Empathy is more valuable than critical thinking on people issues

Dylann Roof Empathy

Dylann Roof Empathy

Whenever something like the Charleston shooting happens, there’s a million and one narratives that pop up all over the place (thank you, social media and ease of e-mail) related to what exactly the problem is. I myself am guilty of this; I wrote this whole thing about Newtown back in the day, which maybe 100 people have ever read. Now there’s a debate on Psychology Today about whether the problem is anti-intellectualism or self-centeredness. In short, is the problem in these situations a problem of empathy, or a problem of critical thinking?

In reality, those two ideas probably don’t need to be pitted against each other. Oftentimes, they’re not even mutually exclusive. Many people can think critically and be empathetic towards others; that’s part of the whole problem with divisive viewpoints on a given issue: everyone is different, so whenever you generalize, you’re not hitting all marks properly. But at the same time, generalization is sometimes the only tool we have! Argh.

Here’s a section of note from the guy arguing that empathy is the issue:

“Evolutionarily speaking, as biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, we think in terms of in-group and out-group. As long as we are defensive with our group affiliations (racial, religious, national, gender), hatred will be inevitable.  Defensiveness occurs on the individual, synaptic level (the amygdala’s reactions to threat), but is propagated and reinforced by sociocultural forces that surround us—from movies and pop culture to neighborhoods to, yes, social media.”


I agree wholeheartedly with that. And now…

He continues:

More than a gap in the capacity to think critically, we have failures of empathy that puts walls between us.  On social media as in life, many people would rather be “right than related.” The political parties are polarized; the middle has been eroded, as well as the ability to compromise and empathize. As the saying goes, “the world is divided into people who are right.”

The world is divided into people who are right. 

Think about that. You been in a discussion recently? On social media? In real life? Wherever? You probably feel that way a little bit, right? And even when you absolutely know that you’re right, it can seem impossible — and super frustrating — to try and convince another person of what you’re thinking. They just won’t budge! They’re so obstinate/stupid!

I think this all the time about people: at work, in my personal relationships, etc. The thing is, they’re not stupid (well, they might be) or obstinate (ditto). Here’s the problem: it’s all in-group/out-group. That’s everything. That’s how the brain works and organizes, honestly. So you’re in some groups and you’re out of others. This is why new jobs are tough if you have good ideas but “it’s always been done this way.” This is why in-laws are hard; a family is a tribe. Bringing in a new person, however loved they may be, always has hiccups.


Sometimes I think a lot of this comes back to the algorithm bubble. So much of what we discover and learn these days is based on algorithms — Google, Facebook, etc. Those algorithms want us to keep coming back, so they feed us stuff we want to see. As such, it’s very hard to find content that teaches you a brand new point of view on something. So you have generations getting their content and news and intel from algorithm-driven processes, and those generations will have a hard time really embracing another set of views.

That, right there, is an empathy problem.

I hate it when people discuss “critical thinking” because I think that’s a myth. I consider myself a person of above-average intelligence (not very much so, but somewhat) and I’ve never really had a job that required any degree of “critical thinking.” Jobs are predominantly digital paper-pushing and then you run around telling everyone, “OMG, Stan, I am sooo busy because that’s the easiest way to justify the digital paper-pushing to yourself.

That’s not critical thinking.

So my point there is pretty basic: we’ve kind of been eroding “critical thinking” (with the exception of a few industries and geographic locales) for years now, and I don’t think that really resonates within people problems: mass shootings, blow-ups at work, etc. There are critical thinking declines in other countries — think “Brain Drain” theories — and Charleston shootings don’t happen in those societies.

Here’s what I think is the unique problem of America, IMHO (I jacked this from an e-mail I wrote my friends last week):

  • Relatively permissive gun laws/back channels to get guns
  • Generally poor mental health coverage / lack of understanding of “what” and “why” mental health is relevant
  • Large tendency to assign every situation to a political viewpoint
  • Poor education system
  • Growing inequality
  • High reported rates of loneliness

Sad, right?

I always think we chase the wrong aspects as a society. We care so much about IQ, right? What about CQ? We care so much about big, strong leaders, right? What about ones that really get what leadership is?

What if we stopped thinking about things the way they’ve always been and started thinking about things in the way we want them to be? And what if, to get there, we tried to see the world through someone else’s eyes for a second? That’s basically empathy, no? That seems to be what’s lacking.


Ted Bauer

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