Empathy Is Overrated

Simon Baron-Cohen writes:

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone. (From “The science of empathy,” which was at guardian.co.uk, and is now available here.)

The unfortunate implication to be drawn from the quoted passage — by undiscerning readers — is that empathy is a substitute for defense, prisons, the legal system, and religion (“oppressive,” of course). What twaddle!

Perhaps my reaction is predictable, given my unempathic nature. I scored 12 (out of 80) on a quiz that accompanies the article. My score, according to the key at the bottom, places me below persons with Asperger’s or low-functioning autism, who score about 20. My result is not a fluke; it is consistent with my MBTI type: Introverted-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging (INTJ), and with my scores on the Big-five personality traits:

Extraversion — 4th percentile for males over the age of 21/11th percentile for males above the age of 60

Agreeableness — 4th percentile/4th percentile

Conscientiousness – 99th percentile/94th percentile

Emotional stability — 12th percentile/14th percentile

Openness — 93rd percentile/66th percentile

What do the scores mean? In general, it seems that males become slightly more introverted as they age; that is, my level of extraversion relative to males over the age of 21 is not quite as low relative to that of males over the age of 60. Similarly, older males are somewhat more conscientious than younger ones  The most marked difference has to do with openness (to experience), where I move from very high to almost average. I suspect that the age-related difference have to do with the effects of aging and the tendency of exhibitionistic-less-conscientious-uninquisitive persons to extinguish themselves earlier than their opposites, out of recklessness and ignorance.

At any rate, here are some excerpts of the official report:

Introverts … tend to be quiet, low-key, deliberate, and disengaged from the social world. Their lack of social involvement should not be interpreted as shyness or depression; the introvert simply needs less stimulation than an extravert and prefers to be alone. The independence and reserve of the introvert is sometimes mistaken as unfriendliness or arrogance.

Disagreeable individuals … are generally unconcerned with others’ well-being, and therefore are unlikely to extend themselves for other people. Sometimes their skepticism about others’ motives causes them to be suspicious, unfriendly, and uncooperative…. [A]greeableness is not useful in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions. Disagreeable people can make excellent scientists, critics, or soldiers.

Conscientious individuals avoid trouble and achieve high levels of success through purposeful planning and persistence. They are also positively regarded by others as intelligent and reliable. On the negative side, they can be compulsive perfectionists and workaholics.

People low in emotional stability are emotionally reactive. They respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense and consuming than normal. Low scorers are generally more sensitive, emotional and prone to feelings that are upsetting, such as anxiety or guilt. [“Emotional stability” is also called “neuroticism,” “a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.” My “neuroticism” does not involve anxiety, except to the extent that I am super-conscientious and, therefore, bothered by unfinished business. Nor does it involve depression or vulnerability. But I am easily angered by incompetence, stupidity, and carelessness.]

Openness to Experience describes a dimension of cognitive style that distinguishes imaginative, creative people from down-to-earth, conventional people. Open people are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be, compared to closed people, more aware of their feelings. They tend to think and act in individualistic and nonconforming ways. Intellectuals typically score high on Openness to Experience; consequently, this factor has also been called Culture or Intellect.

I offer these insights to my own personality for the sake of candor, and to make a point about empathy: It is not a substitute for things such as defense, prisons, the legal system, and religion. It would be a substitute only if everyone were so empathic that there were no aggression and no need for religion, which remains the leading institutional source of moral teachings.

But given that people are much more varied and complex than is suggested by Baron-Cohen’s simplistic prescription for a better world, there is a crying need for unsociable introverts, who tend (more than other types) to be thinkers, strivers, organizers, defenders, and justice-dispensers. If we did not exist, the world would be full of ill-fed, ill-housed, untutored savages. I suspect that their vaunted empathy would not survive the stress of existence and coexistence.