Empathy and Risk Assessment

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I only just got to last week’s New Yorker. In it, I discovered a remarkable, thought-provoking essay by superstar psychologist Paul Bloom. It’s called “The Baby in the Well: The case against empathy,” and it does, indeed, make a compelling case against empathy.

As Bloom puts it: “Empathy has some unfortunate features–it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”

For me, the essay is at its most compelling when Bloom shows examples of how empathy can lead us astray in evaluating risk. Take vaccines. Sometimes–very, very rarely, but occasionally–a child will have a serious (or even possibly fatal) reaction to a vaccine. It’s natural to have empathy for that family and that child. And that empathy–and the power of a single story with a name and a face–might inspire us to take up arms against vaccines, to keep our own children from getting them and to encourage other parents to follow suit. The trouble is that a world without vaccines is one in which lots of children will die. Vaccines absolutely save many more lives than they take. But the individual injuries they may occassionally (again: very rarely) cause tug at our heart strings more than the abstract notion of the lives that they’re invisibly saving. As Bloom puts it: “…you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.”

Bloom goes on: “There’s a larger pattern here. Sensible policies have benefits that are merely statistical but victims who have names and stories.”

As I’ve been on book tour this spring, I’ve spent some time trying to debunk common myths about genetically modified food, so Bloom’s comments resonate with me. Though there is no reliable evidence linking GMOs to human health problems, activist groups and self-styled natural health “gurus” are constantly saying otherwise. Given the rampant spread of this misinformation, it’s not hard to see why the public has turned against GMOs.  It’s a lot easier to get worked up about hypothetical but personal risks (say, to your children or your neighbor’s children) than real but distant-seeming benefits (such as increased productivity for farmers or improved food security).

In any case, the point isn’t that empathy itself is necessarily bad–just that it’s not always a sound basis for formulating public policy. Bloom’s essay also helps illuminate some of the challenges involved in communicating risk and explain why fighting for science-based policy can sometimes seem like such an uphill battle.

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