Are you an ass or are you just stupid? Or, finding empathy in the land of cognitive bias.

Rickey Dobbs
6 min readFeb 13, 2017


Lately, I find myself having ample opportunity to test my own level of empathy. These tests are coming, mostly, as I encounter people (real, online, or imaginary) with whom I vehemently disagree politically. I’m a politics junkie, and believe it or not, I’m more of a “get stuff done” guy than I am a liberal. I think there are tradeoffs in a complex society, and no one person’s version of “how to America” is right or wrong.

That being said, there are some folks out there whose absolute inability to see past their own noses is enough to cause me to want to pull my hair out. That’s a problem, both because I consider myself an empathetic, positive man, and because I don’t have very much hair left.


I examine everything. I am a complete dork in this regard. I seek out patterns to wrap my head around the world, and try to approach my own “being” as a scientist studying a subject. That is, I don’t just think, I think about how I think…a.k.a. I say words like “metacognition” in normal conversation with people who are closest to me.

I noticed, specifically, that my natural empathy wasn’t kicking in when dealing with, let’s say, a habitual Fox News viewer who listens to Rush Limbaugh on the way to work, skims Breitbart in between tasks at work, and who assures you he “has Black friends.”

Sure, there’s the small, condescending, “man, I feel sorry for that asshat troll,” but that’s not actual empathy.

What I realized is that it’s really hard to feel empathy for someone with whom you can’t relate. That is, it’s hard for me to put myself in your shoes if I’m seizing upon what an idiot you are for choosing those shoes.

I started reading about cognitive biases — the idea, broadly, that our thinking is rarely 100% rational, and very easily skewed by a million different variables — and it occurred to me: if I understand why someone might think the way they do, I’m a lot more likely to attribute their errant conclusion to a cognitive bias than to simply chalk them up as a fucking moron.

So, in the interest of helping more people show more empathy to more morons, err….I mean, more people with cognitive biases, I give you:

Three Types Of Cognitive Biases And Their Impact On Empathy, or:

Three Tools To Help You Empathize With Tools:

(I like the 2nd one better.)

Dunning-Kruger Effect:

I should warn you that this isn’t a scientific examination of psychological phenomena. You probably gathered that when I called people “fucking morons” earlier. Also, all of my links are to Wikipedia articles, because I’m kind of lazy like that. But just in case, you’ve been warned.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect basically says that people who lack ability and intelligence almost always overestimate their own ability and intelligence.

Put differently, if you’re kind of stupid, you probably don’t realize it, because you lack the mental skills to understand the gradations between people who are smart and people like you. And you probably stopped reading this blog when you noticed the lack of naked ladies and firearms ads.

So, when you’re struggling to find empathy for someone who is acting as though they are subject matter experts, but you can pretty much tell they aren’t…remember: people who lack ability and intelligence almost always overestimate their own ability and intelligence.

The inverse corollary also appears to be true — that is, people who are very intelligent and skilled tend to discount just how intelligent and skilled they are. This most often presents itself, it seems, in the way they perceive others’ ability to understand things the smarty-pants understands easily.

In other words, just because you understand all the issues at play in the Dakota Access Pipeline story due to your background and education and leisure reading of The Economist, doesn’t mean it’s an easy story to wrap your head around. Inversely, just because you’re a MENSA member who once took apart the 2-cycle engine on a lawnmower doesn’t mean you fully understand how internal combustion engines work, though you’d probably overestimate your understanding if asked.

So the next time Bubba pipes up with something obviously wrong about foreign affairs, remind yourself: (1) he’s overestimating his grasp of the subject, as all humans do, and (2) I’m underestimating how hard it is to fully understand, because I already understand it.

Then yell “DUNNING-KRUGER!” and turn off facebook.

Illusory Superiority, a.k.a. “The Lake Wobegon Effect”

Are you an above average driver?

Assuming the readership of this post represents a good cross-section of drivers, half of you are absolutely not above average. You’re below average, and I know that because that’s how averages work. And I assumed you knew that because it’s obvious to me, and also DUNNING KRUGER!

But when asked, most people think of themselves as more intelligent and more skilled vis-à-vis the population at large. That’s illusory superiority.

Side note: using vis-à-vis, much like “metacognition,” has the dual effect of making you sound smart while significantly increasing your odds of being beaten up on a subway platform.

But, you’re very unlikely to get beaten up on a subway platform in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

When your amateur Fox News correspondent brother-in-law spouts off about economics, just remind yourself that where he’s from (and where we’re all from), all the children are above average…in their own minds. Empathize by remembering that there are many things that you’d wrongly overestimate your own understanding or ability versus the population as a whole.

Chances are, your brother-in-law isn’t wrong from a standpoint of malice, he’s wrong because he’s overestimating his ranking in the grand scheme of understanding of the topic at hand.

Hanlon’s Razor

Or, maybe your brother-in-law is just really stupid.

Hanlon’s Razor says that you shouldn’t attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Put more nicely, don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.

What do you think’s more likely, that the person you’re talking to is a complete and total asshole, or that he’s just misinformed?

Next time someone is being a blowhard, and you’re having a hard time putting yourself in their shoes, ask yourself if it’s at least equally possible that the person is simply wrong or that they are being malicious.

If it’s at least equally possible, and “wrong” adequately explains it, go with that.

Honestly — what’s more likely? That someone is literally out to get you? Or that someone doesn’t know what the heck they’re talking about?

While it may not directly increase your empathy, I find that disengaging from the natural defensiveness of thinking you’re being attacked give you a second or two to return to your empathetic self when engaged in a confrontation. It helps you switch from “fighter” to “educator” — there’s no need to fight someone who’s making an honest mistake.

Empathy in the face of anger

The world is so full of anger right now. Being angry in response to anger is occasionally the right answer, like maybe if you’re storming the beaches in Normandy.

Short of trying to end the European campaign in World War II, getting angry makes you less effective as an advocate for your cause.

In most situations, you’re more likely to advance your ideals through understanding, openness, conversation, debate, and respect. If you are lacking empathy for the person you’re up against, take 2 seconds and quickly ask yourself:

Does this person think they are smarter on this topic than they are?

Does this person think they are more skilled than the average person?

Is it likely that this person is simply misinformed?

And if you’re not there after those three questions, ask:

Can I see someone I love dearly making similar cognitive missteps?

Can I see myself falling into these traps for something I’m passionate about?

And lastly, remember, no one is ever going to come around to your point of view if you start the conversation by calling them a dumbass (or snowflake, or libtard, or inbred hillbilly). If you honestly want to change hearts and minds, you have to start with relationships, and relationships are built on vulnerability and empathy. Lower your shield, table the insults, put yourself in their shoes, and have a dialogue with those fellow travelers on the road to peace.

Originally published at on February 13, 2017.



Rickey Dobbs is my blog. It’s full of analysis, hilarity, insight, punctuation, spaces, and words.