How come there is such public distrust towards politicians, when all the politicians I know personally are trusting and trustworthy individuals?

Some potential explanations:

  • I am too close, friends with some, and so blind to what others with more distance can see.

  • Knowing some personally, instead of knowing politicians only from the news, I get a larger frame. I see not only polished answers, confidence (or the absence of it), broken promises, scandals – what the news focuses on. I also get to see doubt, hope, personal values, inner critical voices – what makes them ‘normal’ human beings.

  • Those I know are just not the ‘typical’ politicians that much of the public distrust is directed towards.

  • Those I know have just not been in the arena long enough or climbed to the higher echelons of political power, in short: ‘just wait and see’.

It’s hard to outright dismiss any of these explanations.

It’s the last one, however, that troubles me. It’s not so much the cynical attitude with which this is often stated (which I believe does not help and is damaging at scale). It’s that there may be some truth to it: that politics may distort and grind down even the most well-intentioned and genuine newcomers.

What is it about politics that can ‘corrupt’ those who get involved in it?

  • Power: it can increase a sense of control over one’s environment (even if that control is tenuous or an illusion), reduce empathy, focus attention on goal-attainment (reducing peripheral vision, being less circumspect, less open for dissent; it also means being willing to take more risks). Check out Ian Robertson’s ‘The Winner Effect’ for more about the neuroscience of power. Also see how this partly explains unethical behaviour.

  • Ego-fuelling environment: just picture the entourage of a politician, attending to their every need. Or better, read what Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, had to say:

“I find myself in the world of privileges, exceptions, perks; in the world of VIPs who gradually lose track of how much butter or a streetcar ticket costs, how to make a cup of coffee, how to drive a car, and how to place a telephone call. I find myself on the very threshold of the world of the communist fat cats whom I have criticized all my life. And worst of all, everything has its own unassailable logic. […] But where do logic and objective necessity stop and excuses begin? Where does the interest of the country stop and the love of privileges begin? […] Regardless of how pure his intentions may originally have been, it takes a high degree of self-awareness and critical distance for someone in power -- however well-meaning at the start -- to recognize that moment. […] being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” (Vaclav Havel, 1991, Sonning Prize acceptance speech)

You don’t need to be head of government to experience this; you may already get a taste of it when giving a speech, winning a vote or election in your local party, being interviewed or filmed. Beside detracting from one’s original intention to contribute through public office, having one’s ego fuelled, gets in the way of truly listening, connecting, and taking ownership.

  • ‘Us’/‘Them’ thinking: it’s what we have come to expect of politics: my side is right, the others are wrong, not just on a single issue but broadly speaking, as a matter of identity, of them being part of a different ‘team’. It’s telling that in his book ‘Think Again’, Adam Grant labels this a ‘politician’ thinking style which he opposes to the more critical ‘rethinking’ style of scientists. When that kind of thinking style has taken hold, it’s less about what would really do good and more about being on the winning team of an argument.

These influences are far from deterministic. Politicians can and do resist them. So it’s paramount to understand how and what to learn from that.

Because this is not just personal, seeing people we know and like get into politics and being exposed to these potential effects. It concerns all of us: these influences on our representatives shape their decision-making – which affects our daily lives.

‘Politics’ does not have the best reputation amongst those not involved in it.

In a business context, ‘politics’ is usually a dirty word, often referring to irrational and self-serving behaviour. In communities closer to ‘politics’, like NGOs and pressure-groups, the word often describes short-sighted manoeuvring that gets in the way of dealing with whatever issue that group is championing. And even in politics itself, ‘politics’ may sometimes be used as a derogatory word by those frustrated with how things have been going.

This LinkedIn post by Adam Grant somewhat echoes these perceptions of politics. In a pyramid of ‘rethinking styles’, scientists’ critical and circumspect style of ‘I might be wrong!’ makes it to the top, while the politician’s thinking style ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’ is at the bottom, only just above that of the cult leader’s ‘I’m always right!'.

Here’s a different way to think about politics: as football, as a laboratory or as a temple.

The first, politics as football, is what ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’ probably points to. Here, politics would be about group affiliation, a very emotive one at that. We are loyal to our group, our party, our favourite politicians, and their success is ours, and sometimes also their defeats. That sense of community is important for us as a social species. It can clash with our rationality, though. In his defence of rational compassion, Paul Bloom makes that comparison between politics and sports, and suggests we look elsewhere for evidence of our rationality.

But can politics be like a laboratory? Can we use reason and do politics? Yes, and centuries (or millennia?) of human thought have been concerned with that question. Habermas, for example, distinguished two forms of rationality that can also be observed in politics:

  • ‘strategic action’ where actors pursue their individual goals and only take goals and claims of others into account in so far as that helps achieve their own goals;

  • ‘communicative action’ where actors seek agreement based on argumentation and testing of their claims’ validity and merit.

Strategic action could be in service of ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’: saying one thing but still engaging rationally with others’ claims in an instrumental pursuit of their own goal.

Communicative action, on the other hand, is much closer to Grant’s scientists’ ‘I might be wrong!’. This behaviour may often be more aspiration than reality, but we do see it in politics: from hands-on local debate on whether to invest in a new hospital or renovate a school to international negotiations on banning the use of certain weapons.

Finally, what about politics as a temple? This is where politics gives space for the ‘big questions’ that science cannot answer (yet), but that are still important to humans, such as questions of meaning, purpose, and morality. This does not necessarily mean striving for dogmatic answers of religion but it does mean allowing for uncertainty without pretending that questions that cannot be answered in the laboratory are irrelevant. Bertrand Russell saw philosophy as occupying this space between religion and science:

“Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance […]. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” (Bertrand Russell in 'A History of Western Philosophy', p. 2).

It’s a more fundamental form of ‘I might be wrong’: not just getting the facts wrong but also having one’s worldview challenged.

So what’s the recipe for politics? Less football, much more laboratory, with a healthy dose of temple? This is probably where tastes will differ.

A pyramid of ‘thinking styles’ is helpful when it encourages us to think about how we think, and how we should ideally think, especially in politics. But in labelling a ‘politicians’ thinking style’ at the bottom of the pyramid, it reinforces an image of politics that, while not totally undeserved, is also not helpful. It dissuades citizens, who could bring fresh perspectives & ‘thinking styles’, from running for office, and it can bottle up frustration and cynicism toward politics up to a point where a contrarian populist can gain ground with a ‘You’re all wrong!’

So, let’s rethink our stance on politics. After all, we might be wrong about what we think of politics and politicians.

Aktualisiert: Apr 29

Empathy is one of those skills held highly in society. Many of us, myself included, would like to claim we are good at it (even though it’s not always clear what that means and whether it’s fact or aspiration).

So stumbling upon a book titled ‘Against Empathy’ caught my attention. The author, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science, argues that “our moral decisions and actions are powerfully shaped by the force of empathy […], this often makes the world worse […], we have the capacity to do better.” (p. 9).

He is eager to point out that he is not arguing against kindness, compassion, or even morality as such. He is also not suggesting that we should not try to understand the other, what he calls ‘cognitive empathy’. Instead, he is arguing against a certain form of empathy: feeling what the other feels.

One of the key problems he sees with that kind of emotional empathy is that it works like a laser beam, intently focusing on the feelings of one subject while ignoring the rest. For example, empathy makes you want to help a particular child move up an organ donor list because you feel what they (or their parents) feel, while disregarding everyone else on the list.

Empathy motivates action. Charities put a face to the needs they are addressing because it is easier to empathize with one child, one family we would help through our donation. But besides not necessarily motivating us to help in the most effective way (see ‘effective altruism’ movement), Bloom points out that empathy can also motivate us to look away, to feel what the other is feeling but not being willing to help nor bear that feeling and instead escape from it.

“our moral decisions and actions are powerfully shaped by the force of empathy […], this often makes the world worse […], we have the capacity to do better.” (Paul Bloom, 'Against Empathy', p. 9).

Bloom goes beyond an anti-empathy stance as is clear from the subtitle ‘The Case for Rational Compassion’. He defends our capacity for rational thinking against sweeping claims that much of what we do is the consequence of emotions, feelings, and biological urges, dressed in rationalizations. Yes, reasoning is not easy and often our nature as biological and social beings interferes and we are prone to biases. But that capacity is there for us to deliberately tap into (he also refers for that to Kahneman’s distinction between thinking fast and thinking slow).

And, Bloom argues, rationality is a more objective and fairer basis for compassion than subjective empathy. It also helps decide on what to do with issues that do not lend themselves easily to empathy: climate change, artificial intelligence, global governance, governance of Space (essentially the most pressing world problems identified by effective altruists).

But we should not throw out the baby out with the bathwater: empathy can fulfil a useful function in motivating action. It also adds richness to our lives and relationships. As Bloom puts it, empathy can be a useful servant, but should not be our master.