As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes in his recently published book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, our empathetic feeling for others—or at least for family members, friends, peers, or those we perceive to be victims—is a fast, involuntary response, much like envy or laughter. But empathy can sometimes lead to cognitive illusion.
Primatologist Frans de Waal has commented that feelings of empathy and associated behaviors of altruism may have evolved in order to prompt humans to take care of their children. But once a faculty has evolved, it can be used for other purposes than the ones shaped by evolution. Unfortunately, humans’ evolved tendency toward empathy and altruism can, under some circumstances, be applied to the wrong cause.
By Barbara Oakley, Guruprasad Madhavan, Ariel Knafo, and David Sloan Wilson