saved effectively over time.

Wrap Up

At the end of Against Empathy, the key message is clear: empathy is not an all-encompassing tool that can cure the world of its hate and prejudices.

Instead, it often causes people to make irrational decisions that do more harm than good.

The book also gives some actionable advice: when making donations, be sure to make them worthwhile.

If you’re going to donate $5, it may do more harm than good as most organizations have to deal with fees for processing a check, as well as sending out receipts or thank-you notes.

In this case, it’s best to either find another way to help or increase your donation amount so that your charity actually sees any benefit from your assistance.

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Arturo Miller

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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