Paul Bloom on Empathy
Feb 27 2017

Against%20Empathy.jpg Psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale University talks about his book Against Empathy with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Bloom argues that empathy--the ability to feel the emotions of others--is a bad guide to charitable giving and public policy. Bloom argues that reason combined with compassion is a better and more effective guide to making the world a better place.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


John K
Feb 27 2017 at 8:10am

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Feb 27 2017 at 12:53pm

Great talk! It’s wonderful to have such an amazing interviewer when there’s a thoughtful guest with interesting ideas. Thank you Russ!

This is part of what Ayn Rand advocated, and was often misunderstood. There’s a great intersection between economics, Buddhism (etc), moral philosophy, Objectivism, etc. But it’s much older. Know thyself and you will not lose a hundred battles (restating Sun Tzu). If we hope to use means to attain ends in reality we have to learn the causes of things in ourselves and in the world, and we must learn to use this knowledge to make choices that better achieve our goals. Dialing back emotionalism of all sorts, especially empathy, is surely part of a better world.

Feb 27 2017 at 5:51pm

Every now and then, an episode of EconTalk lacks the bare minimum of self-awareness that it needs to keep tethered to…something.

This was one of those episodes. Circular reasoning, straw men, and rants that went nowhere.

The definition of empathy was never established, which allowed both speakers to make it into whatever they wanted it to be. And then the cherry on top – not only is the empathetic side dumb, but they aren’t actually empathetic in the first place.

So why is empathy so bad again? It only makes sense if you listen to the tones of their voices and tune out the actual words.

Listening to Russ bring up Gladwell, only to forget which side of the issue he was arguing, was kind of cringeworthy.

Hope for better next time.

Feb 27 2017 at 6:33pm

This interview is by far the best that I’ve listened to on EconTalk. The second half of the podcast regarding anger and rationality is filled with gold.

Feb 27 2017 at 7:47pm

This was the best episode of econtalk I’ve heard in a while.

One alternate explanation for why politicians have come to rely more on anecdotes and less on reason or data may be that elites are increasingly viewed as out of touch with the populace. The anecdotes, in addition to being more evocative, make the politician seem more relatable.

Michael Barry
Feb 27 2017 at 10:28pm

Is it that libertarians aren’t empathetic or that non-empathetic persons are libertarians?

Robert Wiblin
Feb 27 2017 at 11:28pm

This episode was particularly good.

The person above saying the definition of empathy was never established must have missed the first 4 minutes. ?

Russ Roberts
Feb 27 2017 at 11:30pm

Jerm (and anyone else who missed the opening minute or so),

It’s really important to define empathy clearly because as Bloom points out, empathy is used in many ways and he is talking about a pretty narrow definition:

Some people use the term ’empathy’ to mean just everything good. Everything kind, moral, compassionate. And I’m not against empathy in that sense. That’s great. Other people use it in a much more narrow way to refer to our understanding of other people. So, if I understand how your head works, what’s going on in your mind, I’m having empathy for you. And I’m not against that, either. Though I think that this isn’t necessarily a force for good. Very nice people have a lot of empathy in that sense because they understand other people, could make their lives better. But real terrible people also have empathy in that sense, because they can use their empathy to exploit others. But, the sort of empathy I’m focusing on is what psychologists sometimes call ’emotional empathy.’ And it’s feeling the feelings of others–feeling their happiness, feeling their pain, being connected emotionally to them. And for a long time a lot of people simply assume that this is at the core of goodness: What the world needs is more empathy. But I argue that when we think about empathy in this way and we zoom in, it’s actually a force for evil.

Feb 28 2017 at 3:09am

Robert, Russ, whoever else wants to brush off all criticisms without truly thinking about it:

I wasn’t saying that empathy wasn’t defined. I’m saying that the definition wasn’t consistently used. Yes, there was a definition given in the first minute. But that definition wasn’t applied (in a strict or even loose manner) to the term for the rest of the talk.

In fact, of the three or four definitions that Russ excerpted above, each one was trotted out whenever it was appropriate to paint an opinion they didn’t like as stupid, often (mis)labeled as “empathy” even when the definition from this first minute of the talk pretended that there would be a distinction.

It was sloppy. But then again, if empathy is going to be characterized as “actually a force for evil” – not just that the people who use it are misguided, but that the trait itself is EVIL – I guess we should have expected a more sensational ride.

To me, “empathy is actually a force of evil” is right up there on the hyperbole spectrum with “real estate agents act like the KKK”. I’m sure the Freakanomics guys would find it right up their alley. Just not my cup of tea.

Russ Roberts
Feb 28 2017 at 7:47am


Fair enough. I did feel after the interview that there was some slippage of the kind you’re pointing out. So good to be reminded again.

Feb 28 2017 at 10:53am

If I can patch together some comments on this podcast, the author basically wanted Obama to have been the most booed at and jeered politician in history. Seems appropriate.

Two very high IQ men from the highest IQ ethnicity talking about the utility of IQ was…interesting. If we could raise the average IQ of our nation by 10 points that would be an amazing change, but we might look more like China which has an average IQ about 7 points more than the US. I think Dr. Roberts was certainly correct that Gladwells statement is ridiculous. IQ is a resource of which there is no clear limit in utility and likely has increasing returns not diminishing – but it depends on what your goals are for yourself and humanity.

Empathy is generally deemed a great evil in this podcast but this has no impact on the political views of the guest even after he identifies the political spectrum of empathy flows from progressive to libertarian (how that was measured and if it could be replicated are issues other podcasts have addressed but my guess is poorly and never). Maybe, if empathy is so bad, the politics of the left are actually misguided?

During the podcast they proposed that between Goldwater and now things have changed with regards to political speech we find persuasive. The only things that have changed are ethnic population make up, better technology, more ways to express yourself, increasing tolerance for alternative life choices, tattoo incidence, family structure, women in the work place, rise of TV, rise of internet, decline of reading, decline of education, increasing feminism, decreasing religion, and on and on and on. Everything has changed, guessing what caused the resulting changes in what is deemed a good political argument will just be a reflection of our world view (as my list was for me).

Are there gender differences in empathy as defined in this podcast? Is it oppressive patriarchy to suggest that a female dominant trait is evil?

Finally I wanted to respond to some of the first comments about empathy by Mr. Bloom and the limitations of empathy by saying maybe empathy is good in that it helps establish the appropriate range for compassion. Mr. Bloom says empathy makes him care most about other people like himself. But Mr. Bloom also has the most information about those people he is most empathetic about and likely to devise interventions that will be most effective. I am less empathetic about children starving in Africa and I also have no idea how to help them. I do have incredible compassion. I more empathetic to suffering people in my neighborhood and my interventions are better designed because I have local information. So, while no doubt there are downsides to empathy it seems to keep us from embarking into quests to “save” people for whom we have no information about how to save them and might keep us focused on the people we are most likely to benefit with our energies: family and community. That might be insular and tribal, but it also might be effective.

Josh Sher
Feb 28 2017 at 1:50pm

Interesting conversation. I am a bit surprised you guys managed to make it through the whole conversation without mentioning David Hume, who is perhaps the godfather of some of the views that Paul Bloom is arguing against (“Reason Is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions”). Its personally interesting to me that sometimes instincts and emotions and social conventions (shortcuts either derived through biological evolution or through culture) lead us to act morally (pro-socially?!), but sometimes they do not. And sometimes rational thinking can lead to selfishness and anti-social behavior, and sometimes lets us see deeper and farther than people and cultures previously did . So, personally I think the enlightenment thinkers who felt that rationality can and should be the basis for everything, and the extreme skeptics of rationality (Hume, Burke, and in a different direction Nietzsche) are both wrong…

Feb 28 2017 at 4:01pm

Great episode. As Josh points out, it would have benefited from more philosophical perspective. However, to resolve the rationalist/anti-rationalist quandary that Josh articulates, you would have to go further back, to Thomastic (and Aristotelian) ethics. The following would have been a useful reference for the discussion of anger:

The real problem both with empathy and rationality is that they are incomplete sources of truth. Our emotions give us quick, actionable intelligence as to whether a thing is good or bad. Our reason allows us to systematically discern conclusions from first principles. Both are subject to error and bias, which is why they should be used in concert. The ability to moderate emotion and rationality in the pursuit of truth requires the word missing from this, and so many contemporary conversations on morality: virtue.

Mar 1 2017 at 8:59am

Given your Jewish perspective Russ, I was really surprised to hear your comments on anger.

At its most basic, anger alerts us to the possibility that something is “not right”. Determining whether the cause of our anger is truly an example of injustice or rather an affront to our own self interest is a job for our self. Similarly, formulating a response is best left to our rational self. Throughout history, anger has been an important catalyst for good. The description of anger you used during the episode is more akin to wrath – anger acted out in our own self interest.

Josh Sher
Mar 1 2017 at 9:10am

I am with Elise. Along those lines, I nominate Alasdair MacIntyre to be an econ talk guest, if he is still in good enough health. In addition to his famous work on virtue ethics (See After Virtue) he also wrote my favorite all time essay on the philosophy of science “Epistemological Crises,
Dramatic Narrative, and the
Philosophy of Science” (

Mar 1 2017 at 10:59am

I disagree that we shouldn’t act on anger.

Getting a ship ready for sea is a huge task that involves many different actors beyond those Sailors who operate it. In an environment such as the military where the ability to use prices to allocate supply is limited, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Captains with legendary tempers are more likely to receive the services they need than the calm, understanding captains.

I saw this firsthand. The ship I served on received awards for “most improved” and three years later “best overall.” It wasn’t because its senior leadership was well-behaved. In a system that lacks meaningful feedback loops those who can cowl others to their will succeed. That’s best done through anger. Anger can sometimes be the only tool to accomplish a team’s goal, thus we should act on it.

Can anyone else think of other times anger is an effective vehicle for action?

Mar 1 2017 at 1:42pm

In looking for encouragement of empathy (or sentimentality?) you could pursue I certainly think that mass market film and TV favours sentimentality, and probably has good reasons for doing so, such as making a large impact on a varied audience in a few words. I am hopeful that _some_ of the internet will find space for reasoned argument.

Looking at anger in command in a previous comment, I would like to pass on my Father’s observation that he found it useful to simulate anger, but that it should always be only simulated. He spent much of his working life as a Primary school teacher and headmaster, after being an instructing NCO in WWII.

John Alcorn
Mar 2 2017 at 11:51am

Thank you for another stimulating EconTalk podcast. I would like to offer links to something old and something new, about empathy in social life.

David Hume discusses empathy—what he calls sympathy—in A Treatise of Human Nature [1739]. He draws an analogy to chordophones:

“No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than the propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. [… ] As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest.” (II.1.xi)

Hume explains that the strength of sympathy is governed by two kinds of relation between persons, resemblance and contiguity:

“Resemblance must very much contribute to make us enter into the sentiments of others [… ]. The stronger the relation is betwixt ourselves and any object, the more easily does the imagination make the transition […]. Nor is resemblance the only relation, which has this effect [… ]. The sentiments of others have little influence, when far remov’d from us, and require the relation of contiguity, to make them communicate themselves entirely” (II.1.xi).

However, precisely because sympathy involves imagination, vivid representations of others’ sentiments can enlarge the scope of sympathy:

“‘Tis true, there is no human, and indeed no sensible, creature, whose happiness or misery does not, in some measure, affect us, when brought near to us, and represented in lively colours” (III.2.i).

Classic examples from the history of painting and literature are Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters [1885] and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It comes as no surprise, then, that modern technologies, such as photography and social media, which bring others’ sentiments near and represent them in lively colors, now play a great role in triggering and focussing sympathy.

Sympathy—triggered and focussed by media—can fuel reform movements. What direction these movements take depends partly on the contest of public intellectuals, who must persuade the mind and the heart.

Compare new research by Paul H. Robinson, who was a guest at EconTalk on a different topic on August 31, 2015. Prof. Robinson’s forthcoming book (with Sarah M. Robinson) identifies a concatenation of mechanisms, in which a a crime triggers outrage, which then fuels reform. It seems that empathy is implicit in the outrage component. A preliminary chapter is available online here.

Mar 2 2017 at 2:34pm

I’ll echo what bob said: this is an objectivist idea. I think a shift in this direction would lead to a better world.

A similar lecture was given by Leonard Peikoff at the Ford Hall Form in 1998 titled “A Picture is not an Argument“.

Mar 2 2017 at 4:57pm

John, I think you bring up a great point about the role of technology. I wonder if empathy will actually play an increasingly larger role in decision-making now that we can see and even experience suffering in VR on our phones.

Russ Roberts
Mar 2 2017 at 5:00pm


Part of our disagreement may be over semantics. When I use the word anger I am referring to something like “seeing red” –the intense emotional dislike of a phenomenon that borders on a loss of control. Rage.

Maimonides, the great 13th century philosopher and commentator, advocates moderation in all things. He makes two exceptions, anger and pride. He argues we should minimize both. Anger is compared to idol worship in the Talmud because it takes control of us rather than being controlled.

Finally, here is an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the topic.

As I said in the conversation with Paul Bloom, passion is good. Losing control of yourself and acting on emotion only, not good.

Rod Miller
Mar 2 2017 at 9:43pm

Herein is an attempt to explain why I value environmental protection. I am a single issue voter. I vote for candidates that will protect the environment. I wish the market system we had monetized environmental externalities and protected against the tragedy of the commons. When I was a professional environmentalist we tried to adapt the market system to account for externalities such as the need to fill canyons with trash. We made rules that newspapers had to use recycled newsprint and rules that assessed fees to higher than average polluting autos and gave the money as a credit to lower than average polluting cars.

1. Self-interest. I live in the sierra foothills. I have a 10,000 acre valley I look down. The valley leads to the San Joaquin Valley. On a clean air day I can see 80 miles across the valley to Mt. Diablo. On a polluted day (in the summer) I can only see 10 miles to the edge of the closest valley and the air irritates my lungs. I prefer products from clean environments. I would prefer that the tragedy of the commons did not exist and it was easy to get cod and other tasty fish species without mercury. I like eating organic vegetables from my garden that are healthy and fresh. Vegetables can’t grow well in polluted environments such as over mineralized (salts) soils.

2.Appreciation of balance. Climax ecosystems have balance between the environ. and millions of years of speciation and evolution. Without human or extraterrestrial intervention the balance will continue until our star explodes or overblazes.

3. Education. Once one understands the species and environmental conditions included within pristine environments in any given area then one understands the significance of human alteration of the environment. Most environments have no resemblance to their characteristics pre-human contact. The scope of our negative effects on environment are global. Fly over the US. Nature didn’t construct itself in squares and circles. Once one understands how humans fit into the environment then one realizes how a degenerated environment affects human health.

4. Ethics. Some environmental externalities for example loss of species or destruction of climax (virgin) environments are not fixable. It is unethical and the height of arrogance for one generation to foreclose the possibility for future generations to experience these species or environments. How would you feel if they did a nuclear bomb test in the Grand Canyon. Most virgin redwood forests are gone except for few patches in Northern Califronia.

5. Comforting effect of Natural environments. Many people experience something special when they spend time in a natural environment. As animals we have evolved as hunter gathers for most of our evolution. When we spend time in the natural environment we connect atavisticly to our deeper inner selves. Many people feel comforted by spending time in nature. I do.

John Alcorn
Mar 2 2017 at 11:33pm

I would like to distinguish two ways in which social empathy shapes political behavior.

Keep in mind that any emotion is partly defined by its characteristic action tendencies. Anger -> to strike the other. Hatred -> to destroy the other. Shame -> to hide, or to kill oneself. Guilt -> to confess, or to atone, or to hurt oneself. Love -> to connect, or to please. Fear -> to flee, or to freeze. Contempt -> to ostracize. Pity -> to console, or to alleviate the other’s suffering. And so on.

The two ways in which social empathy shapes political behavior correspond to a distinction between strong empathy and weak empathy. When empathy is strong, the self has the same action tendency as the other. When empathy is weak, the self feels a muted cognate of the other’s emotion; a cognate that lacks action tendency.

A) Strong empathy:

Anger can spread like wildfire and find expression in widespread violence. Contempt can propagate like a contagion and fuel a movement to exclude or expel the other. Fear can ripple through a population and cause large panics. And so on.

B) A conjunction of weak empathy and strong pity:

Cognition (perhaps through media) of the other’s plight can trigger weak empathy (as occurs in Hume’s analogy to sympathetic vibration in string instruments). The same cognition triggers also strong feelings of pity. The action tendencies of pity are to console the other, and to alleviate her suffering. Many who feel pity are at some remove from the sufferer, and are therefore not in a position to console her. Then pity motivates them to engage in charity or political action to help the sufferer.

Strong empathy is uncommon, but can be very consequential when it occurs.

The conjunction of weak empathy and strong pity shapes political behavior frequently and cumulatively.

Michael V.
Mar 3 2017 at 9:20am

Great episode! And thank you, as always, for producing EconTalk!

Wanted to make a couple comments:

First, I agree in some ways with Dr. Bloom and another commenter here that acting in anger is not always bad. I do think it can be dangerous and hurtful, but not acting on anger can be, also. I would agree that anger itself is a poor moral guide, but that it can be a healthy catalyst. It depends on what are we angry at (something that is truly evil vs. something that is simply inconvenient, uncomfortable or distasteful to me) and how we channel the anger (into self-controlled, needed opposition to the evil vs. into irresponsible or even malicious reaction). In real life it’s probably often a blend of healthy and unhealthy anger, and our aim should be to protect against and root out the unhealthy. Again, it is crucial in any case that the moral guidance come from sources other than anger. But to say that no anger is ever healthy, I think, misses something important.

Second, near the end of the episode, they discuss the regrettable norm of political influence through empathy. I share the longing for more sustained thought and more consistent engagement of reason in the issues, rather than the almost instant default to a battle of empathies.

I have not read Fahrenheit 451, but two other books came to mind: Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman and The Image, by Daniel Boorstin. I think the graphic revolution (as Boorstin considers it) and television as a medium that necessarily drives all content toward entertainment (as Postmab argues) go a long way to explaining why we expect/require that our politics be, first of all, entertaining, and why empathy so quickly shouts down reason in the public discourse.

Mar 3 2017 at 10:08am

Josh Sher Absolutely agree! This show needs MacIntyre! I’ve written in support of having him on before, too.

The breadth of conversation Russ could have with him would be astonishing. He reinvigorated a system of ethics that is cognizant of tradition and history. He favors “bottom-up” not “top-down” solutions, but remains a harsh critic of capitalism.

I’d love to hear Russ and MacIntyre go toe-to-toe on Adam Smith and his legacy in moral philosophy. Was Smith the last virtue ethicist as Deidre McCloskey claims?

Mar 3 2017 at 4:57pm

I liked this interview a lot and I like the whole rational compassion thing. As an economist, part of my job is to do cost benefit analysis of development programs, and getting people to think rationally about these programs, which many people see as human rights, is just difficult. One thing surprised me, though, and that was your discussion about how liberals are the ones focused on compassion and empathy. Isn’t it conservatives and republicans, though, that say they want to get rid of entitlements because the impoverished should be taken care of by their compassionate neighbors through charity, versus Liberals saying they want a system that doesn’t require individual empathy? I would have liked to hear Paul’s thoughts on that concept. (see for instance this.

David Felcan
Mar 3 2017 at 7:06pm

This was a very interesting talk, much more philosophy/late night dorm intellectual conversation than economics. But informed and well thought out nevertheless.

I disagree with the idea that *empathy* can be separated from *compassion*. I believe empathy (as defined in the talk as “feeling others feelings) is the basic motivator behind compassion. Kant and others have tried to build moral frameworks on strictly logical grounds, but it seems to me our basic motivations for moral action stem from empathy.

Clearly the guest is being provocative by being “against empathy”. But from the discussion its clear to me that what he really intends is for people not to rely on empathy *alone*, but to think rationally about how to solve the pain or issue which empathy has brought to our attention.

There is just no reason to be compassionate without emotion.

Mar 4 2017 at 12:37pm

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James Hohman
Mar 4 2017 at 2:37pm

The quote about predictions, “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future,” is not from a physicist, it is from Danish humorist Storm P.

Allen J
Mar 4 2017 at 2:52pm

Perhaps one of the most fascinating Econtalks. Maybe not much “Econ” in it, but a fascinating discourse. I spent 30 minutes just discussing the three definitions of emphathy with my usually-silent 15-year-old. And how the third definition (Bloom’s) fits his theme statement that “Empathy is the failure of moral imagination.”

It got my 15 year old talking about the contrast of these ideas to the PC of his private high school.

Mar 5 2017 at 2:53pm

An interesting podcast that was rarely about empathy. Notes:

– Was the topical definition of emapthy just a substitute for the political device of using an Alinsky-like anecdote as a weapon instead of reason?

– A Star Trek quote came to mind that sums up the episode: Spock: “I have noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.”

I think that this comes down to a simple human truth, that we have evolved to have close relationships with only a few hundred other people and that after that, we have to think in nameless groups. The director of the Superbowl was taught in his college media classes not to pan across the entire Falcon team, seeing people talking, players looking at formations, coaches coaching, etc, but to zoom in on the single absolute saddest looking player available.

As briefly discussed, modern media has been able to take this personal anecdote and magnify by 200M times.

So why do TV sports directors and politicians do this? Because it works.

An old legal adage goes: “If the law and facts are against you, pound the table and yell”. The same works for anecdotal evidence vs group evidence or reason. If you don’t have a valid and sustainable economic or political position, then personalize and amplify an anecdote and try and rely on people’s empathy to win votes for you.

– This is used just as well in advertising. Nike will never publish the list of total Nike athletes and their complete win-loss records, but whichever one who wins the championship gets ALL of the press.

– I agree with others above that anger is not always a bad thing. It can be a great motivator. Russ was surprisingly limiting himself to anger taken to extremes.

Adam Wildavsky
Mar 5 2017 at 5:59pm

The proper punchline is “He had a hat!”

Daniel Barkalow
Mar 5 2017 at 10:01pm

I think general intelligence is overrated, but in a different way than the conversation touched on: I think that, at some point, the value of general intelligence relative to specific skills drops off. At some point, an extra 20 points of IQ don’t help, because you’re limited by the amount of information you can refresh and record before you have to eat or sleep, and non-abstract-reasoning skills of presentation and comprehension have much higher marginal value than your ability to process the information in between. And I think, at some point, the ability to make better and better policy decisions becomes less valuable than the ability to get the good policy decisions you’ve made implemented.

Back on the main topic, I think this episode undervalued the importance of emotions in deciding what areas to make policy decisions about, while accurately evaluating the importance of putting emotion aside in determining the correct course of action. I think the emotional factors and the stories and pictures are right in letting us know we should have a policy about Syria and maybe don’t have to have one about Spain. But then we have to be rational in deciding what actions to take, or whether any actions we could take would be detrimental.

Mar 6 2017 at 7:16am

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Mar 7 2017 at 5:02pm

Russ Roberts: So, I sometimes like to point out that, have people go look at the 1964 acceptance speech of Barry Goldwater. … It’s a very academicky, almost scholarly, abstract, philosophical speech. … And somewhere between then, 1964, and now–some time in the last 50 years–that went out of fashion. And the–what I like to call the ‘I knew a guy’ school of economics–… got more popular. … What happened? What happened to this culture? Do you have any thoughts on that? How did we get so empathetic? Why did it become–why is it that you are so unpopular, Paul–for writing a book called Against Empathy? Because it is the mainstream. It is the given.

As one illustration, consider how the use of television and on the scene coverage changed our collective reaction to war, starting with the war in Vietnam.

It was also during the mid 1960s that color television began to become generally available. You could see “the guy” in far away places in full color just as you would if you were standing there. The internet has only extended and expanded this ability to react to portrayals of particular people, e.g. someone’s YouTube video.

The power of the visual to influence is strong — and always has been — but technology has now made that trivially accessible. Much of the strength of the visual is its ability to stir up empathy for the particular case (even if that misleads us to make poor decisions).

I thought the example of the impulse to give to maimed children (thus promoting an industry that maims children for profit) was a great one, and it is driven by the emotional impact of the visual.

In short, we are a culture dominated by the visual and the empathetic feelings it encourages and now much less a culture of written words and the reasoning they encourage.

Mar 7 2017 at 5:51pm

Great episode; made me want to read the book.

Many of the critiques of empathy seem to apply more to what I might call sentimentality and pity, which I agree are terrible moral guides. And of course I agree that policy decisions shouldn’t be guided by emotions.

That said, I was a bit surprised that little time was spent on the problems presented by a total lack of empathy, which (I think) lies at the heart of narcissistic personality disorder and sociopathic behavior. One of my earliest memories of having my moral imagination awakened is of my mother asking me how I would feel if someone said to me what I had just said to my little sister. This very basic exercise was a big part of how I learned to be a decent human being. Surely the Golden Rule is difficult to apply if we are unable to put ourselves in other people’s shoes?

Within the context of relationships (where Bloom conceded empathy has value), I couldn’t help but think of the (mostly religious) idea of “sharing” suffering as a way to comfort those who suffer. Of course if someone I don’t know very well suffers some terrible loss, I just give money or something practical. But if it is a close friend or relative, don’t we find that sharing the burden can relieve the load a bit on the person who suffered the brunt of the loss? Don’t most people who suffer like to feel like they are not suffering alone? Is perhaps part of what makes empathy such a terrible policy guide the pretense that we are deeply connected to multitudes of people for whom we are presuming to make decisions, when in fact we are nothing of the sort?

Mar 7 2017 at 7:45pm

There is a fundamental problem with welcoming anger as a “motivator” or “catalyst” even while recognizing that it can be “a poor moral guide”. The two effects are not readily separable.

When anger is functioning in a way that moves us to action, we typically don’t get the option of first and separately using some calm and rational means of choosing the direction that anger will take us. By its nature, the anger that motivates has also already fixed upon its target.

Given that it is “a poor moral guide”, it can easily and routinely motivate us toward a morally poor choice of action. It isn’t only the large violent actions of angry mobs that seek “justice” in retaliation for some perceived and believed “injustice”. It runs all the way down to the angry words to your spouse or your children that you will later wish you had never said.

Words spoken in anger have a terrible track record, and the same is true for the actions spurred and fueled by anger.

The fact that anger pushes on the gas pedal of immediate action does not make up for the fact that its effect on the steering wheel is very often regretted.

James, the brother of Jesus, wisely wrote:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

John Alcorn
Mar 8 2017 at 9:52am

Re: Anger

In addition to Eric’s points (above), emotions often trigger and fuel behavior before we can become self-aware that we are in their grip—and then it is too late to master them. Michel de Montaigne explained:

“The infancies of all things are feeble and weak. We must keep our eyes open at their beginnings; you cannot find the danger then because it is so small; once it has grown, you cannot find the cure.” (Essays, trans. by M. A. Screech, Penguin: 1991, p. 1154)

Mar 9 2017 at 6:38pm

Paul Bloom: “It wasn’t Yogi Berra or some physicist, but the line is: Prediction is hard, especially about the future.”

James Hohman: “The quote about predictions, ‘It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future,’ is not from a physicist, it is from Danish humorist Storm P.”

Not so fast. It, or variations, is regularly attributed to Neils Bohr. Or Berra. Or Storm P. Or Piet Hein.

Mar 9 2017 at 8:41pm

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Robert Swan
Mar 11 2017 at 5:04pm

Catching up after a few weeks away.

Comments have been enjoyable. Really good insight in John Alcorn’s second comment.

Who can possibly believe in empathy as defined? It requires telepathy doesn’t it? Each of us occupies just the one mind and we can only guess how others are feeling. So the empathy being discussed is “to feel as one guesses another person must be feeling”. Obviously error prone.

The argument about whether it’s preferable to make purely rational decisions or to blend some measure of emotion into those decisions misses the crucial point. Yes, I’m afraid it’s my usual point about “along which axis are you evaluating better/worse”. History has some pretty blood-curdling examples from both the cold logic and hot emotion schools of thought. The system of values matters far more than whether heart or head applies it.

On anger, I’m with Russ (and some others). Feigning rage to inspire fear (or whatever) in underlings is one thing; losing one’s reason and being possessed by the “red mist” might work for Hollywood (e.g. Incredible Hulk) but isn’t much chop in real life.

I gather jw sees anger as a gradation. I don’t (and perhaps Russ doesn’t either): it’s binary. Something else — frustration, sense of injustice, or whatever — reaches some level and then the “anger” light comes on and reason goes out the door. It has happened twice in my life, and I hope that’s all it will be. May be different for others — as I said, we each occupy but one mind.

Mar 12 2017 at 11:46am

Great discussion. Really advanced my thinking.

Russ invited people to comment on the kind of people who empathize with the earth as though it were a human being. Not sure about that but I do see humans empathizing with animals regularly (wild as well as domestic) and surprised that didn’t come into the discussion. The popular example is the polar bear I guess which epitomizes the loss of arctic sea ice.

I’m not a fan of pets myself – I don’t empathize with them – so I’ve always been interested in the phenomenon.

Is there anything wrong with people empathizing with animals?

John Alcorn
Mar 12 2017 at 3:15pm

@ Bill (comment above),

There are many different ways people have sentiments about animals (wild or domestic). Here are several ways.

A background premise is that animals feel pain and pleasure, and experience a variety of emotions (fear, anger, joy; envy?, jealousy?, shame?).

1) When people see images of the plight of polar bears, the perception and cognition trigger feelings of pity. The action tendencies of pity are to console and to help. People who pity polar bears try and help them, by supporting policies about climate change.

2) People sometimes experience empathy with animals; that is, they have the same emotion that (they imagine) the animal has. I might feel joy, because (I believe that) my dog feels joy, while we play. However, if (I believe that) my dog feels envy about another dog’s bone, I do not have any feeling of envy. (Perhaps I feel pity—but that is not empathy.) Empathy, strictly conceived, of people towards animals is more uncommon than we like to think.

3) People often have an emotion of love for animals; that is, they are moved to touch the animal, or to please the animal.

4) People often have a sentiment of gratitude for (what seems to be) pity by dogs towards the emotional downs of the people who care for them.

5) People often have a complex sentiment of awe and guilt about the mysterious, deep bond of subjection that is formed with an animal, when humans break or tame a horse (or bird of prey).

By contrast, most people are utterly indifferent to the plights, frustrations, and attendant emotions of the vast number of animals in intensive commercial animal husbandry.

Mar 13 2017 at 12:16pm

During the 46:33 segment, Bloom says, “’Oh, she’s High- [?]. You don’t understand: She has limitless intelligence, broad abstract intelligence, and everything.’ And, I think that there’s-in our everyday lives, Pinker points out, there’s actually few people who fetishize intelligence more than the very people who write articles saying it doesn’t exist.”

To clarify, he said “High-G”. “G” is not a substitute for IQ, it is a statistical measurement of performance differences on various tests.

During the 52:33 segment, Russ says, “’You know, once you have above a certain level, 20 or 30 extra IQ points aren’t important.’ Are you kidding me? The people who have the extra 30 are the people who change the world. Good and bad. Mostly good, I think. I’m not 100% sure. It depends on the system they’re in. But 30 IQ points is–what is that, 2 standard deviations? I don’t know what it is. I think—“

I agree with Russ and disagree with Gladwell here. I hope that no one would argue that the difference between an IQ of 70 and 100 would be an amazing difference in someone’s life. But just to give an idea of the differences on a normal distribution of IQ, at 100, you are “smarter” than half of the population (one out of two); at 130, you are one out of 44 and considered pretty smart; but adding 30 points to that makes an IQ of 160 and all of a sudden you are one of 32,000 and smarter than 99.99% of the population. (And yes, 30 points is two standard deviations, good top of the head call there…)

I also agree that these people changed the world (and continue to change the world). Throughout history (pre-IQ testing), polymaths like Newton and Gauss were far above the abilities of normal people and changed world forever. Statistically, there are 10,000 people in the US right now with IQ’s above 160 going about their work and still changing the world, most of which no one has ever heard of.

During the 54:48 segment, Russ says, “I think it does tend to lead to moral arrogance, which is dangerous. It tends to lead to general arrogance, which is dangerous.”

I have to disagree here and warn about too many Hollywood stereotypes unless someone can point to an actual study that quantifies moral or general arrogance and correlates it with IQ.

Finally, during the 30:04 segment, Russ says, “I think it’s nonsense, that argument by Jesse Prinz.” After reading Prof. Prinz’s article (here), I continue to disagree with Russ and Bloom and agree with Prinz that controlled anger can be an extremely motivating positive force.

Robert Swan
Mar 13 2017 at 6:57pm


Not saying who’s right, just clarifying what “anger” means to me (and, I guess, Russ).

Think of panic. It comes on when some emotion (frustration, fear, despair), reaches some level. Those emotions can be strong motivators, but panic itself just messes things up.

I don’t see anger as an emotion any more than panic is. Some emotion (frustration, pain, resentment) passes a threshold, the red mist descends and control is lost. Indeed, thinking about it, anger might just be a different manifestation of panic.

Since anger is, by this definition, the loss of control, your controlled anger is a nonsense. Feigned anger might be useful.

If anger is hard to nail down, what is to be said about intelligence? No surprise: I say that this highly multi-dimensional thing can’t be reduced to a single number — IQ or any other. Quick, arrange on a line: Newton, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Darwin, Poincaré, Shakespeare. Don’t know them well enough to say? Ok, arrange on a line: your ten closest friends. The IQ test has no bother doing that, but would it accord with your idea of intelligence?

Paul Bloom said it was hard to imagine anything that could be more beneficial than bumping the collective IQ of a population. I’m not so sure. It’s the sort of idea H.G. Wells might have had fun with (along the lines of “The Country of the Blind”).

Mar 14 2017 at 2:36pm

Robert Swan,

Agreeing on a definition of anger here is obviously necessary. According to, it is: “a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire.” It does not require the “red mist” of which you speak and does not exclude the control of anger of which Prinz and I speak. I am actually quite surprised that your understanding of anger as being only uncontrolled is so well accepted here.

I don’t disagree that IQ is not the only measure of intelligence or that it is 100% predictive. However, it is a reasonably consistent standard with a very large data set and follows a normal distribution with a high correlation to general intelligence. As such, it is useful in showing the large differences in rarity caused by a 30 point fixed jump in raw score.

And my point was not to rank historical greats (or even any two modern people) in order, only to point out that some highly intelligent people made leaps in knowledge that simply weren’t possible for people with average or even above average intelligence to accomplish, and thus moved civilization forward.

Newton’s (or Leibniz’s) calculus was there all of the time, but they had to invent/discover it. Once that was done, it became far easier for others to understand and implement. But 300 years later, only about a sixth of the US population has any exposure to calculus at all, and worldwide it is far less. Calculus simply requires a higher degree of intelligence than the mean to understand (this is not a moral or judgemental statement), but it took a much larger leap to invent.

Robert Swan
Mar 14 2017 at 10:04pm


Looking to the dictionary to define an emotion? It’s an equally good reference for the armchair philosopher who wants some insights into “justice”.

In any case, our coming to an agreement on what “anger” means isn’t really necessary. You were perplexed how Russ could think Prof. Prinz’s stance on anger was nonsense. I have offered a suggestion which shows that at least one person (me, maybe Russ too) sees “anger” in a different way from you (and presumably Prof. Prinz).

A few reasons come to mind for why I have got away here with my idea of anger: nobody else reading; nobody else caring; nobody else disagreeing.

I don’t dispute that Newton was highly intelligent, it’s just that I don’t believe you can usefully put intelligence along a number line. If you tell me someone’s IQ is two sigmas above average, all I can conclude is that they’re pretty good at IQ tests. If you tell me someone’s height is two sigmas above average, at least I know that there goes a person I can look up to.

Mar 15 2017 at 6:45am

Just a reminder for any commenter who wants to debate the idea attributed to Malcolm Gladwell:

The relationship about IQ and achievement ping-ponged in this episode do not actually come from…anyone. Russ and the guest grossly mischaracterize an idea that comes from Gladwell’s book “Outliers” (which is actually the work of different, less famous people. But it’s easier to draw the target on Gladwell, I guess), then use that mischaracterization as a straw man that can be easily defeated by riffing generalities off the top of their heads.

In fact, by googling the keywords in the idea stated in this episode, you can find a roadmap that starts with “Outliers”, gets misstated by articles and bloggers who read the book (or didn’t) and have an axe to grind, until you finally end up with the exact talking points stated in this interview.

It’s kind of disappointing, really. Because you can see that statements like the comparison between a 70IQ and a 100IQ (which has nothing to do with Gladwell’s original claim, but sure sounds profound when it comes up “organically”) have already been made. Years ago, even. And what sounds like a couple of smart guys making fun of a dumb guy is actually just a recitation of one of the echo chamber’s greatest hits.

Mar 20 2017 at 1:28am

Mr. Bloom said, “You mean there’s supposed to be medicine that’s not evidence-based?”

There is medicine that’s not evidence-based. People die from it. People die from it directly when the non-evidence-based medicine is particularly deadly, and people die from it indirectly (by delaying or avoiding evidence based medicine until it is too late.)

Sadly, there are methods of curing based on nothing more than whims. Such methods often were founded before science was invented, but there are many still used today.

(Here I play the empathy card with the anecdote card) I lost one relative and will probably lose another to non-evidence-based medicine. That’s just an anecdote, but I hope to show that there really are at least some people using medicine that’s not evidence-based.

There is a website with many examples of medicine that are not evidence-based. (1)

Then there is medicine based on attempts at testing the method of curing. That’s what’s meant by “evidence based medicine.”

There is an even more stringent subset of that: medicine based on attempts at testing the medicine that takes into greater consideration what is implausible. It’s called science-based medicine. (2)


Mar 20 2017 at 12:26pm

jw’s comment on intelligence are clearer than mine. The intelligence that cannot understand calculus, the intelligence that can understand calculus, and the intelligence that discovers calculus are different qualitatively not quantitatively. Does an IQ test capture that? At the edges of any test the uncertainty of the estimates increase, so IQ tests cannot differentiate between really good IQ test takers and geniuses only their accomplishments do.

Jerm thanks for that correction to the intelligence discussion.

Feeling bad for polar bears might be an example of the sentimentality of the visual pictures getting the best of us…

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:



Podcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 6, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Now, as you point out many times in the book, empathy is used in a wide variety of ways. So, when you say you are against empathy--which is already bad enough--but you want to clarify what you mean more precisely in the book. So, do that here. Tell us what you mean by empathy, in particular.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. It's kind of a terrible way to start any conversation, but I think I profess [?] I have to begin by defining my terms [was incorrectly typed as "deshrining"--Econlib Ed.]. People use the term 'empathy' in every imaginable way. Some people use the term 'empathy' to mean just everything good. Everything kind, moral, compassionate. And I'm not against empathy in that sense. That's great. Other people use it in a much more narrow way to refer to our understanding of other people. So, if I understand how your head works, what's going on in your mind, I'm having empathy for you. And I'm not against that, either. Though I think that this isn't necessarily a force for good. Very nice people have a lot of empathy in that sense because they understand other people, could make their lives better. But real terrible people also have empathy in that sense, because they can use their empathy to exploit others. But, the sort of empathy I'm focusing on is what psychologists sometimes call 'emotional empathy.' And it's feeling the feelings of others--feeling their happiness, feeling their pain, being connected emotionally to them. And for a long time a lot of people simply assume that this is at the core of goodness: What the world needs is more empathy. But I argue that when we think about empathy in this way and we zoom in, it's actually a force for evil.

Russ Roberts: So, to keep our terms--which is shocking. And, being a contrarian I understand the appeal of taking, staking out such an extreme position. But you defend it quite ably in the book. But I want to clarify one more difference in terminology. What's the difference between 'empathy' and 'compassion'? Because, again, as you point out, a lot of people use those as synonyms: it means just being a good person. But that's not what you mean by empathy. So, what's the difference between empathy and compassion?

Paul Bloom: Yeah. That's right. And I should say more generally: I don't care how people use the words. And they are happy talking about things using different words. In my experience 'empathy' is the word that comes closest to what I'm worried about. What's more important is the ideas. And I think one of the contributions I'm hoping to make in my book is getting people to distinguish between different aspects of being a good person. So, the distinction between empathy and compassion is really at the core of my book. Empathy is, as I said, feeling what another person feels. So, if you are, you know, if you are feeling humiliated or lonely or anxious, and I, hanging out with you, thinking about how you feel, share your humiliation, your loneliness, your anxiety, that's empathy. But if I care about you and I want to make your life better--I want to improve you, your life has value to me; I might feel love towards you or at least some sort of kindness--that's compassion. And you might think, 'Well, that's just a verbal difference. They're just two sides of the same coin. They are two ways of talking about the same thing.' But, they are really different. They, if you care about this sort of thing, they light up different parts of the brain. But I think more importantly, when you train yourself to exercise empathy, as has been done, it doesn't help. It makes you more anxious. It makes you avoidant. It leads to burn out. But when you train yourself to experience compassion, it actually has positive benefits. So, you know, the subtitle of my book is "The Case for Rational Compassion." The 'rational' part is how we should make moral decisions: and given what you do for your line of work, you may have some sympathy for arguments there. The 'compassion' part is you need some sort of motivation; and I think the motivation is better comes from compassion than from empathy.


Russ Roberts: Let's dig a little deeper on the empathy part. So, I'm feeling humiliated, or I'm feeling despair; and you come over and we're having coffee; and you have empathy for me. Now, what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean you actually feel pain? That I'm in pain? Or does it merely mean that you imagine what I'm feeling. Is there any distinction there?

Paul Bloom: It's, it's an interesting question. We don't literally feel other people's pain. I can distinguish--if you've been stabbed and you are yelling and I feel empathy for you, it's not exactly that I feel like I've been stabbed. In fact, it's quite a ways from it.

Russ Roberts: Yes, it is.

Paul Bloom: But, at the same time--and your man, Adam Smith, who you've written about, was very eloquent on this. Though to a lesser degree and somehow really different in kind, there is a sense in which we feel others' feelings. If you want somebody, say smashes someone with a hammer, you might flinch. And it's not merely, 'Oh, man, I understand what goes on.' To some extent, you feel it. And emotions like anxiety really do spread. I think in those cases you really do get a duplication, a mirroring. And there's this Neuroscience literature, which is very cool. And, you know, I'm not--I tend to be quite skeptical about a lot of the claims made from Neuroscience labs. But this stuff, I like: Which is that if I watch you in pain, parts of my brain that would be active if I was to experience the same pain--if I was to be shocked or burnt or stabbed or poked--become active: If I feel empathy for you. So, there is some sense, I think a limited sense, where we literally feel others' pain.

Russ Roberts: I want to take a very timely example. Last night was the Super Bowl. And I'm a Patriot's fan. I've been a Patriot's fan since 1962.

Paul Bloom: [?] congratulations--

Russ Roberts: Thank you. Like I achieved something. Yeah. But people do give congratulations, meaning[?] mostly. But it's a sign of kindness. I appreciate that. And I've been a Red Sox fan since about 1962. And until about 15 years ago, both of those teams were an unending succession of failure and pain to its fan base. And then in the last 15 years been an incredible success. So, last night, the Patriots rallied. And I have to say, some of my pleasure was diminished at the thought of what the other teams' fans were feeling, because I had been there. I experienced it. So I wasn't literally feeling their pain. But I was sensing it, some. When I saw the faces of their players on the sideline, it took some of my joy away. And I just think that's an important part of the human experience--that's what we're talking about, if I have it right.

Paul Bloom: I think it is. Although I think you are an unusually kind person in that regard. Some of the experiments actually use sports teams as a way of looking at who we feel empathy for and who we don't. And your experience of empathy for the opposing team is unusual and generous. Uh, there was a study in Europe with soccer players, and what they did was, the subject was watch some other guy get electric shocks. And in one condition, he's told, 'This guy is a fan of your team.' And if you do that, the guy is--the parts of the brain light up associated with his pain [?] empathy. But if told that he is the fan of the opposing team, not only does empathy shut down, but parts of the brain associated with pleasure begin to light up.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, Schadenfreude or however you pronounce it. I get that.

Paul Bloom: So, it's very sweet of you to feel for an opposing team. A lesser man would just look at them and feel their pain and say, 'This is fantastic--'

Russ Roberts: Serves them right--

Paul Bloom: 'This makes it sweeter.'

Russ Roberts: Well, I will confess there are teams I have watched [?] that I have felt something akin to that. I'm not proud of it, but it is part of my nature.


Russ Roberts: So, let's go back to the--away from my neurosis and sports fandom. You make the bold claim early on in the book that empathy is a very poor moral guide. And I think most people have the exact opposite intuition--which is why I think the book is so interesting. And I want to add that, that whole part of the book is fascinating. But there are many other interesting parts of the book about the nature of the way we think and reason. And I enjoyed the whole thing. But, in the beginning, you make this very striking case that it's a bad moral guide. And I think that everyone's intuition is it's the opposite: the more I can empathize, the more I can put myself in the shoes of people who are suffering and imagine what they are feeling and sense it to the extent that I can, the better a person I'll be. And the better guide I will be toward public policy, toward children, the people around me. And you, one by one, go through all those and do the best you can to knock them down. So: Why is empathy a poor moral guide?

Paul Bloom: So, empathy--empathy has its good points, I'll add. I just don't think they in a moral domain. I think empathy is a great source of pleasure, from literature and movies and TV shows. And it plays some role in intimate relationships. And in fact that's a certain part of the book where I really enjoyed writing and I actually am a little bit tentative myself. I'm kind of negative, in some ways positive, and so on. But, for policy I think it's a train wreck. I think the same features that may make it good in other domains make it bad for policy--in that, it works as a spotlight. If I feel empathy for somebody, I zoom in on them. And I care deeply about them. But, because of this, because of the spotlight feature, it has various problems. I'll just quickly say three of them. One is that it's biased. A spotlight lights up where you pointed at. And, it's easier for somebody like me, much easier, to feel empathy for someone who is white, someone who is Canadian or American, someone who is attractive rather than ugly, very powerful empathy effects for that. Someone who is friendly rather than frightening. Etc., etc. And, you know, and I feel much more empathy for say, a fellow university professor from, a Jewish university professor from Montreal than I do for some kid in the Sudan. Even though intellectually I recognize that that's not the way it's supposed to work. So, you get bias. You get empathy as a numerate[?]--again, like a spotlight it zooms you in on one. So, because of empathy you get these weird psychological findings where you care more about one than about 10. And in fact, you get these everyday experiences where people get extremely concerned about a specific individual, while somewhat indifferent to the suffering of hundreds, thousands, or millions. And finally, empathy can be weaponized. Our empathy can be exploited by unscrupulous actors to get us to support things that ultimately make the world worse. So, I'm not a pacifist: I think some wars may be justified. But, there's all sorts of cases where empathy is tweaked to motivate us to support aggressive and violent actions towards a group.


Russ Roberts: I want to push back on one part of that, which is the very first part, the spotlight point. And you missed one, by the way, I think, unless I--maybe I missed your saying it--it also tends to focus on short term versus long term, which I--

Paul Bloom: absolutely--

Russ Roberts: as an economist, I'm particularly sensitive to. So, again, I'm very positive about your claims in that area. But can't you make the point--and I'm sure you talk about this at some point in the book, and I don't remember your precise argument against it--but, can't you make the point that, 'I'm so selfish by nature that the value of empathy is that it forces me to get the me out of the spotlight'? Yeah, it's a spotlight on the suffering, the starving child. And I might give to that charity when it doesn't do a great job helping that child. I might make a mistake and give to a charity that doesn't do as well because it's innumerate--it doesn't take account of the numbers. I understand all that. But as a starting point, don't I need to step outside myself? And doesn't empathy get me there? Isn't that huge?

Paul Bloom: So, that might be huge. There is a joke I tell in the middle of the book. Actually, I don't know where I got it from. Anyway, Jewish grandmother is walking her grandchild down a beach, and this big wave comes and takes away the grandchild--sucks him into the water. And she wails. And she puts her head up to God, and she says, 'God. God, bring me back my boy. Bring me back my beautiful boy. I'll do anything. Bring me back my boy.' And there is a pause. And a wave comes in. And the kid comes ashore, and he's safe and sound. And the grandmother looks at the sky and says, 'He was wearing a hat.' You know. And that's my--that's the argument.

Russ Roberts: An awful joke, Paul. I want to say. On behalf of Jewish grandmothers everywhere--which, I've had a few. I want to speak out against that joke.

Paul Bloom: I have better ones. Now you are forcing me to go down my list. But--so, it was a joke. The point is that, what you're saying is--

Russ Roberts: What's wrong with--why does that illustrate the--why is that a critique of my claim?

Paul Bloom: It's not. It's a summary of your claim. The claim is that: Am I asking for too much? So, empathy isn't perfect. Big deal. But my response is two-fold. And, I will agree with you. Empathy can bring you out of your shell. Empathy can defy self-interest. In a world where there was just you and one other person, and that other person is in trouble, and in the short term your helping the other person will make the world better, empathy is a good thing. It would motivate you to help. If it motivates you to help, at little cost to yourself--just the world is better no matter how you slice it. But the world is not a simple place. And there are many cases where empathy makes things worse. It pushes you out from your self-interest: Yes. But it motivates you into actions that actually have negative consequences. Now, if the only pro-social motivation we had was empathy, then we'd be stuck with it. Then, if it's a choice between empathy and utter total selfishness, I would choose empathy. But we have other options. There's all sorts of motivations to be good to people. You talked before about the enthusiasm for empathy by many people. And I agree with that. I see a lot of it. What I worry about is sort of a failure of moral imagination, where you look at why people do good things, why people transcend their selfish desires. There's many, many reasons. They do it out of a feeling of obligation. They do it because of religious teachings. They do it because of a philosophical view they hold because they have a conscience. And I think because they often care about other people. What I'm calling 'compassion.' So, yeah. If empathy was the only game in town, then, yeah, it's probably better than pure selfishness. But empathy does a lot of harm; and there's alternatives to empathy.

Russ Roberts: Well, I like the example you give in the book; you use a couple of variations on it. Because I think a lot of us think, 'Well, if you can feel that, you're going to do good deeds.' And you point out--if you really someone's pain, you have a choice of just ignoring it. You don't have to do--there's no real--without other motivations, empathy by itself is not a motivator.

Paul Bloom: That's right. There's actually no evidence that high-empathy people are better people. And there's a few studies against it. I might even, I'm not sure I mentioned this in the book--it came out recently--that nurses who test for high empathy spend less time with patients. And you can see why. If I'm around somebody who is suffering, and I feel their suffering, well, it draws their suffering to my attention. Which could be good. But it also is unpleasant. And so, if I could turn my head and walk away, that's a wonderful solution. Empathy in itself does not make you good. And in fact, you know, as somebody who suffers from a little bit of too much empathy himself, there are many cases where, if I see somebody in, if I see a lot of suffering, it kind of makes me, you know, want to walk away--want to go online and look at something else. And so, even when empathy does its work, it does its work in concert with other sort of emotions that are separate that want to make the world better.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I thought the example of the woman living near the Concentration Camp who told the authorities that just: Could they either stop shooting people or just do it where she didn't have to see it? And that--

Paul Bloom: Yes. It's a wonderful story by Jonathan Glover. Which is--you know, she is clearly upset at what she's seeing--

Russ Roberts: It's disturbing--

Paul Bloom: It's just the Death Camps. And she says, 'Could you please do it someplace else?'

Russ Roberts: Right. Which--

Paul Bloom: And, I got to have--I have a lot of examples. A student of mine gave me this example from the great novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. And the guy--and our main character is sort of sitting in his cabin, and he's awoken by the most horrible screams. And he said, 'Oh, someone is suffering. This is terrible.' So he gets dressed and goes for a walk to avoid the screams.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: And I think that's--I think that's very human.

Russ Roberts: No, for sure. And, as you point out, you need something else to work in concert with that feeling, if it's going to lead to a good action.


Russ Roberts: One of the obvious, as I was reading the book and then you got to it in some detail, is the tie-in between your point and the effective altruism movement--we've had Will MacAskill as a guest on EconTalk talking about the idea of effective altruism. What's the relationship between that position and your position?

Paul Bloom: So, when I first heard the phrase 'effective altruism,' it sounded vaguely comic. It's like, when I heard 'evidence-based medicine,' and I thought, 'You mean there's supposed to be medicine that's not evidence-based?' I mean, so who in--effective altruism sounds like almost, you know, tautological. Which is, that when you do your charity you want to it with an eye towards making the world a better place. But it turns out it's actually fairly radical. I think people appreciate it intellectually, but they rebel against it emotionally. And it does tie into my claims, because I'm not necessarily utilitarian but I think that any moral person has to be to some extent a consequentialist, thinking that the measure of our actions are how to make the world a better place or make it a worse place. And so, when you extend this to charitable giving, as many people, including MacAskill and Peter Singer of RU [? Princeton U.?], you should try to say, 'How can I make the most difference?' And what's interesting is, the answer to that question will be different than the answer to the question, 'What will most feel good? What will most scratch my empathic itch?' I describe in the book how I got--I was on a radio sta--this was before I got on my empathy thing. But I was on a radio [?] talking about my previous book, and somehow a discussion of child beggars came up. And so I talked about a bizarre article I read, I'd just read, on slaves, pointing out that when you give to child beggars in Africa, in India, often you are making the world worse. You are immediately making the kids better but then you are supporting this organization that enslaves and often maims children. And there are sort of better ways to do good. There are organizations. But you shouldn't give to child beggars.

Russ Roberts: It maims them because it makes them, the people who are running that organization--

Paul Bloom: That's right. That's right--

Russ Roberts: know that people will be more sympathetic to maimed kids. So they maim them. It's a horrifying example of unintended consequences--that an economist would love to rail against.

Paul Bloom: And I've got to say: Economists have it right. And the domain of charity, is unintended consequences. There are so many. There is a story of a writer, interviewed war lords in Sierra Leone, and asked why they asked why they chop off the limbs of children--it's such a horrible atrocity. And the answer she got was essentially, 'We do it for you. We make money when NGs come, when Western [?] come.' And 'In order to make you come, we need to give you atrocities.' Or take orphanages. There is a huge market of extremely well-meaning people wanting to spend a lot of money to adopt orphans. So, in Cambodia or other places there is now--they make orphans. They buy kids from their parents to support the demand. So, I tell the story about the child beggars; and I'm on, I [?] a very nice person, administer. And she's shocked.

Russ Roberts: Right.

Paul Bloom: She says to me--she's very indignant. And she says to me, 'I like giving the children. I like the human contact. I like looking in their eyes and the humanity of it all.' Very different, she told me, than giving to Oxfam or something on the Web. And at the time, because I'm kind of slow-witted and polite and everything and I didn't know what to say; And I was like, 'Maybe you have a point.' But a long time later it occurred to me what my answer should be. So I give my answer in the book. Which is: It depends what you want. If you want to make the world a better place, don't give to these kids. Give money some other way. But if you want to feel good about yourself, giving to the kids seems to be a wonderful mechanism.

Russ Roberts: And I get that urge that she has. And I have it, too. We want that warm glow from helping others. And I use the example in one of my books of giving money to the homeless person on the street, the beggar. And people say, 'I'm afraid they'll waste it on drugs and alcohol,' and I say, 'Well, their lives are awful and drugs and alcohol are what they need right now; and I'm trying to help them.' Not help me. I don't want to be partner to that. Well I understand that. It's your money you don't have to give it to them. But right now, if you are only going to give them a little bit you shouldn't really care about what they do with it. It's their lives. And it's respectful, actually. As opposed to paternalistic--it seems to me.

Paul Bloom: And those are calculations I think people should go through in deciding what to give. But so many people don't give that way. So many people are--you know, you used the term 'warm glow.' Warm-glow givers.' Singer describes people who give to dozens, maybe hundreds of charities--a little bit to each one--like going through a buffet and grabbing a tasty morsel here, and [?]. Each one giving their own imaginative buzz: 'Look at the people I'll help. Look at the different people I'll help. Boy, this is different, too.' And getting a lot of joy out of it. And maybe not making the world a better place. And maybe sometimes making it worse: when I was talking about my book, a Big Think in New York, they showed me different videos and wanted me to commented on them. And one video was--and this shocked me--and I'm cynical, but this shocked me. An aid worker was talking about people who send canned foods to areas in crisis. Which is very nice. You know, the food helps people. But they quickly get too much. And then there's a big problem. They have to use resources to store 'em. There's problems of rats and vermin. So, okay, people make mistakes. But then she went on to say that sometimes they tell people: Stop. Stop sending stuff. Do something else, but stop sending stuff. And people insist on sending stuff. As if they have this itch they can't help but scratch.

Russ Roberts: Well, the example I use in my book on the homeless issue is a friend of mine whose brother carried a V-8 Juice in his briefcase that he would give to homeless people. And all you've really usually done is they just sell it. And you've added a transaction cost to their life. You give them something they don't particularly want. I mean, I understand that maybe--it's not the worst thing in the world. It's not the equivalent of encouraging people to chop off children's' hands, thank God.


Russ Roberts: But--one of the things that came to mind as I was reading that, and you anticipated a lot of my reactions, you've thought about this a lot, is: On the surface, your book seems--could be read--as an indictment as liberal policy solutions, which tend to emphasize empathy. And you push back about that quite a bit. I understand why you would. But make the case. Because obviously the last two Presidents who talked about feeling pain were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That attitude of empathy often, confused with compassion, tends to be kind of associated with soft-hearted, bleeding-hearted liberals and hard-hearted conservatives who are not so, perhaps empathetic. That's a stereotype. Is it true? Defend your claim, not book as being not just an indictment of certain types of policies.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Um. And it's true. When I sort of laid out my argument to people, they'd say, suspiciously say, 'You're attacking Progressives and Liberals.' And since just about everybody I know is a Progressive and Liberal they didn't ask me to [?] ways. And to some extent, it definitely is a stereotype. Liberals will describe themselves as empathic; that it's a good thing. They talk like Obama spoke of empathy more than any President, all than the other Presidents put together, I would guess. And Clinton notoriously felt our pain. Um, and they are proud of it. And in fact some conservatives don't see themselves as empathic.

Russ Roberts: And are proud of that.

Paul Bloom: And are proud of it. They are not a tree-hugger. They appreciate unintended consequences. They appreciate other values, like loyalty and tradition and so on. And, when you give people psychological tests on empathy--and the tests are kind of awful--they are problematic in many ways. But, when you give them tests, liberals are the most empathic; conservatives are less so. It's a subtle difference. And libertarians are quite a bit below.

Russ Roberts: Painful. But you can't argue with the data. But you could. But anyway, it might be true.

Paul Bloom: But the strange thing is when you tell this, everybody is happy. The liberals nod because the [?] the libertarians[?] say, 'Exactly.' So, it's news that makes everybody happy. But, I think if you look at the real world of policy, you find empathy and empathic appeals and empathic arguments are used on both sides. And in fact, they are often symmetrically used. Where, if I'm arguing in favor of gun control as a liberal, I'll tell you heart-rending stories, they're just like you, their children getting shot with a gun. Well, if I'm arguing for gun rights as a conservative, I'll tell you stories about women who have been raped because they lacked the right to defend themselves. If I'm in favor of affirmative action, I'll tell you stories about black kids who couldn't get into college. If I'm against affirmative action, I'll tell you about white kids who couldn't get into college. The arguments are often perfectly symmetrical. I think they're all bad arguments. I think policy decisions are always going to have winners and losers, and these stories just serve to heat up people; and I think they are horrible tools. But the point is, conservatives and liberals use them interchangeably. Donald Trump, who is not somebody one normally associates with empathy, I think was masterful at exploiting empathy, particularly for the victims of crimes during his campaign. And I'll also add, just to round it out, that some canonically liberal causes actually aren't motivated by empathy. So, if you want to persuade people to be concerned about climate change through empathic arguments, good luck. There's very few identifiable victims. It's a statistical problem. It's very future-oriented. If you are going to worry about it through climate change, you have to worry about it through rational consideration and sort of compassion for future generations; but your gut feelings aren't going to help you.

Russ Roberts: Well, at the risk of opening a Pandora's box of listener outrage, I do think some people feel empathetic toward the Earth as the object that has to be protected in the case of climate change; so I don't totally agree with that. But I don't know if I'm right, there.

Paul Bloom: You know, I have to say, I have heard that, myself. And I find that to be so cringe-worthy that I don't even know how to respond to it. And my instinctive response is, 'Come on. You don't really empathize with the Earth, like it's a person.' And then they look at me and they shake their heads sadly.

Russ Roberts: They empathize with the Earth as if it's the Earth. And I have trouble understanding that, as you do; but I think it does, I think it's a real thing; and for listeners who are not too angry, I'd like to hear your defense of that, if you'd like.


Russ Roberts: And while we're on the subject, why don't we turn to anger? Because, while I was reading the book--again, you anticipated this question on my part, I saw some parallels between anger and empathy. Not literal--not a relationship, but in terms of how we judge them. So, a lot of people think anger is a good thing. And so, talk about that as a motivator, and how, I think, there's a very similar set of arguments people use on behalf of anger as a motivator for good deeds and moral behavior. And, like you, I'm kind of skeptical about the value of that.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. I hear--that's a great question. This is actually something we could talk about. I'm struggling with it myself. In a previous article, I said, 'Empathy is really bad. It's just like anger--which is just really bad. It's a powerful emotion but it's not rational. It leads us to all sorts of errors. And Jesse Prinz[?] in a commentary pushed back on this, and I owe a debt to Jesse because he actually wrote an article attacking empathy years ago. And this is at a public meeting. And I just stood up and I told him he was full of beans. I just said, 'That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard.' But then it stuck with me. I realized I never wrote him an apology note. Anyway. So, I wrote my thing on empathy, and Jesse said: 'Look, you are underselling anger. Anger is a good moral emotion. Anger changes the world. Anger at injustice--injustice towards minorities, injustice towards the poor, etc., etc.--motivates social change. And the great moral heroes--Jesus, Martin Luther King, whatever, motivated by anger.' And I see that anger can do good. I guess I just view it as too capricious and irrational to be a valid moral tool. I think, on an individual basis, we need some anger. I wouldn't want my child to be anger-less. He wouldn't be able to cope in a world where other people are angry. But I am skeptical of it as a moral guide. What do you think?

Russ Roberts: I think it's nonsense, that argument by Jesse Prinz. God bless him for being against empathy and getting you to write this book. But that argument makes zero sense to me. And I think it's partly--I think it's a semantic issue. I'm hoping. Here's what I think matters: Passion. They are not the same thing. Passion is feeling things intensely. Anger is blindness. Anger is being overwhelmed by injustice--not by wanting to fight it. It turns you into--it turns to rage. And that's the extreme form of it, right? It's a perfect example--the reason I like that parallel is it just shows you the danger of an emotion without the reason or the side-pieces that work to make the world a better place. When people--in Kristallnacht in 1938 burned and murdered Jews in Germany, they were angry. They thought they were doing a good thing. They were wrong, I think. When people lynched African Americans in America's past or tortured and burned down Native American outposts, they were angry when they did it. That's not a good thing. It doesn't mean everything that's done with anger is bad. But certainly the blindness that comes with anger seems to me to be unbelievably bad. And I think it's a great example because, for me, I'm a passionate person. I have--people are always surprised when they see me outside of my EconTalk world, because I'm relatively calm. There are a lot of parts of me that are not calm. I work very hard on this program to react calmly to things around me--to the guests and the things they say if I don't agree with them. And that's not easy. But I think that's what being an adult is. That's what being a grownup is. It's taking these passions that we have--our anger, our intensity, our love, our empathy--and channeling them. Not just saying, 'Oh, that's what I feel. It must be right.' That seems like the really bad road to go down.

Paul Bloom: So, what you say, for anger, may be, that anger is a poor moral guide. Someone is making a mistake if they say, 'I wonder what I should do next. Well, I'm angry at this group, so that's where I'm going to go.' But, it might sort of serve as a useful fuel or accelerant. Which is: Once I've decided through rational means that I should protest this group, I'm going to nourish my anger and let it get me out of bed and march and yell and shout. Does that make sense?

Russ Roberts: Not to me. No. To me, that's again confusing passion and anger. Anger is about hate. Anger is about a rage against things that make me squirm, that make me uncomfortable, that make me scared. I have so little control over it. The feeling of anger--and I'm confessing here; I don't know if anybody cares, but I've tried very hard as an adult to, when I feel anger, not to act on anger. I'm not suggesting you should be angry.

Paul Bloom: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Being angry is part of being alive. Like you said, about your child. Your child should feel anger. You should feel love. You should feel things intensely rather than not intensely. You should experience life. But we always have choices--I believe--and we'll talk about that in a minute, because that was another interesting part of the book. But I think you have a choice to how you channel that, how you react to it, how you respond to it. So, getting up in the morning and feeling angry at the injustice of the world, that's okay. But acting on the anger in the sense of stoking it as a way to motivate yourself I think is really dangerous, actually. Because I think you really put yourself at the mercy of your emotion rather than looking fully--as you point out, the unintended consequences. How many times have we seen--in your own life, my own life, and people around us--when they lash out in anger--and often perhaps feel virtuous in doing so?--and then have tremendous regret at the harm they've done to another person? Or to themselves? I think it's just a--and that would be true of almost everybody in these emotions. And you can respond to that if you want, but I want to turn to parenting, because I think it's a great example of where both empathy and anger totally steer us in a dangerous way.

Paul Bloom: So, let's go to parenting. But I can't resist saying that you are sounding kind of Buddhist. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I think there's a lot appealing about the Buddhist worldview on these issues. I have a friend of mine, a philosopher, Owen Flanagan, and he actually has a book coming out, a lot of which is on anger. And he has this sort of career that brings him into contact with the Dalai Lama. And at one points he asks the Dalai Lama through a translator, said, 'If you could kill Hitler, would you?' Like, back before Hitler was going to cause all that stuff. And the Dalai Lama thought about it and murmured to his intern, and through translation, the answer was 'Yes, I would. I would do it with some ceremony and regret, but I would want to stop that karmic chain. But--' and he made a real point of focusing on this--'I would not feel angry. I would not allow myself to feel angry. That is always a wrong feeling.'


Russ Roberts: Yeah. That fascinates me. Let me--I want to think about your comment. Which is--I'm actually coming to my views on this, these kind of personal traits, through both a Jewish--and something of a Buddhist lens, I think, because I think they kind of come together. It's not uncommon to notice that Jewish teaching and Buddhist teaching have some things in common. And there's a big emphasis starting around, I guess it's the 19th century in Judaism to try to restrain how you respond. But no one says, 'Oh, you can't feel anger.'

Paul Bloom: Right.

Russ Roberts: I think to some extent the Buddhist ideal is not even to feel it. If I'm going to kill Hitler, I better be angry. So, that's where I'd push back: If I'm going to be successful, I better be angry. Maybe in the actual act, but certainly, again, I think most religions would say that when you are disciplining a child, you shouldn't feel anger. You might have anger. But you shouldn't let your anger dictate how you respond.

Paul Bloom: Yup.

Russ Roberts: And I've written about this; and I feel somewhat strongly about it. My parents hit me as a child --in a non-abusive way. I didn't consider it abuse. They didn't beat me. But I would get a cuff now and then if I misbehaved. And occasionally what we would call a traditional spanking, a couple of times in my life that I remember. And yet--and I love my parents; they are both still alive. I think they were phenomenal parents. But when my wife and I got married, we decided we weren't going to strike our children. And I had a lot of unease about that--because, strangely enough, I thought I turned out okay. And I thought maybe that was part of the reason. But we decided not to. And I write about this in my Adam Smith book: There are many times when I was furious at my children. And I'm so glad I didn't hit them. Because I would have hit them out of my own self-interest. I wouldn't justify it, say 'They did terrible; I needed to discipline them.' But I think they would have known that, too. And I'm so glad I never indulged that, via anger. They still made me angry. I just didn't act on it. Not in the way that I wanted to.

Paul Bloom: It's a good--it's an interesting issue. Now we're in parenting, I guess. And there seem to be two separate issues. Which is: I also don't, never struck my kids. Now they are in their 20s and if tried to, they'd lay me out. So, I missed the period when I had a shot. But I actually think to some extent the parents who cuff their kids or spank their kids--I think it's not entirely clear to me as always bad parenting. And I certainly think there's a lot of non-physical things you could to your kids that are actually a lot worse. And parents do this to their kids; and they feel, 'Oh, I'm never hitting my kid. But I'm humiliating and belittling and etc.' And it could be a lot worse.

Russ Roberts: Absolutely.

Paul Bloom: I think what's at the core of it is--your insight is great--which is, I think you should really try never, ever to discipline your child out of anger. If discipline is a smack on the butt, so be it. And maybe one of the risks of physical punishment is, it's so much can be a reflection of anger. It can feel so good. And you can justify it to yourself that you are doing it for his own good. But, but, I do agree with you. I think anger--anger and empathy in different ways are poor emotions for a parent.


Russ Roberts: And talk more generally about it. Because you make some nice points. I think they are not dissimilar from some of the points we are making, of course, about strangers and trying to help them with charity. Isn't it always better to feel my child's pain? You could argue--and by the way, I totally agree with you--I [?] saying the same thing. I don't want to judge people who do strike their kids. I think I might be wrong about it. I'm just happy the way it turned out for me. And I do think it's somewhat complicated. And I also take your point about a lot of verbal abuse can be more damaging in the long run. But, what's wrong with--your child's crying and unhappy; shouldn't I try to soothe their pain? And feel it, as a way to motivate myself?

Paul Bloom: So, here is an example which I think helped me thinking about understand the [?] that need to be made. Which is: One of my sons--and I remember it kind of vividly; it really happened--came up to me freaking out because he had something really due the next day at school. And he hadn't even started it. And it was--it was a lot. And he hadn't started it. And he was panicked. And I felt inside me the same panic. And again--

Russ Roberts: Because you love your child.

Paul Bloom: I love me kid. And I--you know, it was very hard not to feel it, panic mixed with inevitable anger: 'How could you have waited so long? Haven't I told you to--?' And, my best moments as a parent--and in this case I think I did it, was--'[?] really acknowledge--I understand my kid. That's really important. I know what's bothering him. That's kind of obvious.

Russ Roberts: That's your point about cognitive empathy.

Paul Bloom: Exactly. I have cognitive empathy. If I was just like puzzled as to why, 'Are you upset? There are tears running down your face. Does that mean you are sad?' I mean, you want to understand your kid. And, I love my kid. I love my kid a hell of a lot. And at that period, I'm not always so good at it, that's where I let rule [?]. So I said, 'Okay, dude. Let's take 5 minutes. Let's take a deep breath. Let's make a plan. Let's work this out.' He's panicked; I'm not panicked. And because I'm not panicked, I'm a much better father to them. And I'm able to help them more. And, case by case by case, so much of being a good parent involves not getting too shook up by the immediate suffering of your kids. For they will suffer. They will fall from the swings. They will be ostracized. They will be bullied. They will be teased. They will fail exams. They will be unlucky at love. They will suffer like every human suffers. The most lucky kid in the world will suffer a lot. And as a parent, you suffer along with them. You are not there for them. You are wrapped up in your own pain. In fact, often being a good parent involves causing a bit of short term suffering of your kids. Your kid wants to go to a party on a school night or wants to do something reckless, and you say No; and he grumbles[?] because he's really sad: Well, tough. Because you love him. You are looking--it's back to your point, which you emphasize, which is short term versus long term. If you love somebody you are not just trying to make him happy in the next 10 seconds. You are trying to make him have a good life. And for a kid, who you have care over, control over, and doesn't typically know what's best for him, often you have to cause him suffering: make him do chores, make him do his homework. Forbid him to do certain things. Because it's better for him in the long run. But a too-empathic parent can't do that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I can't agree more. And I think the only challenge there is that when you tell your child that you are doing it because you are compassionate, not empathetic, they don't really appreciate it.

Paul Bloom: That's right. And part of it--and again, part of it, realize it, recognizing the uncertain point [?]--your child really will, at some level, hate you, because your child has a difference of opinion. And also different priorities. People have pointed out that, you know, have, take an older kid, older teenager who wants to engage in reckless behavior--unsafe sex, drunk driving, and so on. As a parent, all of the negatives of that behavior will accrue to you, and none of the positives.

Russ Roberts: Yup.

Paul Bloom: And so, to some extent your interests diverge. You can explain this to your 17-year-old son, but it's not entirely persuasive.

Russ Roberts: No, I think that's another incredible challenge of parent--is confronting your own desires, when you want to impose them on your child. Because you want your kid to be like you, or you don't want to be ashamed, or whatever it is. That's a big challenge. And as they get older, it gets--it's more and more important. But I think it's crucial.

Paul Bloom: That's right. And I think a lot of coping with children as they become adults is acknowledging that independence of interests and desires. I think a lot of people, I've seen a lot of people with their adult children who fail at this. Who, for instance, nurture this great disappointment about their kids, simply because their kids didn't turn out like them. They didn't satisfy the desires they themselves would have.

Russ Roberts: That's, um, a big 'nother part of growing up. It's interesting how hard that is, emotionally--it can be--and I've really nothing more to say about it--except that it's something, coming back to your point about reason. Which I want to turn to now. It's something you have to think about, not just feel. I think it's important in all these cases to use some long-term thinking, and other uses of the brain to go with the heart. They're both important.

Paul Bloom: Well, that's right.


Russ Roberts: So, let's turn to the brain. Really enjoyed that chapter: you said a lot of interesting things not necessarily related to empathy. They were all interesting. A lot of people have started to argue--in fact, I feel it's almost like a fad: 'Oh, yeah, we've got a big brain, but it's unreliable; our heart overrules it. We're full of biases. We delude ourselves.' You are very skeptical about that extreme opposite viewpoint. So, defend it--defend your viewpoint.

Paul Bloom: I am. And I'm very pro-rationality. And this certainly is unfashionable. You know, still, the way to begin an Intro Psych class for many of my colleagues to say, 'The big lesson of Psychology is how stupid we are.' Um, I just read a New Yorker article about the Nudge Unit--a Behavioral Change Unit in Washington. It came a couple of months ago. And they quote Richard Thaler, the founder of behavioral economics, and he says, 'The big lesson here is that we're not Albert Einstein. We're Homer Simpson.' And, I think that's mistaken. And I actually think it's not only mistaken: it's almost perversely self-refuting. So, a lot of psychologists, and philosophers and lay-people, say--they point to some aspect of human behavior. Some mistake we make in reasoning. Some irrational political phenomena. And they say, 'Look how laughably stupid this is.' But, what they fail to realize is that they are demonstrating that the mind has two parts. There is a part that makes us stupid--that does the stupid thing. But then there's the part that knows it's stupid. To be able to reflect on our mistakes and our ignorance, to comment on it, to laugh at it, is a demonstration that our ignorance doesn't define us. And, yes--we are the creature that makes statistical mistakes. But we are also the creature that invented statistics, and can figure out what is a mistake. We are the creature who does irrational policies; but we are a creature who looks back and says, 'Boy, we really messed up. We should figure out how to do better next time.' And, so I think in that way, I think my colleagues grossly underestimate human rationality. And I think there's another thing. Which is, if you look at our everyday lives, political behavior is something else. We can talk about that: political behavior, I think something else is going on there.

Russ Roberts: Tribalism--

Paul Bloom: But, our everyday lives-- There's tribalism; there's virtue-signaling. There's treating--and I think people treat politics like sports; and I think that what looks nuts if you--a lot of things look crazy unless you think that people treat politics like sports. And [?]kind of rational[?], and it makes sense. But putting those, I think, domains where we do poorly aside, in our everyday life we are extraordinarily smart. The best AI [artificial intelligence] cannot function anywhere near as well as your average 3-year-old in doing simple tasks. And if you think about the capacities of people--I'm not talking about great scientists or poets. I'm talking about what it takes to get your car repaired. To go to work. To choose clothes to wear. To clean your house. It requires extraordinary intelligence. For everybody who says to you, 'Intelligence is overrated,' ask them how much they would pay to avoid getting Alzheimer's. Or to avoid becoming--how much would they give so their child doesn't become mentally retarded? If they say, 'Ah, that doesn't matter,' then they are being inconsistent.

Russ Roberts: Well, you give the example in there--and by the way, that point about reason, I think you attribute it to John McNamara[?] in the book?

Paul Bloom: Yes. That's right.

Russ Roberts: That we are the people who make these mistakes, but at least we can realize them. It strikes me that some of the--this is not a nice thing to say, so, it might be crazy here: I think some of the people who push that unreasoned theme is: I think they are talking about other people. You know: 'Other people have trouble with probability. I know Bayes' Rule, so I am immune to this kind of imperfection. I have to help other people.' It makes me a little bit uneasy. I think there's something to that viewpoint that they are holding.

Paul Bloom: I agree. I won't name them, but I have friends who are prominent who talk all the time about the 'moral confusions' people make: People may think 'x is wrong and y is right because of their'--and then they give a theory. But of course they themselves don't suffer from moral confusions. They are--you know, the lucky few, somehow liberated from it. I also can't resist something--and this one is from one of my other teachers, actually, Steve Pinker, who is now at Harvard, who writes in one of his books, 'Academics often professionally deride IQ and intelligence. They say, Oh, those things don't count; they don't exist; they aren't real.' And yet, if you ever go to a faculty meeting or a search committee or--

Russ Roberts: That's all they care about--

Paul Bloom: That's all they care about. I've actually--I've had colleagues who argue that there's no such thing as general intelligence; the idea is raised[?] that it shouldn't matter anyway. And then they are trying to argue why we should take a new graduate student--and they say, 'Oh, she's High- [?]. You don't understand: She has limitless intelligence, broad abstract intelligence, and everything.' And, I think that there's-in our everyday lives, Pinker points out, there's actually few people who fetishize intelligence more than the very people who write articles saying it doesn't exist.


Russ Roberts: In the example I was starting to quote earlier, I think it's Malcolm Gladwell--I hope I don't get that wrong--but I think you said it, quote him at one point, or someone saying that, 'You know, once you have above a certain level, 20 or 30 extra IQ points aren't important.' Are you kidding me? The people who have the extra 30 are the people who change the world. Good and bad. Mostly good, I think. I'm not 100% sure. It depends on the system they're in. But 30 IQ points is--what is that, 2 standard deviations? I don't know what it is. I think--

Paul Bloom: It's a lot. And yeah, and Gladwell does say that in Outliers.

Russ Roberts: I don't know what that means. I literally don't know what that means.

Paul Bloom: He's right that there's diminishing returns.

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Paul Bloom: Obviously. Obviously. To go from retarded to average is really important. And that's better from going from genius to super-genius. But, yeah--30 IQ points--

Russ Roberts: I'm not even sure that's true, by the way. I'm not even sure there's diminishing returns. Because if you go from--let's say--this is stupid because we're talking about it like it's a real scale, like it means something. But if you go from being a really smart person to being a genius, it's not like, 'Oh, well now you'll never have trouble balancing your checkbook. You'll just be able to do it instantly, without a calculator.' So, it's not that valuable, because you can use a calculator. That's not what genius gets you. It's qualitatively different. It's not just quantitatively different. Now you might be able to cure cancer. You might be able to do something that's way more than an incremental increase. It just strikes me as wrong. But I don't know. Maybe there's some subtlety to it I don't appreciate.

Paul Bloom: But if I could snap my fingers--or, more realistically, I could do something--less lead in the water, or an educational system that would bump our nation's IQ or the world's IQ, it's hard to imagine something that could be better. Smart people can do evil things. Smart people, you know, evil geniuses, are a real thing. But for the most part, intelligent--a lot of evidence for this--intelligence makes the world better. It allows people to see their way through problems. It allows people to turn, you know, what you might call, zero-sum interactions to interactions of mutual benefit. Smarts is good.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Although, spoken like a true academic, Paul.

Paul Bloom: Exactly.


Russ Roberts: I have to say, I think it's overrated in certain dimensions. Certainly it's overrated in the moral dimension. As you pointed out earlier, I think it does tend to lead to moral arrogance, which is dangerous. It tends to lead to general arrogance, which is dangerous. But certainly, being able to figure stuff out is a really good thing. And to think abstractly can be a really good thing. So, I think there's something there. Talk more generally about really the theme of the book, which is: Okay, so empathy can lead us astray; it can get us to ignore long-term consequences. It's innumerate. What's it mean to you to bring rationality to bear on it? If you are giving--I don't know how popular this is, but suppose you actually wanted to make the world a better place, you want to be a better human being, and you've always thought empathy was a good idea. So, I'm thinking about a listener right now, who is thinking, 'This is kind of a bummer. This is depressing. I always thought empathy was great. Now it's leading me astray.' Now what? Give me some advice.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. It's a good question. The book is very far from a how-to book. Although, I do think that around the edges there are some interesting possibilities. Like, meditation, actually. There is some evidence that meditation diminishes empathy but boosts compassion, makes us a little bit wiser in our decision-making. But I think what really, what I'm really pushing for is sort of a cultural change--a cultural change in what's acceptable. And I don't think that this is impossible. Here's an analogy which--maybe it's more than an analogy--which always struck me as an answer to your question, which is: It used to be that you could be openly racist. Political speeches from a certain time back had openly racist appeals. You know, 'We should do this to defend the white race,' and so on. And, you don't get much of that these days. You might get dog whistles and implicit stuff; but people reject openly racist arguments; and in themselves, most people I think, certainly most people in this nation don't want to be racist. Racism is terrible--

Russ Roberts: And they struggle to overcome it.

Paul Bloom: They would struggle to overcome it. They will argue around the edges over what is and what isn't racist. But to a large extent because they acknowledge that certain forms of racism is just wrong. Now, imagine this: What politicians do now is that in order to make cases for your policies, including policies like expelling immigrants, like going to war, but also pro-gun control, anti-gun control, and I think they tell you stories.

Russ Roberts: Police behavior. Yeah.

Paul Bloom: Police behavior. Exactly.

Russ Roberts: You write a lot about that in the book.

Paul Bloom: Vivid stories. Vivid stories to sway you. I'd like to see a world where, when politicians do that, when demagogues do that, people boo. People recognize, 'Yeah, I understand I'm constituted so that these will have an appeal to me, just like racism will have an appeal to me. But this is no fair. This is bogus.' And, I don't think this is necessarily a fantasy. I've talked to people in other countries where there's actually different norms for political debate. And a sort of schlocky, 'Let me tell you about Joe the plumber,' or 'Let me tell you about this poor mother,'--stuff that is sort of endemic in the United States, there is not as much of it in England, for instance, where it's kind of viewed as just cheap. And I'd like to see a cultural change regarding political discourse, the sort of discourse that's accepted, regarding the sort of political claims that are made. And, I think right now the stakes are actually very high. We're in a situation right now where people point to single-individual cases; and they try to get you to feel empathy for the victims. And, you know, as our friend Adam Smith pointed out, that is such a powerful catalyst for violence and hatred. And, you can make that part of your psyche go away. But, just as with racism, you could kind of override it and recognize it. So, I'd like to see a cultural shift. I'd like to see--you know, I'd like to see a case where politicians come up and they say, they basically come out of the closet and say, 'I'm a rational, cost-benefit kind of reasoner. I want to make the country better and I want to figure out the best way to do it,' and they don't get laughed off the stage.

Russ Roberts: And we debate whether the cost-benefit is a good analysis or not--

Paul Bloom: Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: rather than whether I can tell a better story to make you scared or emotional or whatever--inspired--or whatever, than my opponent.

Paul Bloom: So, I don't know precisely how many refugees in the United States to let in. But I do know that, for instance, telling me the story of some woman who was murdered by a refugee is not an answer to that question.

Russ Roberts: How about showing me a Syrian child who is starving and crying?--

Paul Bloom: Also not an answer.

Russ Roberts: I just want to show you are bipartisan, Paul. I want to keep the hate mail down.

Paul Bloom: [?] the hate mail.


Russ Roberts: I feel it very poignantly here, because we stay away from political issues here on EconTalk. And people sometimes ask me to interview so-and-so, or how about having this person on, and I've said I'm not so interested: they're partisan; they'll defend themselves; or are politicians. I try not to have politicians on the show--I'm not trying to: I don't have politicians on the show, at least explicitly political ones. And right now I feel it's a very charged time. People are very emotional about pro and con on this current political environment. And it's not a good time for EconTalk--that's not good for EconTalk. So we're trying to stay above the fray. It's a very good time for EconTalk.

Paul Bloom: But of course it's an excellent time for EconTalk. And you are right. My point is--I chose an example on one side of it. But, you know, I'll give the other side, then, for fairness. During the debate, one of the debates with Trump, Hillary Clinton was basically leaning a lot towards military action in Aleppo. And she kept saying, 'Have you seen the pictures? Have you seen the videos? How could you not want to act?' And I'm thinking, 'That's not even--it's a terrible argument.' It may persuade people. But I'm old enough to remember in previous wars it was exactly the same way: People would show pictures, tell horrible, heart-rendering stories, often real ones. And then they say, 'So, let's go and drop some bombs.' And do some invasion. Regardless of what one's political affiliation is, we should recognize this is not a good way to proceed. We're still mammals, yes. But we're unusual mammals, and we have rationality; and we should give that more weight.


Russ Roberts: So, I sometimes like to point out that, have people go look at the 1964 acceptance speech of Barry Goldwater. And you can like him, Barry Goldwater, or hate him. But what's striking about it is that there's none of that kind of thing in there. It's a very academicky, almost scholarly, abstract, philosophical speech.

Paul Bloom: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And somewhere between then, 1964, and now--some time in the last 50 years--that went out of fashion. And the--what I like to call the 'I knew a guy' school of economics--

Paul Bloom: Ye-es--

Russ Roberts: got more popular. The dramatic story. And it became--I associate it with Reagan [President Ronald Reagan]--I don't know if that's fair; I don't know if he was the first person to do it. But, you know, at the State of the Union Address, there'd be somebody in the crowd that we would--who would stand up. And we have to be careful here on the flip side. I don't know if we're--I don't know if these are real empathy stories. But that's the way I do think of them. And I think you've highlighted it. What happened? What happened to this culture? Do you have any thoughts on that? How did we get so empathetic? Why did it become--why is it that you are so unpopular, Paul--for writing a book called Against Empathy? Because it is the mainstream. It is the given.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Um, you know, I honestly don't know. I think there has been a change in our country over empathy. And I think a more general one, actually, which fits with what you are saying, which is a privileging of the heart over the head. I don't know whether it's the 1960s. I don't know whether it was, it's sort of a philosophical, psychological rebellion against rationality that has trickled down to the general public. Maybe it's just a race to the bottom for some reason, where, you know, the more emotive and more actually sometimes clownish appeals just work. And so people keep, you know, trying to out-do one another. I honestly don't know what's happened, because I feel the world has changed. But if it changed, it could change back.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let me try something. I hadn't thought about this before. Let me throw something out. I'm thinking about--I don't know why--I'm thinking about Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, which I didn't read until my kid had to read it. And I was empathetic. He couldn't figure it out, all the--so I thought I'd read it and help. Foolish me, bad parent. I'm being facetious.

Paul Bloom: I get it, I get it.

Russ Roberts: That was really fun. And it's just a shockingly prescient and thoughtful book. And there's a--I think it was written in the 1950s, I think, maybe the early 1960s. But there's a--he foreshadows the big-screen TV and the Internet revolution, in some sense. There's a room in the house where instead of reading he'll just go and look at images. And I feel like there's been a certain--I don't like to be the old fogey who complains our attention span is down. But there certainly is a premium on faster, quicker, more vivid, more visual rather than more thoughtful. Which is what, to some extent the Internet over a book doesn't have to be, but it often is. And we like that. It's nice. And it's certainly the way we've gone. That, I'm going to show you a picture of a crying child, and that's just much easier to absorb than a detailed analysis of the possible consequences of a conflict. So, that's my--I don't know why that's happened. But it seems to have happened--

Paul Bloom: Some of it--it's a good answer, which is some of it may have been technological. You know, I remember reading, I'm just remembering reading now, when I was a kid, I'll never remember where it was from, a science fiction novel. I used to gobble them up. But, a science fiction novel; in it people had a little cube they carried in their pocket. And whenever they wanted to, they'd lift up the cube to their face and it would spray them with something like that would make them feel relaxed, or energized, or loved, or angry--or, you know, aroused. And we now have that. That's what my phone is.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: And so you can have the discipline. My older son is a reader and a scholar, and he can spend 4 hours reading Russian novels. And you know, doesn't--it's not inevitable. There's a lot of people who are not addicted, not caught up, who use Internet as a powerful tool and nothing else. But the rest of us--and I include me--have a kind of addictive relationship to the short term buzz it provides. And then when you get to the political and social and cultural realm, there are many people whose work and claims and arguments are calibrated to that. Now, the best politician will tailor his or her remarks for, you know, 5-10 seconds--exactly as a sort of YouTube clip to make people laugh or cry or whatever. Well, an extended, you know, 60-minute speech: Who is going to sit through that?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. You want to say something cheerful before we close? You said we could change it. The trend doesn't look good--toward thinking in an analytical, and full effects.

Paul Bloom: I don't know. Things are complicated. It wasn't Yogi Berra or some physicist, but the line is: Prediction is hard, especially about the future. And, you know, so, I don't think this is an inevitable trend. I think often these things inspire backlashes. It wouldn't surprise me if some large subculture develops a sort of abstinence from these short-versed, this love of long-reading and everything. Things could go all sorts of ways. I'm sort of by disposition an optimist.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, me, too.