Cognitive Empathy

I have good friends and family who have told me (almost in a confidential tone) that they have tuned out of daily news (tv, radio, newspaper and social media) since Trump’s election. His antics and craziness must end one day and then we can return to normalcy.  Or so they hope.

I nod, but haven’t had the courage to tell them what I really think.

“Tuning out” in this day and age, at this moment of constitutional rot in the USA, is dangerous, self-centered and incomprehensible to me.


My generation (Baby Boomers), especially, owes it to future generations to be a role model for constructive engagement. After all, we’re in this challenging space in time together as a result of many of my generation’s actions.

Today, I bumped into the Mindful Resistance Project . This might be the answer.

Mindful (ˈmīn(d)fəl) n. Attentive, aware, careful.   –The Random House Dictionary of the English Language

The premise of the Mindful Resistance Project is that understanding and addressing the root causes of Trumpism is important—so important that we shouldn’t let Trump’s antics and outrages get in the way of this mission. To put a finer point on it:

1) We need to respond to each day’s news about Trump wisely—with moral clarity and forceful conviction but with awareness of the way overreactions to his provocations can play into his hands.

2) Meanwhile, we need to get a deeper understanding of the forces that led so many people to vote for Trump. These forces include globalization, demographic change, the loss of jobs through automation, and a political polarization that is grounded partly in the tribalizing tendencies of social media. This polarization is also grounded in what you might call the psychology of tribalism, in cognitive biases that afflict us all—so fostering an understanding of how our minds work will be among the goals of this project.

I immediately signed up for the weekly online newsletter. And I encourage you to read the premise behind the project here.


Robert Wright

Robert Wright, the mastermind behind the Mindful Resistance Project, is the author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal,” “The Evolution of God,” and, most recently, Why Buddhism Is True.” He is currently Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

And his most recent piece in The Intercept – How The New York Times Is Making War With Iran More Likelyis the breakthrough I’ve been waiting for, but haven’t seen, and I hope it circles the human consciousness worldwide. . . . quickly!

In a nutshell, he asserts that we need to develop our cognitive empathy skills when we examine global events — to understand the other’s perspective dispassionately — when we devise our response.  He dissects a recent article in the New York Times about Iran as an example, but I read it and thought about the New York Times’ reporting on Israel/Palestine.

Cognitive empathy — sometimes called perspective taking — is a matter of seeing someone’s point of view: understanding how they’re processing information, how the world looks to them. Sounds unexceptional, I know — like the kind of thing you do every day. But there are at least two reasons cognitive empathy deserves more attention than it gets.

First, because the failure to exercise it lies behind two of the most dangerous kinds of misperceptions in international affairs: misreading a nation’s military moves as offensive when the nation itself considers them defensive, and viewing some national leaders as crazy or fanatical when in fact they’ll respond predictably to incentives if you understand their goals.

The second reason cognitive empathy deserves more attention is that, however simple it sounds, it can be hard to exercise. Somewhat like emotional empathy, cognitive empathy can shut down or open up depending on your relationship to the person in question — friend, rival, enemy, kin — and how you’re feeling about them at the moment.

And, to make matters worse, there’s this: In Washington, lots of money is being spent to keep us from exercising cognitive empathy. Important institutions, most notably some we misleadingly call “think tanks,” work to warp our vision. And the reality-distortion fields they generate can get powerful when the war drums start beating.

All of the above . . . applies to our lack of understanding of the Israel/Palestine struggle.

Americans and our elected leaders understand this struggle from Israel’s perspective, not the Palestinians’.

We process the actions of both sides from Israel’s perspective, not the Palestinians’.  And to be fair, many so-called solidarity activists with Palestine process the actions of both sides from the Palestinians’ perspective without any cognitive empathy for Israel.

This is a very important piece of the puzzle that I’ve been working on — and now I need to learn much more about cognitive empathy.

Thank you Robert Wright.


Filed under Media, Peaceful, People, Video

4 responses to “Cognitive Empathy

  1. Richard Baldwin Cook

    Thanks for introducing me to Robert Wright. I read his peace in the intercept, in which he takes apart a New York Times article.

    Cognitive empathy? Sure. Make sense Although I’m not sure we need a brand new term 4 analyzing interest from the perspective of all of the interested. But Robert Wright does a good job of highlighting it and advancing the need to keep doing it.

    • I don’t know if it’s a new term ….. but it certainly is new for me. I want to learn much more about cognitive empathy. My sense is that it’s much tougher than it appears.

  2. Artie Alfreds

    Trump is low hanging fruit for criticism. I moved away from mainstream media ( though I can handle it, with a degree of skepticism) in 1965.

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