The Problem with Empathy

Cities are becoming uniform. You can go from capital to capital, and, despite the distinct culture of surrounding areas, never feel like you’ve gone anywhere, because it’s all the same: skyscrapers on a skyline. Those aren’t the cities we like to visit. Beautiful cities are distinct; they display culture (something I define here). In a broader sense, they have character.

This is an example of a larger issue: the difference between unique, distinctive qualities and generic, general qualities. The terms “specifying” and “generalizing” each have their own connotations which are not what I’m going for. I’ll use the terms individualizing vs. generic-ifying.

Individualizing here means focusing on the details and specifics. Genericifying means focusing on what’s broadly true across all data points. Think of it as the difference between the union and the intercept in pie charts. If you’re a programmer, you can also think of genericification as abstraction.

Humans rarely connect emotionally to facts and figures. We connect to stories. You might not remember the contents of a recent class at school or meeting at work. But the plot line of a movie you really loved watching a year ago? You probably remember every beat. That is because stories are specific-ified. They’re about specific characters in a specific setting and their specific actions. Analytical commentary, by on the other hand, is about general, abstract principles. “Sally hugged her teddy bear” is more individualized than the statement, “It is very important to invest in a 401k”.

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This website allows you to “combine” people’s faces into a single face, for research purposes. As creepy as I know it is, I will use that site to demonstrate an point, because I think this is important.

We start with individual people, with all of their differences:


Now let’s see what happens when we combine each of their faces with those of two others:

less individual.png

Each faces has been combined with a pool of faces. You may have noticed that these faces are more attractive. That’s because their asymmetries and flaws have “averaged out”, making them more symmetrical and unblemished. We are moving closer to the average human.

The ultimate extension is bereft of unique character:

generic individual

At this point, all idiosyncrasies have been smoothed out. They have averaged out the point where you can no longer parse out individualistic features.

The top faces are individualized. The bottom face is generic-ified: the only thing you see is the features that are common among each sampled face.

Someone with the bottom face may be cast on TV as a “blank slate” the audience can cast themselves onto. Audience members do not have to worry about the difference between themselves and the character.

But in another way, the bottom face is also harder to empathize with. It could be anyone and also no one. The bottom is not distinguished. You empathize with them – but only with one person, not the sum of people who’s faces combined to make that.

By contrast, you probably don’t identify with all of the top faces. But you might identify with an idiosyncrasy of one. That is the root of empathy.

A smaller group is actually easier to relate to because you can notice individual character traits. When describing a larger group of people, by comparison, we are compelled to talk about what’s common among the group, which gets smaller as the group grows. The personification of a large, diverse group has only a single character trait: human.

People are more likely to give to charity when you only name a single person in need, rather than several. It’s called the identifiable victim effect. When you describe two victims, results get worse. If you describe dozens of victims, donations decline further. If you give a statistic covering thousands of people, donations are at their worst.

In other words: the more people are in need, the less aid we are willing to give. This is clearly the opposite of what we would want. The problem with empathy is that it doesn’t scale logically.

In case you have doubts about what I’m saying, I will trigger that empathy gap in you right now, even though you know that that’s what I’m intending:

problem with empathy

Tell the truth. Which of those frames did you feel is more important, the girl or the Republic of Generic? I don’t mean which do know is more important, which do you feel is more important?

If anyone ever tells me, “That’s horrific! How can you even draw that”, I’ll know which panel they’re talking about.  The less horrific one.

If you could only fix one of those situations, which would you? I know you’re not idiots. You all know that the death of 2% of 2 million people is worse than the abuse of one. But the girl’s story is gripping (at least as far as I am creative), and the political story is boring.

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.”

I don’t know who wrote that, but it is sometimes attributed to Stalin, only because he in particular knew how to take advantage of that fact.

Who was worse: Hitler or Stalin? I don’t know. But there’s a reason Hitler, not Stalin, is the go-to example of evil. There’s a reason Mein Kampf, not any of Stalin’s many books, are the go-to example of wicked literature. We all know which is mentioned more: concentration camps, not gulags; Fascism, not Communism; the holocaust, not the Great Purge – I could go on and on. Why?

It’s because historians and activists have done a much better job of individualizing awareness of the holocaust. You don’t just read from a book of dry statistics. In school I read Anne Frank’s and Elie Wiesel’s books. I had described to me in intimate detail the layout of the gas chambers. I’m better for it. I just wish I had also read The Gulag Archipelago, and been shown this. But I wasn’t.

Empathy doesn’t scale logically unless you work hard and intelligently to make it.

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So far, I have argued that empathy does not go far enough. But how could it be actively counterproductive?

Because economics has trade-offs, and politics has competing interests.

Consider for example the topic of taxes and social security. In the upcoming decades, demographic shifts will make social security massively more expensive, greatly increasing the tax burden.

In this political issue, like many others, the benefits are concentrated, while the costs are disperse. Individual people have their lives transformed by social security. The cost of social security, taxes, are spread out throughout the entire economy. Nobody likes higher taxes, but few people think of payroll taxes as of life importance. (It doesn’t help that the people helped by social security are elderly, very individualized people, whereas the people disproportionally hurt by taxes are the rich, as Democrats incessantly tell us, people already hard to empathize with.)

Put in other words: the benefits of social security are individualized, the costs are generic-ified.

Many government programs have this quality. This is why it is much harder to roll back government programs than to institute them. Social security is no exception. Thus, government spending is a zip tie.

The effect of individualizing vs generalizing is everywhere in our politics. it is why we tend to focus on freak events, like a mass shooting, terrorist attack, or other sudden tragedy, rather than large, important trends. The second-order-thinker knows that these events are less important than larger trends, and it is a mistake to harp on them. But the third-order-thinker knows that a focus on freak events, though misleading, is necessary to achieve political victories.

But you should never choose a political ideology because it appeals best to your empathy. To this day, my political beliefs run counter to my empathetic nature.

I have noticed, especially among left-wingers, an aversion to generalization. They say, “you’re generalizing” as if it’s a rebuttal. But all good social science is generalizations. Without generalization, we can’t say anything at all about how people behave! There will always be exceptions, but they don’t tell us the trend; that’s just the law of large numbers.

The notion that exceptions disprove a norm is too rampant, especially among social-constructivist types:

  • “People exist whose gendered behavior doesn’t align with their biologically assigned sex. Therefore, the entire concept of gender is a social construct!”
  • “Mixed-race people sometimes aren’t one specific race or the other, therefore there is no line between two races, making race a social construct!”
  • “An obscure tribe in Africa is matriarchal if you squint – therefore gender roles have no rooting in biology!”

It can be tempting to think this way. There is some truth in each of these statements. But in each case, the speaker is distracted by individualized stories, to the point where they miss the generic-ified truth.

This has an effect on social policy. In particular, minorities benefit because their difference from the majority make them more specific-ified.

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I have noticed that many comic artists have a lot to say about the topic of generif-ifying vs individualizing, maybe because that is a big part of their work.

Scott McGraw presents a bit of an anti-thesis to what I have laid out here, in his book, Making Comics. He goes into great detail about drawing with more detail vs less. He posits that Japanese manga authors make their protagonists less detailed, so as to be more like blank slates that the audience can project onto, whereas the bad guys are more detailed so as to create “other-ness” from the reader.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, talks about “visual persuasion”:

President Trump describes border security (a concept) with the word “wall” because you can visualize it. Our visual sense is our most persuasive path for influence. It would be weak persuasion to talk about border security as a concept without a visual.

If you can visualize something, it is specific-ified.

Finally, Bill Watterson, arguably the best comic strip artist of all time, said (paraphrasing) that in Calvin and Hobbes he gave Calvin’s dad a specific job because he thought things were funnier when they were specific rather than more general.

Now you know the single most important part of persuasion: keep it personalized. Tell stories, create imagery, and describe specific people, real or fictional. Of those means, we can overcome the problem with empathy.

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