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Empathy represses analytic thought and vice versa (sciencedaily.com)
105 points by ecliptic 1850 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments



I would think this leads quickly to another question people might not want to answer... Does empathy increase the probability that the actions you decide to take will reduce or increase suffering?

I am a fan of an old German saying: "Good intentions are the opposite of good actions."

Every tragedy in human history that I know of was born from good intentions. Make society stronger, make the majority happier, make people safer, make them healthier, etc. The bottom line is that good intentions have no influence on the consequences of actions. To determine what the consequences will be and whether a course of action is likely to help or hurt, we might have to abandon empathy during the discussion. Of course, we shouldn't ignore empathy when considering whether we want the consequences or not.


> Every tragedy in human history that I know of was born from good intentions.

Isn't that pretty much a meaningless statement, because people almost always have good intentions in mind (at least from their own viewpoint) when they do almost any action?


>Does empathy increase the probability that the actions you decide to take will reduce or increase suffering?

Interesting question. You are speculating about human psychology based on your understanding of history. Though you haven't cited any literature to back up your statements, and you haven't claimed that you have knowledge of any psychological literature, I still find your opinion valuable.

I've read some of the literature related to this question. Here is one thing it says: psychopaths are people who almost never feel empathy. They decide to take many actions and many of those actions have disastrous and extremely harmful consequences for those around them. The harm they do is grossly out of proportion compared to the harm committed by non-psychopaths. They are extremely exploitative and cruel and disproportionately commit a large number of crimes.

Psychopaths are now roughly defined, by researchers, as people who don't experience empathy. If you want to see how people without empathy behave, look no further than the psychopath.

It's not pretty, and it contradicts your idea here.

A psychologist who specializes in psychopathy is Dr. Stout, who wrote several famous books about this topic.

The research shows that lack of empathy absolutely and unequivocally leads to hurting others. The actions of those who lack empathy hurt other people in far greater proportion. Operating empathetically involves feeling rather than logical thinking and it requires being in touch with your emotions.

"The road to hell" phrase refers to INTENTIONS, not EMPATHY. Intentions are cognitive, they are analytical. So good intentions may be meaningless (if this proverb has any truth) because good intentions are NOT empathy. What is more important are the FEELINGS of empathy.


We use emotions to help us pick the ends to which logical effort should be directed. Try as you might, you will not be able to logically select the axioms by which you reason.


I really like your first point, but I don't see how the second follows.


"I am a fan of an old German saying: "Good intentions are the opposite of good actions.""

Except that good actions don't spring from malintent, so your folksy saying is of limited worth.

"Every tragedy in human history that I know of was born from good intentions"

Also every amazing pinnacle of human history and society. You also conveniently leave out the tragedies born from lack of good intention.

Have you never met a sociopath? Someone without empathy?


My father used to say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.


"Good intentions are the opposite of good actions."

Maybe it loses something in the translation. If I had to guess, I would have said that bad intentions are the opposite of good intentions.

Anyway, given that an awful lot of good actions start with good intentions, this doesn't seem a very useful saying at all.


Selection bias. Everything is done with good intentions, good things and bad things. Very few people set out to do the wrong thing from their perspective, and plenty of evil is done via cold calculus (think most of US foreign policy) that is defined by lack of empathy.


I misread the title as empathy encourages analytical thought, which would make sense, because in order to empathize one has to have enough analytic ability to see how another person is thinking, if that makes sense.


This is wrong. Empathy in the context of psychology is a feeling rather than a cognition. The kind of empathy you're talking about is a cognitive sort of empathy that doesn't involve a feeling process.

There is actually a distinction between bad empathy and good empathy.

Bad empathy is the type you describe: it allows you to understand other people's perspective. It can be bad because it allows you to exploit them. Think an expert salesman or a pick up artist who knows exactly how to see the world from the perspective of their victim.

Good empathy, on the other hand, includes the other as part of your feeling system. You will refuse to hurt the other because by hurting them you yourself feel bad. This is a non-logical feeling process rather than something analytical.


You are correct, that analytical thought is necessary to have a shot at seeing how another person is thinking... but to believe that you have seen how another person is thinking requires only intuition.

It's wrong, of course, wrong in drastic, often tragic, degrees as often as it is right (performs no better than random chance). This has been known for a long time in behavioral neuroscience. How we respond to another persons face when they are feeling different emotions is extremely inaccurate and quite useless, but we are all weak to believing that our conclusions are valid. This is why polygraphs do not work. They rely on the intuition of the examiner rather than science. So, they perform the same as random guessing. In addition to just being wrong half the time, such intuitions are easily manipulated by some people (either trained or an ability they just develop naturally).

The human mind has a great many very reliable flaws. They were probably useful for survival at some point as they seem endemic to the structure of the brain itself (and we learn more all the time about their neurophysiological origin) but almost certainly useless at best and dangerous at worst today. We certainly don't live in anything that resembles the environment our brains evolved to survive in for thousands of years. (In small extremely intimate groups on the savannah with rare intense bursts of life-or-death stress but life mostly consisting of eating, having sex, and sleeping.)

Long experienced cops believe they can tell when people are lying. When tested, they perform the same as random chance. Average people believe they can tell what someone is feeling by looking at their face. When tested, they perform the same as random chance. It's hard for many to accept that their ability to read other people is only as accurate as flipping a coin, but that's what we've got evidence for. In some ways, this is odd, since we have mirror neurons that specifically make us unconsciously mimic other people when physically close to them, and I would think this would lead to being able to understand them better, but it doesn't seem to work that way.


> How we respond to another persons face when they are feeling different emotions is extremely inaccurate and quite useless, but we are all weak to believing that our conclusions are valid.

Perhaps in experiments where one has to judge a stranger's emotions from a photo or under conditions of active deception.

I want to balance out your comment with the obvious though - that most normal people are able to tell when others are distressed, stressed, worried, happy and so on - and this requires no analytic effort whatsoever.


> It's hard for many to accept that their ability to read other people is only as accurate as flipping a coin, but that's what we've got evidence for.

Does anyone have any links that support this? Thanks if so.


It is easy and plenty fun to set up an experiment among your friends.


I have major issues with the entire article. 45 "healthy" students in an MRI is hardly solid evidence of anything. It's too small a sample to be meaningful. Presumably they were all students of "higher education" which may not represent society as a whole. Perhaps what they discovered simply represents the way the students have been educated/conditioned? What about other cultures and socio-economic groups?

I'm also skeptical of this kind of academic theory because it can be biased. If the theory doesn't pan out, then funding might stop. So better find data to support the theory.

Speaking from personal experience, I've always treated empathy as an analytic process. It simply involves additional perspectives. That's not intuition! Empathy is an extension of analysis. To claim they are mutually exclusive seems (feels?:) outrageous. It's also not consistent with other evidence that suggest that neural pathways can and will change. So why not both pathways or a hybrid pathway?

That leads to the duck-rabbit illusion where they say it's impossible to see both. I see both and it looks like a mutation. A quick search yields other interpretations too such as seeing neither. Seeing only the lines for what they are. (I can also see either duck or rabbit but the mutation is much cooler!)


I suppose this explains why successful marketing often involves telling a good story.


Very interesting. Perhaps the empathetic and analytic systems are parallel to Kahneman's systems 1 and 2? (1 for thinking "fast" and 2 for "slow," to oversimplify an Nobel laureate's life's work.)


I think sub-cortical (limbic) and cortical are probably better analogues for system 1 and 2 than empathetic/analytic (intutive system 1 thought isn't necesarily empathetic, and can certainly be 'analytic'. The difference vs. system 2 is the presence of reflective consciousness.)


Good to know, thanks much.


This rings very true to me: I like you, so I want you to be right, to the extent that I might suspend thorough analysis of what you're saying. Conversely, if I don't like you, I might ramp up efforts to find out that you're actually wrong.

Look no further than politics for day-to-day demonstrations of this: Does anyone ever apply the same amount of critical rigour to "their guy" as they do to his opponent?


"Eureka! Engineers aren't empathetic because they can't be Research suggests that analytic thought is impaired by empathy, just as empathy is impaired by analytical thought. Who'd have thought?"

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-57542754-71/eureka-enginee...


One corrolary of this, if true, would be the uneven distribution of empathy will correlate with uneven distribution of analytic skill (viz: learning by doing).


Interesting but don't really see how this addresses the explanatory gap problem.


Corollary: social networks ungracefully degrade analytic ability.


So does this mean the more friends you have on Facebook, the dumber you are?


Do a study. Find a reasonable test for analytical skills (and maybe a couple other tests to keep the study's purpose unclear), then get a few thousand people to take it. One of the questions should be the order of magnitude number of Facebook friends you have.

If you're correct, you should see a correlation.


House was right.




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