Americans are a generous people, yet one-in-five American children live in poverty. Most of us want to be charitable … but we’re human. (More)

The Empathy Gap, Part I – Willpower and Weakness

This week Morning Feature will consider The Empathy Gap, a 2009 book by J.D. Trout. Today we discuss what cognitive science reveals about human willpower and human weakness. Tomorrow we’ll discuss why and how to include that science in public policy. Saturday we’ll conclude with responses to common libertarian and conservative criticisms.

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy and psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. His chief interests include the nature of scientific explanation, the psychology of human judgment, scientific realism and intellectual progress, and social/political issues bearing on well-being. He also writes “The Greater Good” blog at Psychology Today.

Good Wishes: Empathy and Distance

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote “Hell is full of good wishes and desires,” giving rise to the more familiar proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” GivingUSA’s report on philanthropy shows that we are a generous people, and Americans give more to private charities than do citizens in Western Europe. Yet one-in-five American children live in poverty, and the U.S. poverty rate – currently about 15% – is over twice that of France. Those numbers don’t seem to make sense.

It’s not that we lack empathy. ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where the cast build a home for a needy family, draws millions of viewers every week. Yet as Dr. Trout notes, empathy has its limits. While almost all of us would help a hungry child on our doorstep, a hungry child in Pine Ridge, South Dakota is no less in need. Dr. Trout cites studies that show our empathy drops off quickly as a function of geographic, social, and temporal distance. Simply: we’re far more likely to empathize effectively with people nearby, people like ourselves, and with immediate problems.

The limits of empathy include even ourselves, or more specifically, our future selves. Most of us know we should save for our retirement, yet too few of us save enough. We engage in behaviors that feel good now, even though we know they may harm us later. We undervalue long-term opportunities, and overvalue short-term discomfort or inconvenience.

That “we” includes almost all of us. As Dr. Trout notes, most of human evolution precedes our ability to preserve and store food. We were a nomadic species: gathering, hunting, and moving. Our brains evolved to recognize and solve problems in the Here-and-Now far better than the There-and-Then. Indeed we use different parts of the brain for problem-solving, depending on the immediacy of the problem. The parts of the brain that solve problems in the Here-and-Now include our pleasure centers, so we get a greater sense of satisfaction from folding the laundry than we do from making a deposit in a retirement account.

But you’re different….

Of course, those scientific studies didn’t include you and probably don’t describe you. You care about hungry children, even if they aren’t on your doorstep, and even if they are different from you. You plan for the future, and you’re willing to defer short-term satisfaction for long-term goals. You’re a better-than-average planner. You’re probably also a better-than-average driver, a better-than-average parent, and better-than-average in your occupation. And I can say that with 90% confidence …

… because studies show about 90% of us think we’re better-than-average. There are some exceptions. For example, we underestimate our ability to solve unfamiliar, complex problems. But by and large, most of us believe we’re like the children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. That includes not just drivers, college students, and parents, but CEOs and stock market analysts.

Overconfidence is just one of many human frailties. We’re also prone to hindsight bias, the belief that past events arose from knowable and even inevitable causes. We’re not very adept at estimating the probabilities of events, especially if presented with vivid stories of statistical outliers. Our moral decisions vary depending on the words used in asking a question, and passing states of emotional arousal. We tend to “leave well enough alone” – status quo bias – even when “well enough” isn’t.

We also anchor estimates on data that are clearly irrelevant. Dr. Trout describes one study where researchers spun a numbered wheel, then asked subjects to guess the percentage of African countries in the United Nations. If the wheel stopped on 65, the median estimate of such countries was 45%. If the wheel stopped at 10, the median estimate was 25%. Subjects knew the number on the wheel was completely random, and had no relationship to African geography. Yet the anchoring effect was evident anyway.

Now that you know….

Obviously, now that you know about these human frailties, you can overcome them. You just take a moment, think it through, and voila! Except we don’t. They are invisible functions of our biology and culture. We can no more overcome these human frailties with willpower than we can use willpower to sprout wings and fly.

Americans are especially convinced that willpower matters. Polls show more than half of us believe poor people lack motivation, and could help themselves if they really tried. We are more likely than Asians to discount the role of chance in the opportunities we have, and the roles of community and environment in the decisions we make. We believe willpower matters because we experience making decisions for ourselves, even if many of those ‘decisions’ are habitual and even when we dislike our routines. We rank driving to work second only to work itself as the least-pleasurable activities in our daily lives … yet we ‘decide’ to live in neighborhoods that require us to drive, and respond positively to car ads that talk about the ‘freedom’ of driving.

Yes, we do make some decisions, and we make some decisions well. But as Dr. Trout writes:

Free will is a bit like a sheep. There really is an animal there, but it’s amazingly skinny when you’ve shaved all the wool off.

As we’ll see tomorrow, policies that rely on human willpower to overcome our human frailties impose serious and even deadly costs. Good government requires us to plan for ordinary people to be … ordinary people.


Happy Thursday!