“Think tanks” and mass media are making war more likely


It’s easier to say what one of the major causes of the war will be: the failure by many Americans — notably politicians, journalists, think tankers, and other elites — to employ a specific mental power that we’re all capable of employing.

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.