My review: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom


Empathy is up there as a buzz word, probably right below innovation and right on top of transformation. Typically empathy is framed as a positive trait, akin to morality. In his contrarian book, Bloom challenges this notion, and argues that empathy actually leads to poor decision-making. Bloom defines empathy as the unintentional inclination to feel what others are feeling, specifically differentiating from cognitive empathy (the ability to guess what others are thinking and understand their motives) and compassion (the desire for good outcomes for others). 

I expected at least one of his arguments to centre around skepticism that we are actually accurate when we project thoughts and feelings on others. What right do we have to make decisions for other people based on projected assumptions? But Bloom did not call into question the accuracy of empathy. Instead, the focus of his argument is that empathy causes emotional decision-making which may not take into account the whole spectrum of consequences. O

One of his most effective points was that being overwhelmed by negativity may paralyze one in a way they are not able to act at all, leading one to turn away and act in a way that may actually be amoral or lacking in compassion. It all makes sense: this is why I couldn't make it as a doctor-wannabe and why I'm so attracted to the optimism of technophiles!

I may be mad / I may be blind / I may be viciously unkind / But I can still read what you’re thinking 

Annie Lennox (on negative effects of empathy?)