The need for cognitive empathy to avoid war

Robert Wright writes that the lack of cognitive empathy is one of the major drivers that leads Americans to support one disastrous war after another. He distinguishes cognitive empathy from the more familiar emotional empathy and says that some so-called ‘think tanks’ in the US and major media like the New York Times are undermining whatever minimal cognitive empathetic impulses people might have and are thus making wars more likely

That power is called cognitive empathy, and it’s not what you might think. It doesn’t involve feeling people’s pain or even caring about their welfare. Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy that accomplishes those things. 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.

Consider, as a case study, a recent piece about Iran in the New York Times.

It was a front-page story — the lead article in the physical edition of the paper — written by Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner, and Anne Barnard. The headline, in the top-righthand corner of the front page, read, “Iran Building Up Militias in Syria to Menace Israel.”

Just about any expert on Iran would agree that, strictly speaking, this headline is accurate. However, a number of experts would add something that these three reporters failed to add: From Iran’s point of view, the purpose of menacing Israel may be to prevent war; having the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can be a way of keeping both Israel and the U.S. from attacking Iran.

You may have trouble understanding why Iran would fear an unprovoked attack. Most Americans don’t think of their country as wantonly aggressive and most Israelis don’t think of their country that way, either. But Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran — and eight years ago assassinated Iranian scientists on Iranian soil. And America, for its part, has repeatedly signaled that it reserves the right to bomb Iran and that it would stand by Israel in the case of war with Iran.

This is the most dangerous aspect of the propaganda system in the US that is maintained by the so-called mainstream US media. It depends on its carefully cultivated (but false) reputation for objectivity to usually peddle not outright and easily detectable falsehoods (though the blatant lies about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction were a notable exception) but much more on presenting just part of the truth and thus enabling people to draw incorrect inferences. They also tend to only quote sources that present one side of the picture, like the extremely pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Institute for the Study of War, both hotbeds of neoconservative thinking.

Wright recommends reading an analysis by Vali Nasr to correct this imbalance.

Nasr writes that “the Israeli and U.S. militaries pose clear and present dangers to Iran.” He explains how this threat, along with hostile Arab neighbors and other perceived threats, has given rise to Iran’s policy of “forward defense.” He writes: “Although Iran’s rivals see the strategy of supporting nonstate military groups” — in Syria and Lebanon — “as an effort to export the revolution, the calculation behind it is utterly conventional.” Iran’s foreign policy, Nasr explains, is driven by national interest more than revolutionary fervor and “is far more pragmatic than many in the West comprehend.”

It is an excellent article by wright, well-worth reading in full.


  1. Holms says

    …having the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can be a way of keeping both Israel and the U.S. from attacking Iran.

    Very much like North Korea’s nuclear program.

  2. says

    The US should be considered as a likely belligerent against any country it has gone to war with since 1776. Which is a lot.We’re scary people and we have nuclear weapons.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … major media like the New York Times are undermining whatever minimal cognitive empathetic impulses …


    Or should I have stricken the previous adjective instead?

  4. wereatheist says

    At least, there’s not too much empathy, cognitive or otherwise, wasted on Tha Jew.

  5. says

    Wright’s message is precisely my primary reason for concerns over the gutting of our State Department.
    The career diplomats are paid to understand—and share—precisely this kind of analysis.
    That they have been, mostly, ignored in recent decades is a matter of the political agendas of elected officials, not the diplomats themselves.
    North Korea is a perfect case in point. North Korea poses zero nuclear threat to anyone. North Koreans are not suicidal. Full stop.
    Marcus, @ No. 3, is precisely correct, we are the bully on the world’s stage. We have a massive nuclear arsenal and we, uniquely, have used it.

  6. says

    The United States gets to claim it’s not imperial because its not as blatantly ruling other nations like previous empires did. However, you just have to look at how it treats any country that steps out of line -- Iraq and Iran are the most obvious, but look at Venezuela and how there has even been talk about attacking them despite what the hell threat do they present to the US at all except not allowing American companies to plunder their resources?

    Don’t forget military bases. The US has almost 800 bases in over 70 countries (source: ). That’s not something a non-empire does.

  7. rjw1 says

    I’m not sure that ‘cognitive empathy’ is the reason for the virulent anti-Iran propaganda, Iran is the only major nation in the ME that hasn’t been reduced to blood-stained chaos or crushed by the Israel-US axis. The anti-Iran propagandists understand the Iranian motives, but they deliberately misrepresent them.

    Where the concept might be applicable is America’s total inability to perceive the level of resistance to US imperialism in those nations that they have invaded.

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