Sunday March 05, 2017

The case against empathy

In his new book, Paul Bloom argues that Virtual Reality doesn't actually help us empathize.

In his new book, Paul Bloom argues that Virtual Reality doesn't actually help us empathize.

Listen 9:18

Recently on Spark, we've explored virtual reality's potential to deliver deeper, firsthand experiences that can foster empathy. For example, with refugees or homeless people.   

Paul Bloom thinks that's a "bad idea".

347 paul bloom

Paul Bloom (Greg Martin)

He's a Professor of Psychology at Yale University and the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

Paul acknowledges that VR has a lot of powerful features.

"It can provide perhaps a more immersive experience than just about anything else," says Paul. "But as an empathy tool, it's kind of a disaster."

Paul explains that the real experiences of a refugee or homeless person go far deeper than the perceptual experience.

"Pretending to be a refugee, because you put a helmet on your head and you are wandering around a camp, gives you no idea what it's like to be a refugee because part of being a refugee means having no home."

Paul says VR can actually be "dangerously" misleading.

"If I leave the house and leave my wallet at home, that's not what it's like to be poor," he says. "I think the mistake is extrapolating from the brief perceptual experience to a life."

Paul argues that VR's focus on empathy is actually a problem, and our empathy often directs us in the wrong direction because it's biased, and can be "weaponized."

"We're much better moral decision makers when we don't apply our empathy, but instead use compassion, rationality and reason."

So what to do?

Paul says we should continue to experiment with VR, but be aware of its limits.

"You're actually much better off with a very ancient virtual reality tool that you can hold in your hand called a book, which will give you a much broader perspective."