‘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.

Aktualisiert: Apr 29

It’s Monday, lunch time – a good time to check the news, especially the sensational politics of the US. My favourite source for a long time: late-night talk shows. It’s not the only source, but often an entry point to ‘actual’ news, at least for US politics. Quite often, the difference between news and comedy is blurry, especially when it comes to my favourite news topic in the past years:


Now that he is out of office, I am relieved. But I also notice that the news is less sensational, and comedians have less fun material. It’s less entertaining. (UPDATE: Trump is back, speaking at a convention of conservatives early March 2021, and the news and comedians are all over him again).

And that’s when I noticed: since when do I want politics to be entertaining? I can’t deny that’s always been the case for me, to some extent at least. I enjoyed studying it at university, not primarily the everyday politics but the underlying principles and mechanisms of political systems and how they change.

Mostly though, I’ve been curious: how politics shapes our lives and how we can shape it.

So something happened along the way. Trump happened: a ‘stable genius’ when it comes to capturing attention. That I am writing a blog post about it, proves the point. At the same time I am writing this to wrap my head around how my attention got captured, and what to do about it. Most importantly, why should I care, what’s wrong with a bit of entertainment?

I am writing this primarily to clarify my thoughts. I am also publishing this because I know I am not alone.

So, how did my attention get captured? I can think of three angles:

  • Trump is a highly skilled messenger – ‘skilled’ in a very different way from his predecessor, but still skilled. He’s been a salesman for 50 years and naturally uses techniques such as repetition (see his nicknames for political opponents) and social proof (e.g. ‘many people say…’ or ‘believe me…’); for a fun, yes: entertaining!, imitation see this video. Trump can also be charismatic. Watch a video (or don’t, you choose) of him that is not of a press conference or a rally, and you’ll see how he works the room and wins people over.

  • A key conduit for Trump was social media – and much has been written about how their algorithms favoured his communication style (short, snappy, conversational) and messaging (emotionally charged topics such as ‘nation, protection, the other, anger, fear’ as one Facebook executive explains)

  • And the picture would not be complete without the receiver of communication, in this case me: what makes me follow what Trump has to say and how others are commenting on it?

Now, I can get annoyed about and criticize the communicator or the channel of communication. Or I can focus on what I can do, right now, to not have my attention captured – some ideas:

  • Understand the triggers that set me off to consuming ‘Trump news’ (for a lack of a better word), e.g. sitting down with the laptop and opening up YouTube (check out ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg, one of my favourite books on habits and how to change them)

  • Have a positive alternative to ‘not have my attention captured’ by Trump news: being aware when the trigger is set off, and then do something else instead

  • Shape my environment, e.g. deleting social media apps on my smartphone to make it easier to only purposefully (not mindlessly) use social media (see Cal Newport’s book ‘Digital Minimalism’ for inspiration)

Finally, the ‘why’: why should I care to do anything differently, what’s wrong with a bit of ‘Trump news’?

We mistake what is in the news for what is important. Ideally, what is in the news is important. But it’s also no news that political actors believe: to remain relevant, they need to be in the news. Unfortunately, some go to such extremes to be covered by the media that content is secondary, and air time for their name and message is what really counts. And in doing so, they are exploiting our cognitive biases:

  • We tend to attach importance to things that we can recall, which tends to be more recent information aka ‘news’ (‘availability bias’).

  • We also tend to believe information – even if false – after repeatedly being exposed to it (‘illusory truth effect’).

But as citizens we are called to find our own answers to the question: what is important, for me, my family, community, society?

We are giving oxygen to the fire: Trump didn’t just win in 2016 because he spoke to his base directly via social media; he expanded his base using traditional media. At press conferences he would bash reporters, news channels, and the entire traditional media landscape; but secretly, he must have enjoyed their attention, not just to fuel his ego but because he knew it meant more eyeballs and more perceived importance of him and his ideas.

The media are not to be envied, trying to balance their mission to report what is newsworthy, the economic incentives of capturing attention, and their broader responsibility in democratic society. But as consumers we can help them: not by ignoring all news on Trump (some of it, esp. regarding criminal investigations, is important), but being more selective.

At the end, Trump could as well be a placeholder for all those who try to and are good at capturing our attention. And it’s not that politics should not be entertaining, or that comedians shouldn’t make fun of it (there is much to make fun of – and it’s good for our democracy).

But it’s being aware of what it can do to our thinking (e.g. ‘what Trump says is important’), the implications of our media consumption (‘if that’s what they want, let’s cover it’) and how both can spiral up to a point where we must stop and ask: what’s really important here for me and others?