Logical Thinking Seems to Negate Empathy

Picture: Grindilu (CC)

Disinfonaughts are likely to be familiar with Jon Ronson’s book “The Psychopath Test”. In a nutshell the acclaimed journalist discovered evidence that suggested being a psychopath is useful if you want to survive in the cold logical world of management and business. (Listen to Jon Ronson on the Disinfocast – ed.) Now PopSci reports on evidence that empathy (a quality missing from the mind of a psychopath) is difficult to maintain when processing purely logical thoughts:

A new study published in NeuroImage found that separate neural pathways are used alternately for empathetic and analytic problem solving. The study compares it to a see-saw. When you’re busy empathizing, the neural network for analysis is repressed, and this switches according to the task at hand.

Anthony Jack, an assistant professor in cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University and lead author of the study, relates the idea to an optical illusion. You can see a duck or a rabbit in the image, but not both at the same time. This limitation to what you can see is called perceptual rivalry. Jack’s new study takes this concept beyond visual perception, and investigates how the brain processes situations. It found separate neural networks for social/emotional processing and for logical analysis.

The study took magnetic resonance images of 45 college students as they were presented with problems involving social issues or physics. The MRIs showed that separate regions of the brain activated and deactivated according to the type of problem.

Finding a balance between the use of the two neural pathways could give insight into treatment for neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, according to Jack.


If you think about it logically you might get the feeling this study is onto something.

Nick Margerrison

I write on Disinfo for fun, I've been a fan of the company for years.

In the real world I'm a freelance TV/radio presenter. I've worked for LBC, Kerrang Radio, The Bay, Edge Media TV, Hallam FM and The BBC.

My podcast is here: http://thecultofnick.libsyn.com/

13 Comments on "Logical Thinking Seems to Negate Empathy"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Nov 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |

    No, excessively reductivist thinking tends to lead to ridiculous conclusions.

    People throw premises and conclusions around so carelessly that they rarely bother to consider the single most important variable–formulation of the major premise. If you start out with a set of values that crowds out considerations of empathy and long-term emotional equilibrium from your analysis in favor of short term quotidian gains, you invariably end up with perversely stupid results.

    “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
    Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  2. Anarchy Pony | Nov 3, 2012 at 11:32 am |

    If your logical conclusions lead away from empathy, then your starting framework is wrong.

  3. InfvoCuernos | Nov 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm |

    I think this basic premise stems from the fact the corporations act as if they are psychopathic when the decisions they make are solely based on the logic of economics without consideration for people.

  4. alizardx | Nov 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that the brain uses separate circuitry to process data in empathetic and logical ways. This simply pushes the choice of which pathways to use back to the end user, who has the option of trying both methods to get the most useful answer and even combining their results when neither seem good in isolation. And if one set of pathways isn’t working correctlly, what’s wrong with trying to fix that?

    Sociopathy in corporate / governmental decisionmaking is a different issue based on perverse social incentives towards privatizing gains and socializing losses where the taxpayers or investors bear the costs of bad decisions. These incentives were bought from politicians and regulators selling out to the highest bidder. Guess what kind of people the highest bidders usually are?

    • if you define self-preservation as logical, and refuse to accept your connection with a group(IE don’t see self preservation in empathy), then it natural that empathy and this particular form of “logic” must be separate. And for those that praise the Holy Logic, all that is outside Logic must be denied as heresy.

      • alizardx | Nov 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm |

        I was talking about what the article actually discussed, MRI-based evidence of different neural pathways being activated when in empathetic and logical modes.

        What mode do you think works better if you’re hearing funny noises coming out of your computer and trying to figure out what to replace?

  5. BuzzCoastin | Nov 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm |

    the problem with experiements like this
    (beside the observer effect)
    is that they they cannot consider the myriad of factors that influence behavior

    corporate psychopaths are as influenced by the effects of technologies, indoctrinated belief systems, etc
    e.g.:money, electric speed-up technologies, Merkin Capitalism, religions
    a myopic view that relegates all behavior to the influence of the brain
    overlooks the influences upon the brain by outside sources

  6. el jefe del guano | Nov 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm |

    reification is a bitch.

  7. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Nov 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm |

    Wow, that’s not a good title at all. It’s as bad as the root article’s title, which says a lot. Both titles suggest that logic and empathy are incompatible in decision making. Such flagrantly false assertions poison our discourse. You could just as accurately say that “Empathy Trumps Logic in Thinking”, but this phrase doesn’t have that survival-of-the-cruelest, free-market-rapist ideology this culture spawns (and the privileged idiots flock to) in order to justify its seriously shitty priorities. Sensationalism is bad enough, but when it’s used as a prop to mislead people about what makes us fundamentally human, I’m glad it ends up on a website like this; cause that’s atrocious.

    How about we asks some questions that make sense? Isn’t that how science is supposed to work? Are humans good at multitasking the process of strong emotional content and complex logic at the same instant? Is that even up for debate? The neurological imaging data seems to support the idea that brains don’t process them both well simultaneously. No shit. That’s all they got. THAT’S IT FOLKS.

    Is anyone going to deny that people in the dominant society can materially benefit by fucking other people over, ala Ronson’s book? Do those kinds of people have strong empathic ability? Again, was this ever up for debate? Obviously those people are intelligent in some fashion; enough to be capable of the rat-to-cheese logic of getting something out of it. But humans are built to do both. We never would have made it this far in our evolutionary history if we weren’t. And I know plenty of people who choose and struggle to consider both real problems and other people’s needs every day. And they come up with AMAZING synthesis So fuck these articles. The brains cease up cause those functions are equally important.

    For those of you still with me, I only have one more question. Why post an article with such an inflammatory and misleading title? My hypothesis is that such a person is trying to get attention. That is to say, socially benefit through the validation of being heard. But that kind of activity isn’t ‘logical’. It’s mendacious. And like the kind of behavior such lies attempt to justify, it’s most accurately called “being a dick.”

    • Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Nov 3, 2012 at 10:30 pm |

      Obviously, Nick posted this here because of this website’s name. Not calling him a dick, though he could have picked a better title IMO. I don’t know what the other peoples excuse was. Not being breast-fed?

Comments are closed.