Bridging the Empathy Gap: An Interview with J. D. Trout

teal-troutRenowned author and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has said of J. D. Trout’s latest book, The Empathy Gap, that it is “important and engaging,” and on both counts I agree. But I would also add one more word: sensible

The topics Trout addresses–bias, free will, decision making, empathy–are not prepackaged, self-explanatory bits of knowledge, and understanding them in light of larger social and policy issues is an even harder undertaking.  But Trout, with a sensible approach that never wallows in theory too long, nor jumps to practice too quickly, manages to imbue these topics with rare transparency. 

Reading this book is like having a discussion with an accomplished philosopher who is tired of philosophy being viewed as a static, insulated exercise–he sees the applications to our personal and social lives, and he wants you to see them as well. Most importantly, he sees a gap between where we stand as individuals and what the world needs from us all, and he’s writing not just to explain it, but to help us bridge it.

J. D. Trout made time to talk with Neuronarrative about his new book, the psychological biases that afflict us, and how to rebuild the human mind, among other topics.

Tell us what your new book The Empathy Gap is about.

The Empathy Gap describes the ever-expanding emotional distance between people in our 21st century megademocracy, and how we can bridge this gap efficiently and empathically by building science-based policies. When we try to make these policy changes, however, we get ambushed by unconscious cognitive biases, biases of discounting, anchoring, availability, and overconfidence, to name a few. We can’t overcome these biases by acts of the will; they are mostly design features of humans. So we also need strategies to counteract the mental influences of our Pleistocene past, like intuition, gut reaction and folk belief.

empathy-gap-front-2The central problem of The Empathy Gap arises from our country’s greatest strength. The U.S. is home to people of many ethnicities and religions, personal styles, skin tones, and job descriptions. We are a country of different neighborhoods, with different public schools of widely varying resources. There are enclaves of great wealth and pockets of utter destitution. Combined with the seductive American myth that free will gives us the power to overcome all circumstances, these differences make it easier for us to feel that people get what they deserve, and harder to feel our common vulnerability.

In view of these empathic frailties, decent policy-making must place social initiatives beyond the reach of our wavering personal conviction. After all, the important point is that people in need get help, not that we feel good helping them. The Empathy Gap supplies a rich sampling of these policies, from estate tax and parole to health care and traffic laws. And it also advocates for a new organ of government to vet social policy proposals, and to monitor existing policies – a House Committee on Social Science, to balance the physical and natural science responsibilities of the existing House Committee on Science & Technology.

There’s been growing interest in whether we’re genetically hard-wired to be one way or another – inclined toward altruism or selfishness, for example. Some argue that we’re endowed with ‘moral minds’ and others argue quite the opposite. What’s your position on this?  Do we start life with functioning rudiments of empathy, or does it have to be learned the hard way?

The evidence leaves little doubt that we are endowed with powerful capacities of natural sympathy – the ability to empathize with others. Consider the way our sociality is rooted in the neurophysiology of imitation. In the human brain’s anterior cingulate, just behind the frontal lobes, are “pain neurons” that fire when, for example, we are poked with a needle. But these cells have an additional and curious feature: they also fire when we watch someone else getting poked. This happens when people see pictures of other people in uncomfortable positions, and even when we are asked to imagine it. Whether we imagine ourselves or others in painful positions, the same well-travelled neural networks get activated, which include the anterior cingulated cortex, the parietal operculum, and the anterior insula.

This subtle suite of emotional reactions is hard to explain if we had no interest in the suffering of others. While there is now powerful evidence that we use the same circuitry to process our own pain and that of others, these “empathy neurons,” or “Dalai Llama neurons,” as neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran calls them, don’t dissolve the barrier between self and others. (After all, we don’t feel the same kind of discomfort we observe.) Instead, they bridge it.

But that is only half of the story; genuine empathy is oriented toward change. When we see the suffering of others, we don’t just feel it; we have the impulse to correct it. Whether we succeed has a lot to do with how much machinery there is around you to support your empathic actions. So, while humans have an empathic capacity, it is not always exercised in equal measure by all people all of the time. This aspect of empathy is learned. In fact, I think to an impartial observer it would look like the particular brand of capitalist democracy developed in the U.S. had to be crafted to suppress most of those natural sentiments, even though they are abundantly evident in other countries.

text-blurb_31Look at the theoretical models that attempt to justify it. Some political philosophers appeal to life in the state of nature even though there is no evidence of how we would behave as social isolates; we have always lived in communities. Most economists adopt the idealization that humans are optimally rational. They concede that real people fall short but insist that all sciences use idealizations. Behavioral economics has established that in the many areas of consumption there is really nothing to the economists’ assumptions. Their idealizations are too wild to be useful. 

In fact, our cognitive frailties are deep, habitual, predictable, increasingly well-understood, and at least arguably, crucial to good economic theorizing about rationality. There is perhaps no better evidence that the American culture of rugged individualism suppresses the empathic impulse that, when we ask Americans what explains wealth or poverty, the majority says character, but when in capitalist democracies of Europe, the majority of citizens say luck. These are the countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden – whose policies protect the most vulnerable. (Notice, too, that they are culturally much more homogenous than the U.S., perhaps making it easier to empathize.)


I know that you’ve done a lot of work to understand our psychological biases, like the ‘anchoring bias’ that leads us to latch onto false information even if we see proof that it’s false (hence the success of negative campaigning). Tell us about some of the biases you’ve studied and how they affect our thinking.

What’s interesting about anchoring is that whether the information is false is neither here nor there; instead we anchor on information that should be irrelevant to our estimates. Researchers have found the irrational influence of anchoring in such places as real estate pricing and sentencing recommendations. And anchoring has the same influence on experts as it does on novices.

I am most interested in the overconfidence and hindsight biases, because the processes that generate them are at the center of scientific theorizing and yet responsible for crippling errors in the history of science. Roughly put, the overconfidence bias is the tendency to overestimate the probability that you are correct, and the hindsight bias is the tendency to suppose about some fact that you “knew it all along” or that you could have predicted some event.

In the philosophy of science, I have also developed a line of research that traces the psychology of explanation to its cognitive, even physiological, roots. I focus on the sense of understanding that dominates scientific theorizing, and that so many scientists and laypeople require of good explanations. When people decide on whether or not to accept an explanation, they often do so by subjectively assessing the sense of understanding it conveys to us, the feeling of coherence it carries. And people often report anxiety in its absence.

William James described “that peculiar feeling of unease” that gets discharged when you offer a satisfying explanation. The problem is, our sense of understanding isn’t a very reliable cue to genuine understanding, or to good explanation for that matter; it doesn’t track the truth. In fact, just as Descartes claimed that there were no “certain signs” distinguishing waking from dreaming life, there are no certain signs distinguishing reliable and unreliable senses of understanding. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Haldane are just three scientists who expressed great confidence in their belief that they had a sense of understanding that had high fidelity. And overconfidence can cause you to be prematurely dismissive of alternative hypotheses.

ephjcoverThe reliance on subjective, “intuitive” appraisals of the evidence was a centerpiece of traditional epistemology, and may still have a legitimate place in our theories, at least for some isolated corners of our intellectual lives. But the theory of knowledge has really benefited from the expansion of research on cognitive biases. A few years back, Michael Bishop and I published a philosophy book (Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment) on the nature of knowledge, in which we asked how philosophers who knew so little of scientific psychology could presume to make recommendations about how humans ought to reason (psychologists seemed to like this book a lot).

True, epistemologists could respond that we should try to generate true rather than false beliefs, but who would disagree with that? You may as well recommend that we buy low and sell high. The real challenge is to give good advice that is action-guiding. Against a philosophical tradition that lionized our intuitions – some of them the products of discredited heuristics – we argued for a theory of epistemic excellence: Epistemic excellence consists in the efficient allocation of cognitive resources to robustly reliable reasoning strategies, all applied to significant problems.  We had more fun writing the book than authors ever should. But in this case it was fitting, because we wanted to write a book that was fun to read.

textblurb51We proposed that epistemologists take a lesson from the folks who brought us predictive linear models – handy little formulas or forecasting customs that can outperform clinical diagnosticians, college admissions committees, and parole boards, on predictive tasks right in their expert wheelhouses. These models are more accurate (and cheaper) than our existing decision-making methods, but their accuracy doesn’t depend on subjective appraisals of “fit with the evidence”, compatibility with our intuitions, or elaborate theorizing about causal mechanisms. Instead, you just plug in the numbers and go. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right to apply the rule, but that is precisely the point: our intuitions are often unreliable. Sometimes doing right doesn’t feel good.

Some philosophers liked the book, especially a younger breed of philosophers who also had been wondering whether these heavily-worked intuitions were really just artifacts of one’s culture, class, and personality, and not the harbingers of truth. A new movement called Experimental Philosophy was underfoot, and asked some of the same questions about the status of supposedly eternal or immutable intuitions in philosophy. Among other activities, experimental philosophers looked at people from different cultures and social classes to see if they shared the professional, English-speaking philosophers’ view about the nature of knowledge. In a word, they don’t. English-speaking epistemologists, too, form a demographic. So we are left wondering just how general the lessons of traditional epistemology really are.


Since we’re faced with these biases on a daily basis (many times a day for most of us, and the outcomes aren’t always exactly positive), what’s a biased human mind to do?  Can we overcome ourselves? 

That’s exactly how I would put the puzzle. We can overcome our biases, but not in the way you might think. Self-control doesn’t work. Only policies that regulate our behavior from a distance and control our options will do the trick. In The Empathy Gap, I call these Outside Strategies. One psychologist who studies habitual behavior estimates that half of our actions are automatic. Great examples of systematic error come from the field of psychology in which I have worked – speech perception.

text-blurb_3Here is how one Outside Strategy goes. Our language processing is so automatic that our failures are very predictable. We make many more mistakes – mostly confusions – on words that have lots of similar sounding neighbors, and this little piece of psychological knowledge could save thousands of people from disturbing (and sometimes fatal) prescription errors at the pharmacy. Apparently, pharmaceutical companies prefer drug names that begin with the Z sound, which is perceived by the public as pleasingly “science-y”. So that name-space has become very crowded. And naming four drugs Zocor, Zofran, Zoloft, and Zomig is like building a road that dumps out into oncoming traffic. No sooner do you complete the first syllable, and all nodes with the same initial sound get activated. With that amount of competition, you are much more likely to complete the sequence incorrectly. When your pharmacist makes that confusion, you may not shake that migraine, but you’ll reduce your cholesterol. I will leave it to you to check the effects of confusing Ziac and Ziagen.

But there is a solution, and it is an outside strategy. Rather than training pharmacists more, or making them accountable, or reminding them to concentrate, we can simply space the drug names out more – make them more remote linguistic neighbors – and there are now drug naming councils that do just that. Many of the best policy strategies improve behavior not by teaching people, but by improving their options.


If you could redesign the human mind from the ground up, what’s one major improvement you’d be certain to include?

Whenever I imagine redesigning the mind, I am humbled by the problems facing civil engineers when they tried to gain farm and residential land by straightening streams. When you channelize a river, you can also produce upstream flooding and downstream erosion. It is hard to predict the effects of changes in a complex system like the mind.

But as long as you are allowing me a scientific fantasy…  I would make our sensory modalities, and our perception of space and time, far more flexible. If we could change the scale of perception at will – as though we were turning a dial — then we could actually observe social movements even though they are spread out in space and time, casually inspect the slow evolution of learning, and peer into the fast transitions of subatomic magnitudes – without a lot of cumbersome theory. As a result, it would be much easier to isolate the causes of, and so to understand, labor struggles, speciation, demographic shifts, and so much more.


If you could make one significant contribution to the human mind as it stands, what would it be?

I would try to get people to thrill at numbers as much as they do at stories. Stephen J. Gould is widely credited with the statement that humans are the primates who tell stories. But stories are flabby tools for communication, allowing us to weave together contradictory evidence and serve as a repository for all sorts of psychological distortions. Our drive to understand prompts the search for a coherent narrative about our world, and the need for coherence leads to great story-telling abilities. But these stories are more about comfort than truth.

Numbers don’t excite people nearly as much as narratives. But numbers represent dimensions of humanity that could never be accurately comprehended without them. We know what it means to have a hungry child at our dinner table. But how can a story convey the suffering of 400,000 children in the Sudan, the anxiety of fifty million people in the U.S. without health insurance, or the joy of tens of thousands of children in successful kindergarten classes? Numbers promise to make these complex problems cognitively tractable.  But in order to grab and keep an audience, we need methods that tell a story with those numbers. We need to look at a graph and see the heartbeats behind the data points. Tufte’s work on the visual display of quantitative information is brilliant in this respect, but we need to do a lot more work on how to represent quantitative information with dimensions that make its human significance easily accessible.


Last question: who is your favorite influential thinker from any point in history and why?

david-humeIt has to be David Hume. My official philosophical attachments pit me against his empiricist doctrines, but I have always admired the way he combines sophisticated argumentation and expansive humanity. His optimism about the power of thoughtful action is authentic and contagious. Nearly three centuries ago, in the Introduction to his Treatise, he envisioned the power of social experiments: “Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.” I believe modern social science is proving Hume correct.

And he seems a gem of a person, with a real sense of proportion about what matters to a good life. In the Conclusion of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume says “How little is requisite to supply the necessities of nature? And in a view to pleasure, what comparison between the unbought satisfaction of conversation, society, study, even health and the common beauties of nature, but above all the peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct: What comparison, I say, between these, and the feverish, empty amusements of luxury and expense? These natural pleasures, indeed, are really without price; both because they are below all price in their attainment, and above it in their enjoyment.”

Yeah, you have to love Hume. The same combination of logical rigor and profound humanity is no doubt at the bottom of my admiration for a number of contemporary scholars – like economists Amartya Sen and Partha Dasgupta, and psychologists Robyn Dawes, Baruch Fischhoff, and Paul Slovic, to name just a few – who apply quantitative methods in the service of human well-being. Taken together, it is enough to make you hold out hope for a new Enlightenment.



Filed under Interviews

3 responses to “Bridging the Empathy Gap: An Interview with J. D. Trout

  1. Great article! Thank you. I will be buying the book:)

  2. Gary Olson

    Could you send along your e-mail address?

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