Understanding a Putin or a Hitler
Is cognitive empathy a slippery slope to sympathy?
My evangelizing on behalf of cognitive empathy has brought a lot of interesting feedback from readers, including, last week, this question: “How would ‘cognitive empathy’ have helped leaders, such as Chamberlain… in dealing with Hitler?”
The answer is simple, at least in principle. Cognitive empathy—sometimes called “perspective taking”—is an attempt to understand what’s going on inside someone’s head. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in his notorious 1938 meeting with Hitler in Munich, failed to understand what was going on inside Hitler’s head. He thought Hitler’s territorial ambitions went no further than his demands of the moment—German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, aka "the Sudetenland”—and that giving Germany that land would therefore ensure “peace in our time.” Wrong.
The 1938 Munich meeting has become a famous symbol of “the folly of appeasement”—so famous that hawks sometimes try to win arguments with diplomacy-advocating doves by just saying “Remember Munich!” But the Munich meeting could just as well be thought of as a failure of cognitive empathy, since the successful use of cognitive empathy could have prevented the appeasement. So next time somebody tells me to quit trying to apply cognitive empathy to Vladimir Putin, I’ll thunderously say “Remember Munich!” and see if that shuts them up.
I’ve got a feeling it won’t. There’s something about saying you want to apply cognitive empathy to figures like Putin and Hitler that seems to rub people the wrong way.
Part of the problem is the word “empathy.” That word is usually used to mean not cognitive empathy but emotional empathy—“feeling their pain” or in other ways identifying with people’s feelings. Identifying with people’s feelings can in turn lead to sympathy for them and even for their cause. And who wants to start down a path that could lead to sympathy for Hitler and his cause? Or sympathy for Putin and his invasion of Ukraine?
A question you might reasonably ask me is, “Well if the word ‘empathy’ so often triggers people, why don’t you just ditch the term ‘cognitive empathy’?” Why not use a less provocative term, like ‘perspective taking’?”
It’s a good question. (Glad I asked it!) My answer has to do with how closely connected cognitive empathy and emotional empathy are. I think they’re so tightly linked, in so many ways, that it makes sense for their nomenclature to overlap.
For starters, I think the two kinds of empathy draw on some of the same mental equipment. And, relatedly, the two can interact in consequential ways. Sometimes, for example, emotional empathy can facilitate cognitive empathy—but sometimes it can shut it down.
And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—cognitive empathy can lead to emotional empathy. You can start out just trying to understand someone’s perspective—why they behave the way the do, or believe the things they believe—and wind up identifying with their feelings, even sympathizing with their cause.
So people aren’t crazy to bridle at the suggestion that we apply cognitive empathy to a Hitler or a Putin. Their fear that this could put us on a slippery slope toward sympathizing with criminals and their crimes isn’t wholly unfounded; the cognitive kind of empathy can lead to the emotional kind of empathy and to sympathy—under some circumstances.
Under what circumstances exactly? As it happens, a brisk comparison of Putin and Hitler is a good vehicle for starting to address that question. It’s also a good vehicle for starting to sketch out an algorithm of cognitive empathy—a procedure you can use to try to understand what’s going on in someone’s head.
I want to emphasize both appearances of the word ‘starting’ in that last paragraph. What follows is a rough draft—a first shot at something that, God willing, will be more fleshed out and more refined and more compelling by the time it becomes part of my book on cognitive empathy. Feel free to facilitate that improvement by opining on its shortcomings in the comments section.
OK, here goes. We’ll start with Putin and then move on to Hitler.