The Radical Power of Cognitive Empathy
Part one of an extended experiment in book-Substack synergy
Last week I announced, with some fanfare, that I’m launching an experiment in book-newsletter cross-fertilization. As I research and write a book about cognitive empathy, I’m going to be sharing some of the results with NZN readers—and the feedback I get will help shape future research and writing on the book.
Let’s get started. Below is a draft of the book’s introductory chapter—a draft that was part of the proposal I submitted to my publisher this summer. If you feel like offering feedback about it—an impulse I applaud!—you can share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Note: Owing to various considerations (including my wanting to stay in the good graces of my publisher), many elements of this experiment will be available only to paid newsletter subscribers. So non-paying subscribers will encounter a paywall part-way through the piece below. If at that point you feel like signing up, welcome aboard! But even if not, you’ll have gotten more of a sense of what this book is going to be about.
“Know your enemy” strikes most people as reasonable advice. After all, the alternative—“Be clueless about your enemy”—doesn’t sound like a recipe for victory.
“Know your friend” doesn’t encounter much resistance, either. It’s pretty obvious that friendships go better if the friends have some idea of what’s going on in each other’s heads.
And, once you’ve accepted the value of understanding your friends and enemies, it would seem only logical to extend the basic idea to points in between: Know your… adversary, rival, frenemy, acquaintance, ally, client, boss, whatever. Having a sense for how other people view the world—including, especially, how they perceive things you say and do—often helps, and it rarely hurts.
And yet… while almost everyone will accept in principle the value of seeing how other people see the world, the landscape of human affairs is littered with costly failures to do a good job of that.
Just ask marriage counselors who spend much of their time trying to help two people who you’d think would know each other pretty well by now develop a modicum of insight into why certain things they do drive the other person crazy.
Or ask historians. The runup to World War I was propelled by the belief of various nations that military preparations made by their adversaries for defensive purposes were offensive in intent—a misperception that led to counter-preparations that were in turn misperceived by the other side as offensive, leading the other side to make counter-preparations that… and so on.
Or ask Americans in “red” or “blue” territory. On both sides you’ll find some people who characterize people on the other side as driven by something close to unalloyed evil. Yet if you ask the allegedly evil people to explain the views that motivate them, you’ll often get a more mundane explanation that sounds pretty plausible.
Or ask yourself. How many times have you encountered a confusing interface—maybe a smartphone app, maybe just a road sign—that seemed to have been created by someone who had failed to put themselves in the shoes of the kind of people who would actually be trying to navigate via that interface? People like… you.
Or ask some people you never quite clicked with. No doubt you’ve sent emails hoping to get a response that you didn’t get—and unless you’re a truly extraordinary human being, on at least some of those occasions the problem was your failure to anticipate how your email, as formulated, would strike the other person.
There’s good news in the diversity of these examples—in the variety of areas where damage is done by our failure to see someone else’s point of view. It means that if we could improve this skill—get better at understanding how others view the world—the world could be a way, way better place.
This skill is sometimes called “cognitive empathy,” and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to people about it, it’s that I should start out by distinguishing it from the more familiar kind of empathy, “emotional empathy.” Not getting the distinction can lead to misunderstandings about what a cognitive empathy evangelist like me is advocating. In particular, you might think that I’m asking you to help save the world by becoming all warm and mushy and unconditional-lovey, when in fact that’s completely wrong except for the part about helping to save the world.
So, to be clear:
Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy that can be warm and mushy. It’s the “feel their pain” kind of empathy—identifying with the feelings of other people, even identifying so closely that you in a sense share some of their emotional experience.
Cognitive empathy—sometimes called “perspective taking”—is a colder kind of empathy. It does involve awareness of other people’s feelings; you can’t fully understand how people are processing the world unless you understand how they react to it emotionally. But cognitive empathy doesn’t entail identifying with their feelings, or sympathizing with these people. You don’t have to wish them well, or care about their welfare at all. This is an especially important fact when you’re applying cognitive empathy to enemies or rivals, which I recommend.
The bottom line of cognitive empathy is heightened predictive power. If you skillfully exercise cognitive empathy—do a good job of understanding how things look from the vantage point of someone—this will make you better at anticipating what that person will do under various circumstances. It won’t make you perfect at prediction; people are really complicated and hard-to-predict organisms. But it will make you better, and in the long run that will pay off for you and the world.
There are things in life that are simple but not easy. Like meditation. (Just pay attention to your breath!) Or getting rich in the stock market. (Buy low, sell high!) Cognitive empathy is one of those things; it’s easy in principle (Just put yourself in their shoes!) but can be very hard in practice. If it were easy in practice, the world would already by a super-great place (according to us cognitive empathy evangelists, at least).
I think it’s possible to lay out a clear road map to improvement—and, in a sense, a new kind of road map. We now know enough about the human mind to say why cognitive empathy is often hard—and why it’s sometimes so easy.