Author: LP

Commentary on the Recent UC Berkeley Riot at Milo Yiannopoulous’ Speaking Event

A guest post by LP

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted but I’d be remiss not comment on the riot at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, on February 1, 2017 which illustrates the consequences of taking justice into one’s own hands. One only needs to reflect on how sense of right and wrong changes with maturity to appreciate the subjective element. And this can be warped by unique brain wiring (e.g., Ted Kaczynski).

Departing from the usual post format, here are videos illustrating up-close details of more personal costs associated with “justice” administration (aside from the reported half-million dollars in damage to infrastructure and surrounding businesses) by the frenzied or not-so-bright. This is a 46-second clip taken by Mixed Martial Artist (MMA) Jake Shields’ girlfriend of his confrontation with Antifa (derived from “Anti-Fascists” and comprised of anarcho-communists as far as I know) after saving a Trump supporter from being beaten to death. If you can’t hear the conversation, as mentioned in the YouTube comment section, these rioters reasoned that Milo Yiannopoulos can’t be Jewish because he’s Greek.

To quote Shields, “I don’t think those people are capable of rationalizing. I think they’ve switched their brains to where if you have a different opinion of them, you’re a Nazi. I hate Nazis, too, but who determines what’s a Nazi?… There were hundreds of people cheering on, ‘Get the Nazi,’ and I went up and started arguing with them. Why’s this guy a Nazi? What did he say to make him a Nazi? No one could say.”

Without provocation, an Antifa member pepper-sprayed a woman wearing a “Make Bitcoin Great Again” hat. Anarcho-Capitalist Stefan Molyneux interviews her about this incident in this 21-minute video:

Meanwhile, as the night’s events unfolded, law enforcement’s capacity to assist others was limited as a would-be Milo Yiannopoulos event attendee described:

After about 2 1/2 hours, an officer told them, “if you guys want to go out of the building, you need to go now.” Walsh asked if officers would escort them. “They said, ‘It’ll make things worse for you,’ ” she said.

Walsh and her female friend made it to their car in a parking garage, where, in a surreal moment, a lurking stranger had mistaken their car as belonging to Yiannapoulos’ entourage and was hoping to see him.

They tried to drive out of the garage but the exit was blocked by barricades and a dumpster, she said. Two maintenance workers said they could not help them but gave them the phone number to the campus police department. She called but was told officers were “a little busy” though they’d try to send someone.

As it happened, Walsh had grabbed some anti-Yiannopoulos printed material (“propaganda literature,” she said) so she put it on the dashboard to fool the protesters – and held onto her pepper spray.

She drove behind another car heading to the exit, where several protesters moved the obstruction aside to let them pass, which took a while.

“They said ‘We’ll help you.’ They let us out,” she said. “That literature saved my life, I’m sure of it. It was insane.”

Styxhexenhammer666 contrasts political protests by the left versus the right and offers conclusions (which aren’t surprising) on where the vast majority of the violence comes from in this 12-minute video:

I can’t attest to the accuracy of his account of history, so corrections and comments are welcome. The narrative that the rioters were outsiders (unaffiliated with UC Berkeley) who took over what was to be a peaceful demonstration makes sense. Some protesters disapprove of Antifa’s methods I’m sure. However, if protesters believe Antifa are right-wing agent provocateurs, they should clarify their disapproval and arrange to ostracize rioters. Plan to be seen shouting them down or leaving to avoid being caught up in it.

Antifa has seemingly been accepted at leftist demonstrations for some time though (e.g. the Occupy movement). Perhaps young, college-aged protesters are too inexperienced and short-sighted about consequences to pursue effective methods for dealing with infiltration as others asserted. However,  I’ll believe their rejection of Antifa when I see it. Most viewers saw what I saw – protesters mostly cheering and celebrating. So, how is it not reasonable to interpret their actions as condoning stupidity and senseless violence? After a cool-down period, granting students’ “thought leaders” time to reflect and come to their senses on how to respond in a way that represents the campus and student community, writers at The Daily Californian (the campus newspaper) defended the rioters:

Neil Lawrence wrote, “Behind those bandanas and black T-shirts were faces of your fellow UC Berkeley and Berkeley City college students, of women, of people of color, of queer and trans people.”

Desmond Meagley wrote, “Condemning protesters same as condoning hate speech… I put my safety and my freedom on the line because letting Yiannopoulos speak was more terrifying to me than potential injury or arrest.”

At this time, the right-wing agent provocateur narrative may also be unraveling. It appears that UC Berkeley students may have been among the Antifa rioters’ ranks that night. However, rioters’ identities are still under FBI investigation.

I seem to recall a time when there was less extremism. Although college students aren’t all like this as they, too, represent different points across the political spectrum, in hindsight, it just seems the penchant for this craziness was not there to this degree. I attended Berkeley in the 1990s and was present for the discontinuation of Affirmative Action. Students’ reactions were uneventful compared to how riled up these protesters became over a visiting speaker they disagreed with. This leaves me wondering if it’ll get worse than this.

A Case Study: Empathy vs. Intellect

A guest post by L.P. See this post for an explanation of cognitive and affective empathy.

Referring back to part 5 of my series on empathy, Edwin Rutsch, Director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion invited me to participate in a video interview to be published on YouTube. I’ll explain in detail why the interview never took place since Rutsch allowed me to divulge the contents of our interactions.*

In Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy in Human Behavior and Evolution, Adam Smith writes “empathic overdevelopment might be at the expense of other mental abilities,” such as an intellectual deficit. Smith acknowledges that he’s conducting exploratory theorizing, making predictions about the relationship between cognitive and affective empathy (referred to as “emotional empathy” or EE in his article) and that these predictions need testing.

Rutsch’s actions after issuing the invitation offer a case study of the trade-off between empathy and intellect. What’s more, Rutsch exhibits dishonesty, a weak sense of personal boundaries, and an unhealthy obsession with tracking down “anti-empathy” people. See his attempts to pressure Kevin D. Williamson (via petition) and Paul Bloom to interview. In the latter’s case, Rutsch divulged the contents of their email exchange (to Bloom’s discomfort) and subsequently created several YouTube videos about Bloom’s article.

Upon receiving Rutsch’s invitation to do the interview, I established that I’d only talk about my “Getting Real About Empathy” series, and Rutsch agreed. He set up a Google+ document to list topics for the video interview. As soon as I looked over this document, I knew that he had read only the recap points at the end of the posts.

Rutsch demonstrates his failure to read and understand my posts in his listing of me as an “anti-empathy” author at his site for his emergency response team to deal with. Oh, so “Empathy leads to the lack of empathy” huh Edwin? Well, alrighty then! I wonder what other nuggets of wisdom he gleaned from glancing at my posts. Perhaps 1 + 2 = 4 also Edwin? This is so precious that I’ll include an image of this, just in case the summary at his site is ever fixed. (Click to enlarge images below.)

Empathy leads to the lack of empathy

During the time that Rutsch and I communicated on the Google+ document, I urged him to read my posts and indicated that I’d cancel the interview if he didn’t demonstrate having read and understood the contents of my writing. Rutsch never did, so this became the basis for canceling the interview. In the image below, Rutsch’s words appear in green while mine appear in blue.

Edwin Rutsch copy of Google doc part 3

Rutsch was probably desperate because, the night before the interview was supposed to take place, he lied about having read my posts that night. I challenged his claim and he did not offer an explanation for how he could have read the posts without visiting this blog that night.

Rutsch lies part 1

Rutsch lies part 2

Speaking of contradictions, the following image contains Rutsch’s stance on government-mandated empathy programs. Note that just 2-3 weeks prior, in the YouTube video I referenced (my comments in red this time), he and some members of his team kept circling back on the topic of how to force those who’re reluctant to be more empathetic and conform to their values and expectations:

Rutsch on mandated empathy programs

Despite the hard tone of my narration of events, I don’t take pleasure in singling out and publicly criticizing an individual. However, I hope that speaking out may help some of his 30,000+ followers to see Rutsch for what he actually is. Perhaps there’s also a sliver of hope that Rutsch will learn how moronic it is to engage in knee-jerk pursuits and attempts to wear down authors of articles he didn’t read and understand in an effort to censor negative evaluations of empathy.

Henceforth, I won’t respond to Rutsch or his followers because I value my time. He or any member of his cult can still properly respond to my “Getting Real About Empathy” series by first reading and understanding it (along with the several scientific studies I cited – all essential in supporting my arguments) and then by writing an article with logical and supported rebuttals to each point that I made.

***

*Below is my message (which conveys how fed up I was with his persistence) and Rutsch’s response. He clearly gave me permission to divulge the contents of our interaction:

Edwin,

We’re already having a recorded dialog about my empathy articles. Welcome to my writing show!!! Everything you’ve said here and the Google+ doc will go out to the public on the world wide web… including your resistance to learning, your resistance to new information, your unwillingness to read, your lack of integrity, and your futile attempts at controlling this conversation with me via empathic dialogue.

Rutsch permits publicly divulging contents of interaction

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 5 of 5: Addendum

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. To read about the aftermath of this invitation, see this post.

As I’ve been cordially invited to participate in an upcoming interview that might be published on YouTube, I’m presenting my talking points here for all who’re interested:

There are ethical, moral considerations that the empathy movement needs to take into account. This, in effect, establishes a limit on their mission. Each and every person has a natural, fundamental right (wherever they are on the empathy spectrum) to be who they are, live their lives how they want to, and grow in whatever direction they desire – as long as they don’t harm, or encroach upon, others. Hence, unempathetic people who haven’t done any wrong or who don’t pose a threat to society (people with Asperger’s or Autism for example) have every right to be who they are without others trying to mold them into someone they are not.

This is something I think empathetic people need to understand, respect, and accept (instead of insisting that they are the only valid, ideal version of how a human should be – this position, no matter who it comes from, is egoistic and selfish), and I don’t think empathetic people would like having an opposite movement try to make them be who they are not either. In fact, one of the basic lessons psychologists learn in education and training is that one cannot control others.

What this means is, if those in the empathy movement are helping individuals who want to increase their empathy then this is fine. However, to foist one’s own way of being and one’s own values on someone else (who’s living life innocently and doesn’t want to change) is wrong and counterproductive. When people are different and their values conflict, “good fences makes good neighbors” as the saying goes.

A positive direction for empathetic people to take, to be truly 100% empathetic, is to empathize with the unempathetic (a way of thinking that has Buddhist roots). This is similar to how a “tolerant” person isn’t tolerant (in a pure sense) unless he or she also tolerates the intolerant. Empathetic people need to understand how their movement oppresses people who are different from them. The empathy movement, in fact, mirrors the way extroverts (a majority in society) pressure introverts (a minority that they often find repugnant) to be more like them. Another positive direction is to cultivate “detached compassion” whereby one learns to prioritize others’ need to learn through life experience over one’s own urge to help. To give one’s urge to help precedence over others’ need to learn for themselves is selfish because one is now taking valuable life experiences away from others.

It’s a problem when people like who they are and take pride in themselves to a degree that they miss out on the positive attributes and contributions of their opposites. Diversity on all traits (including empathy), not homogeneity, ensures humanity’s well-being and survival. Mother nature is wise. For example, extroverts often miss the fact that if a pandemic swept the world killing billions that it is the hermit who has the best chances of survival – thus being able to continue humanity’s lineage. Empathetic people, likewise, don’t seem to realize that they need unempathetic people to serve certain roles and make certain contributions in order for society to function well.

If the interview is featured on YouTube, I will share it along with additional thoughts the conversation inspires here.

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 4 of 5: Final Thoughts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

Leftists have tunnel vision when it comes to the assessment of traits that they favor; an empathetic person is “good,” a person considered unempathetic (and who favors impartial justice) is “bad.” Except for sexual orientation, the left focuses its diversity agenda on physical diversity (e.g., race, gender). Much diversity that stems from internal disposition is disregarded (e.g., diversity of political thought, certain personality traits). Researchers like Sáez et al. (who’re, ironically, going against their own espoused value of being fair-minded) are willing to advocate tweaking humanity in a eugenic bid to create a utopia. And they’re willing to do so without balanced consideration of its dangers.

As mentioned in part 3, the empathy spectrum has genetic roots; it’s not just a byproduct of dysfunctional parenting or traumatic childhoods, as is often suggested. Hence, variations on this trait are functional, like other products of nature as demonstrated in the examples related to occupational roles and contributions in part 2. Another example, not mentioned in part 2, is the need for judges to base their decisions on facts and law, not feelings. Where would the rule of law – true justice – be without such judges? Empathy-based rulings offer a compelling explanation for why known rapists and killers are given second and third chances. (Readers may assess prisoner recidivism rates here.) Regardless of any existing alternative explanations for this phenomena, bias derived from empathy is obviously undesirable in the justice system.

Being abnormal, or just different, gives an individual a unique perspective. It’s easy for me to view issues concerning empathy differently because I am differently empathetic, or even unempathetic (considering how affective empathy is prized in popular culture). On Baron-Cohen’s 7-point scale, from 0 to 6, I’d rate myself at least a 5 on cognitive empathy because I’ve proven to have the necessary cognitive empathy to excel at competitive card games that involve reading people and accurately assessing their situations and intentions. However, I’d score 0 on affective empathy because, throughout my life, I have not felt another individual’s feelings (and am content with this). Affective empathy is the type of empathy that women, as a group, are known for. Hence, I’m an outlier among women.

What’s most frustrating about the current pro-empathy bandwagon is that it’s made telling my side of the story difficult. People often say, “We need to get more women into leadership positions so that we’ll have more empathy up there,” and expect a positive reaction from me. I don’t disagree with the statement if we’re talking about randomly plucking women from the general population and foisting them into leadership positions. (Random selection would, of course, be undesirable.) It is comical, by the way, when the same people who insist that men and women, as groups, are identical also say, “But women are more empathetic than men.”

Individuals who initiate these awkward encounters don’t seem to think that it is acceptable for the less empathetic to reveal the truth about themselves. Pro-empathy people think less empathetic people are “monsters.” However, as discussed in part 2 of this series, Baron-Cohen, Kevin Dutton in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and other researchers establish that empathetic people, particularly psychopaths who have both affective and cognitive empathy, can be “monsters” too.

In fact, Kevin Dutton’s point about psychopaths generally being able to blend in and take on the appearance of the average person makes it obvious that they must have substantial emotional intelligence (linked to cognitive empathy) and experience of others’ feelings in order to mirror others so well. To be fair, however, even “monsters” like psychopaths (who don’t easily experience fear) have the potential to function in pro-social occupational roles that aren’t well-suited for the average person. Consider, for example, the final minutes of this interview (which I’ve cued to this very moment) between psychiatrist Park Dietz and Richard Kuklinski, “The Iceman,” where the psychiatrist names a number of occupational roles (e.g., race car driver, test pilot, fighter pilot, bomb disposal technician, law enforcement officer) suitable for individuals who have a weaker-than-average fear response.

Another point to consider however, as mentioned in part 1, is that those who try to empathize with others by imagining how they would experience another’s situation aren’t truly empathetic. They’re just projecting their own feelings onto others. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s study on morality and political orientation. On the “Identification with All of Humanity Scale,” liberals most strongly endorsed the dimension regarding identification with “everyone around the world.” (See page 25 of “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology.”) How can anyone empathize with billions of persons about whom one knows nothing, and a great number of whom are anything but liberal?

Haidt’s finding is a terrific example of problems with self-evaluation and self-reported data – liberals overestimating themselves in this case. I’m not judgmental about not understanding everyone in the world. There are plenty of people I don’t understand either. However, I don’t think people who overestimate their ability to understand people should be in a position that allows them to tamper with, or try to “improve,” the lives of people they don’t understand.

To elaborate on my post on dysfunctional helpers, I can speculate on how my empathetic colleagues, who’re focused on becoming humanity’s helpers, spent so many years studying psychology but did not emerge with an understanding of the variety of people. Comparatively speaking, it’s easy for highly empathetic people to take their viscerally-based understanding of people for granted. In contrast, not having the luxury of assuming that I completely understand people drives me to engage in meticulous observation and study.

On the topic of group differences in empathy, let’s not forget there are within-group differences as well (as my point about being the odd woman out illustrates). It may be true that those on the left, on average, are more empathetic and compassionate than those on the right. But there is certainly variation within a political faction. In fact, it is quite possible for empathetic, compassionate people to support free markets and small government, as Dan Mitchell argues. It’s also possible for unempathetic people (who think they’re empathetic) to support a welfare state. All empathetic people don’t agree with each other. Neither do unempathetic people. There are many other factors that influence people’s opinions as well (e.g., intelligence, imagination, the capacity to see the big picture).

That said, whether you empathize with people or not, there are various courses of action to choose from. One flaw with Sáez et al.‘s study is that they designed “a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.” This limits the solution to inequality (to “give money or not”) rather than simulating the range of solutions available in the real world (such as ones that maximize opportunity for people to climb out of poverty in a way that preserves their dignity and sense of agency). It’s also unfortunate that these researchers are driving at support for one solution (i.e., give more money) as the definitive measure of sensitivity to inequality and, by proxy, empathy.

Much more often than not, scientists and opinion leaders don’t provide a public accounting of the trade-offs associated with altering people’s empathy levels. Instead of being skeptical and asking questions, most people accept this version of science, along with the mission to “improve” humanity. It’s a sad state of affairs that empathy and compassion have been politicized, as this further reduces people’s propensity to think objectively about this subject. With a greater appreciation of the complexity of empathy, dangerous utopianism based on engineering people to be more empathetic would be rejected.

I conclude by quoting C. Daniel Batson who acknowledges the prevailing bias when it comes to evaluating altruism as a virtue. This is from his paper, “Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation,” written for the Inaugural Herzliya Symposium on Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior:

[W]hereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. As a result, altruism can at times pose a greater threat to the common good than does egoism.

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 3 of 5: Moral Implications and Consequences

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1part 2, part 4, and part 5.

It is often assumed that if people were more empathetic and compassionate, we’d see fewer conflicts and wars. Continuing from my previous post, I make the case that it’s inaccurate to view high empathy and the lack thereof in black-and-white terms. As it happens, empathy and compassion can lead to conflict because of whom one empathizes with and feels compassion for. The stronger the empathy and compassion, the more one tends to act in the interest of those one empathizes with. Consider Claus Lamm’s and Jasminka Majdandžić’s findings in “The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment“:

In the public but at times also in the academic discourse, it appears to be taken for granted that empathy can act as a remedy or a stronghold against anti-social phenomena which seem to affect our society to an increasing extent – such as the selfish greed in the financial industry supposedly contributing to the global financial crisis, or the many armed conflicts we are witnessing these days, ranging from Syria over the Ukraine to Gaza. For instance, US-president Barack Obama has repeatedly spoken of an empathy deficit in our modern society, and stated that an “empathy crisis” may be at the root of the economic and political crises we are experiencing (2006, June 19). Such views have certainly been influenced by the folk intuition that empathy motivates prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need. Indeed, this intuition has received widespread support from social psychology (see Batson, 1991), as well as more recently from the field of social neuroscience. For instance, Hein et al. (2010) demonstrated that individual differences in altruistic behavior (taking over painful shocks from another person) were predicted by activation of empathy-related neural responses in left anterior insula (see also Hein et al., 2011, Masten et al., 2011 and Mathur et al., 2010). At first glance, such a link between empathy and altruism might imply that increasing empathy in our society will reduce egoism and selfishness and the social conflicts associated with them (Rifkin, 2010).

However, such propositions overlook the fact that empathy is sensitive to deeply-rooted parochialism and ingroup bias (see Chiao and Mathur, 2010). This implies that it will motivate altruistic action in a way that prefers to help or cooperate with persons and groups that we perceive as closer or more similar to us…

Finally, we need to consider that people may be able to empathize with others (in the sense of being able to feel what they are feeling, or “feeling as”) and still harm them. The “tools of empathy” or knowledge about them at times may even be deliberately exploited to inflict harm in others, for instance in persons with psychopathic personality traits. Only recently, a series of social neuroscience studies has added to our knowledge of the psychopathic mind and how he or she is able to engage in such a-moral or a-social behavior. Interestingly, these studies suggest that psychopaths seem to show a lower propensity for empathy (in the sense of affect sharing), yet are able to feel what others are feeling when explicitly instructed to do so – though the exact way in which this instructing should be devised is still somewhat controversial, with different studies yielding somewhat different results ( Decety et al., 2013a, Decety et al., 2013b and Keysers and Gazzola, 2014b for review; Lockwood et al., 2013a, Lockwood et al., 2014, Meffert et al., 2013 and Pfabigan et al., 2014). Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the capacity to fully (and possibly empathically) sense the effects of one’s actions, but to deliberately modify one’s behavioral response to it can be exploited to do harm rather than to increase the welfare of others…

Unfortunately, we do not have to go all the way to psychopathy to illustrate how empathy can be exploited for one’s own and not for the greater good. For instance, we probably all know competitive situations, such as in sports, in which team tactics exploit our knowledge of how our opponents will feel and act in response to certain actions (such as the “psychological warfare” that might be applied during penalties shots in football), or conflicts with friends or loved ones in which our enhanced ability to empathize with them may provide us with all the more effective tools to hurt their feelings.

To describe the results of a recent study conducted by Anneke E. K. Buffone and Michael J. Poulin (see “Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others–Even Without Provocation“), Tom Jacobs writes in “This is the Dark Side of Empathy“:

[P]articipants were, to a surprising degree, willing to inflict pain on a second person to help a distressed individual they felt empathy for. This occurred in spite of the fact that (a) both were total strangers, and (b) the second person had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The results should put a damper on what the researchers call “recent enthusiasm for interventions that involve administering caregiving-related neurohormones or empathy training.”

It seems that Sáez et al., who’re excited about prolonging the effects of dopamine in people’s brains, haven’t considered the conclusions of this study. In another report of this study, “Can love make us mean? Researchers explore the relationship between empathy and aggression,” Poulin elaborates on the neurochemical process through which empathy and compassion for another triggers aggression:

“Both oxytocin and vasopressin seem to serve a function leading to increased ‘approach behaviors,'” says Poulin, associate professor of psychology. “People are motivated by social approach or getting closer to others.”

But Poulin adds that people approach one another for many reasons, including aggression, so it stands to reason that if compassion is linked to the action of these hormones and these hormones are linked to social approach behaviors that they might help account for the link between compassion and aggression.

The researchers conducted a two-part study consisting of a survey and an experiment. “The results of both the survey and the experiment indicate that the feelings we have when other people are in need, what we broadly call empathic concern or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” says Poulin. “In situations where we care about someone very much, as humans, we were motivated to benefit them, but if there is someone else in the way, we may do things to harm that third party.”

And that reaction is not because the third party has done anything wrong.

Such findings should appeal to common sense. However, for those born on the “wrong” side of the empathy spectrum (yes, there’s a genetic contribution according to Baron-Cohen and other researchers), today’s pro-empathy bandwagon resembles the start of a witch-hunt. People, by and large, don’t evaluate the value of empathy or lack thereof in an objective manner. This bias transcends political ideology but appears especially pronounced among those on the left whose self-definition places central importance on empathy and compassion and influences the tenor of academic research, as in this article.

Even worse, for a group that gives lip service to tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance of diversity, this widespread clamoring for people to be more empathetic goes against those aforementioned espoused values because less empathetic individuals are also part of life’s natural diversity. The question “Should serious people be more fun-loving to make society a happier place?” has an obvious counterpart: “Or should fun-loving people be more serious so that more work gets accomplished?”  The same kinds of questions should be asked with regard to empathy.

In Part 4, I’ll wrap up this discussion with other critical questions and final remarks.

Recap: Empathy, far from alleviating conflict, can cause or exacerbate it. Further, the drive to elevate empathy above other traits is intolerant, short-sighted, and unscientific.

 

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 2 of 5: Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Various affective and cognitive empathy levels can be adaptive or maladapative depending on the context. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen demonstrates this in his model of empathy which assigns a value to each type of empathy on a scale of 0 (least) to 6 (most) with a “positive” or “negative” tag. However, these values signify positions on a continuous spectrum (serving to facilitate communication regarding individuals’ position on the spectrum), so individuals can fall between these discrete values. Based on Carole Jahme’s review of Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy*:

Narcissists, borderline and psychopathic personalities are introduced as people lacking “affective empathy” – the ability to feel others’ feelings. Baron-Cohen’s new paradigm classifies these personality types as “zero-negative”: a zero amount of affective empathy being a negative condition, because the ability to self-regulate the way they treat others is significantly compromised.

By contrast, Baron-Cohen defines people with Asperger’s syndrome or classic autism, which is his own field, as “zero-positive”. Like the zero-negatives these people lack affective empathy, but in addition they score zero on “cognitive empathy” – thinking others’ thoughts.

Because some zero-positive individuals have, through their unusual ability to systemise, pushed human culture forwards with their discoveries (Einstein was late to talk – a sign of classic autism – yet he was an extreme systemiser who discovered E = mc2), Baron-Cohen categorises them “zero empathy positive”.

Although the examples above pertain to individuals who have a disorder or disability, the balance between affective and cognitive empathy varies among people without dysfunctions as well. See “The balance between feeling and knowing: affective and cognitive empathy are reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional dynamics,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Vol. 7, No. 6 (2012).

Returning to theexample of doctors, with which I ended part 1, zero affective empathy can be a positive condition as doctors and surgeons are able to perform their jobs best without affective empathy’s self-regulation. Hence, those who do well in these occupations tend either to have low affective empathy or to engage in regulatory tactics that shut off affective empathy as needed (e.g., talking themselves out of experiencing the emotional contagion). As there have been calls to rectify various medical professionals’ poor bedside manner, it’s important to note that even those who’re supportive of increasing doctors’ and surgeons’ capacity for empathy have called for restraint in this endeavor. In “Is the Quest to Build a Kinder, Gentler Surgeon Misguided?,” Wen Shen writes:

WE WANT IT ALL: brilliant technical surgeons with outstanding interpersonal skills. In trying to shape our trainees to be all things to everyone, however, we run the risk of creating a workforce caught somewhere in the middle, not doing anything well.

In “Why Doctors Should Be More Empathetic–But Not Too Much More,” Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz add:

The job of any physician is therefore part empathic and part problem solving. This constitutes an inherent trade-off in medicine because the human brain does not have infinite computational resources or time to perform both tasks equally well. One must be caring while also figuring out a proper diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, often under conditions of uncertainty.

Just as only using one’s cognitive problem-solving skills would not necessarily lead to the best outcomes for patients, only employing one’s empathic and emotional skills doesn’t lead to the best outcomes, either. Empathy is not an inherent good in medical care, but a relative one. As with deliberative reflection and abstraction, empathy is also useful only in certain degrees and in certain contexts, but can be unproductive or destructive in others.

It is the interaction of context and empathy, rather than the inherent empathy surpluses or deficits by themselves, that determines whether the composition of context and empathy is positive or negative. This means that even a surplus of both affective and cognitive empathy, which Baron-Cohen would assign the value of 6, has the potential for negative outcomes. For example, one popular but wrong assumption is that psychopaths are unempathetic. This is inaccurate because, in order to be able to manipulate, one needs to understand other people very well. In fact, the consensus in psychopathology research is that psychopaths have strong cognitive empathy. Further, it’s not uncommon for them to have affective empathy as well. However, they are able to turn it on and off at will (see footnote). Carole Jahme mentions another negative manifestation:

A second book about altruism is due to be published later this year: Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al. It’s a collection of essays focusing on the downside of empathy-fuelled altruism, and Baron-Cohen has contributed a chapter on the extreme female brain. This personality type is a candidate for maladaptive altruism because the more empathic one is the more the needs of others are prioritised over the needs of self.

What’s being described is a “6-negative” or “six empathy negative” which manifests itself in the type of dysfunctional helping described in this post. The fact that empathy can have negative as well as positive consequence should spur a number of interesting questions. For example: Which individual do you view more favorably, a zero-positive or a six-negative? How about a zero-negative and a six-negative? A zero-positive and a six-positive?

Returning to the aims of Sáez et al., it appears likely that increasing people’s sensitivity to social inequality and eliciting support for dividing resources equally has undesirable side effects. Disturbingly, however, I have yet to see such pro-empathy articles explore and discuss the potential downsides of inducing more empathy and compassionate action.  Again, these include increasing dysfunctional helping behavior in some individuals as well as negatively impacting the work of gifted zero-positive individuals, medical professionals, and others. Unfortunately, when balanced discussion is missing, I’ve found that people generally jump onto the pro-empathy bandwagon without thinking about the potential costs.

What else can go wrong if people’s empathy is amplified? In Part 3, I illustrate how empathy and compassion don’t necessarily translate into sound morals and, further, how empathy can spur unjustified aggressive acts.

Recap: Empathy isn’t all-or-nothing; there are degrees of it, both positive and negative. Further, it has both positive and negative effects. And it is just one personality trait among many personality traits that help to determine a person’s contributions to society.

***

*While Simon Baron-Cohen is a recognized expert on autism, other prevalent cognitive and affective empathy patterns have been found for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, Autism, Asperger’s, and psychopathy. Specifically, others assert that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder have affective empathy but not cognitive empathy. Rather than being low on both, those with Autism or Asperger’s have also been found to have affective empathy.

Meanwhile, psychopaths can either have cognitive empathy but not affective empathy or have both but are able to consciously regulate their own affective empathy. According to the LiveScience article, “Coldhearted Psychopaths Feel Empathy Too,” which summarizes a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study by neuroscientist Christian Keysers:

[W]hen the psychopaths were instructed to try to empathize while watching the videos, their brains showed the same level of activity in these brain areas as normal individuals.

“They seem to have a switch they can turn on and off that turns their empathy on and off depending on the situation,” Keysers told LiveScience.

The findings suggest psychopaths are, in fact, capable of empathy, if they consciously control it. This ability may explain why a psychopath can be charming in one instant, and brutal the next, the researchers say.

For more information on the information presented in this footnote, see the following articles:

Dissecting empathy: high levels of psychopathic and autistic traits are characterized by difficulties in different social information processing domains,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Vol. 7, Article 1 (2013).

Response to Smith’s Letter to the Editor ‘Emotional Empathy in Autism Spectrum Conditions: Weak, Intact, or Heightened?‘” J Autism Dev Disord Vol. 39, No. 12 (2009)

The balance between feeling and knowing: affective and cognitive empathy are reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional dynamics,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Vol. 7, No. 6 (2012)

Two systems for empathy: a double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions,” Brain Vol. 132, No. 3 (2009)

Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome,” J Autism Dev Disord Vol. 37, No. 4 (2007)

Getting Real About Empathy – Part 1 of 5: Introduction to Concepts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 2part 3, part 4, and part 5.

According to recent news, researchers at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco found that prolonging dopamine’s effect in the brain makes people more sensitive to inequality and more willing to divide resources equally. Judging from their comments, it’s clear that they view empathy-induced egalitarianism as a virtue. The original study by Ignacio Sáez, Lusha Zhu, Eric Set, Andrew Kayser, and Ming Hsu, “Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans,” in Current Biology Vol. 25, Issue 7 (2015) can be found here.

In this post, I offer a nuanced view of empathy and compassion as well as a critique of the aforementioned researchers’ assumptions and mission. As an introduction to the concept of empathy, here is how Frans De Waal described empathy in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other AnimalsEmpathy is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and many forms of empathy exist between the extremes of mere agitation at the distress of another and full understanding of their predicament. De Waal’s conception of empathy and related discussion appears in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007).

First, let’s define empathy before breaking it into its component parts. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand another’s state of mind (e.g., thoughts and emotions). It’s important to note, however, that empathy requires the one attempting to empathize with another not to confuse the self and the other. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t put yourself in another person’s shoes in order to empathize. Instead, you must understand the other person well enough to know how the other person experiences wearing his or her shoes. It’s been found, however, that even while people think they understand others, they are generally egocentric and unable to suppress their self-perspective. This “self-bias,” described at length in “Social Neuroscience of Empathy” by Jean Decety and Sara Hodges, is an important point I will revisit in my critique of assumptions Sáez et al. are making.

A regulatory and monitoring mechanism that modulates inner states enables people to distinguish between themselves and their own feelings from others. This ability, referred to as “cognitive appraisal,” involves keeping track of the origins (self or other) of experienced feelings. This mechanism is described more in depth in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007) and “On the Nature, Modeling, and Neural Bases of Social Ties” by Frans van Winden, Mirre Stallen, and Richard Ridderinkhof.

Understanding (via affective or cognitive empathy) only leads individuals to take prosocial action if they also have access to a component that neuroscientists and psychologists call “compassionate empathy” (also referred to as “empathetic concern” or “prosocial motivation”). The neural pathways and brain regions involved are described at length in “The neural components of empathy: Predicting daily prosocial behavior” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access (2012) and “The Neural Bases for Empathy,” The Neuroscientist Vol. 17, No. 1 (2011).

In recent years, cognitive and affective empathy have enjoyed much attention as different degrees of each have been found to correlate with various personalities. Cognitive empathy (also referred to as “cognitive perspective-taking”), is the ability to recognize and identify (unemotionally) another’s emotions or state of mind by perceiving and evaluating observable hints about another’s state of mind (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice, body language). Affective empathy (also known as “emotional empathy” and “affective resonance”) involves knowing another’s state of mind through experiencing emotional contagion (i.e., feeling what the other feels), and this type of empathy has the capacity to regulate individuals’ actions.

People who have cognitive empathy but not affective empathy can still successfully fake emotional resonance in order to mirror others. However, one of the practical benefits of having access to affective empathy along with cognitive empathy is that the additional visceral experience of others’ emotions enables people to mirror others more accurately than when cognitive empathy functions alone. Finally, people’s ability to consciously regulate (i.e., turn off and on) their affective empathy varies.

To illustrate these concepts, let’s consider a typical situation some doctors deal with. Ideally, a doctor can recognize that the patient is anxious (via cognitive empathy) but would not feel the patient’s anxiety (via affective empathy) when it’s time to deliver an injection. The emotional contagion would become an impediment to giving the shot. In other words, empathy can be and often is counterproductive. That said, although it’s common for one type of empathy to spark another so that they work in tandem, affective and cognitive empathy can function independently as well. Finally, people can be high, moderate, or low on any or all types of empathy.

In part 2, “Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic” and part 3, “Moral Implications and Consequences,” I will expand on the range of problems and benefits that result from having individuals of various degrees of empathy as members of society.

Recap: Empathy, which has cognitive and affective components, is too often thought of as purely good. But empathy can be dysfunctional in some contexts. And empathy can be exploited for evil purposes.

 

Povertocracy: How Helpers Sustain the Poverty Industry

This is a guest post by L. P., whose psychological insights are a welcome addition to this blog.

As this is my first post, I’ll preface this discussion by describing how I came to recognize the dark side of helping behavior. Being the bookish person that I am, I didn’t think to look up and take notice of the ideological difference between me and the majority of my peers during the course of study. Upon graduating with an advanced degree it was, at that point, too late for me to go back and choose another field in which I would not be a “black sheep.”

Looking back, I realize that the ideological difference, and the different societal roles that we envisioned for ourselves, arose from our different motives for choosing to study psychology, and from our temperaments as they relate to motives. The left-leaning psychologists I’ve come to know chose psychology because they wanted to help individuals or improve humanity as a whole. I chose psychology because I only wanted to understand people but didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to ultimately do this knowledge, if anything at all.

Temperament was likely at the root of why my peers regard helping behavior with starry-eyed Pollyanna simplicity as well. In contrast, I’d envision how good can come out of doing nothing and how negative consequences result from intervention, thus justifying my unwillingness to get off my duff to lend a hand. Who would’ve thought that laziness can open up your mind in ways do-goodery does not?

I can’t quantify the negative impact that institutionalized assistance has had on people it purports to help. But the prevailing focus on the positive effects of do-goodery ensures that its negative effects are overlooked.

Before addressing the psychological process through which inappropriate help disempowers people, let’s consider what Graham Hancock says about the negative impact of government-sponsored interna­tional development aid as well as the immunity from criticism that helping behavior enjoys:

It would seem, then, that official development assistance is neither necessa­ry nor suffi­cient for ‘development’: the poor thrive without it in some coun­tries; in others, where it is plentifully available, they suffer the most abject mise­ries. Such suffering, furthermore, as I have argued throughout this book, often occurs not in spite of aid but because of it. To continue with the charade seems to me to be absurd. Garnered and justi­fied in the name of the destitute and the vulnerable, aid’s main function in the past half century has been to create and then entrench a powerful new class of rich and privileged people. In that notorious club of parasites and hangers-on made up of the United Nations, the World Bank and the bilateral agencies, it is aid – and nothing else – that has provided hundreds of thou­sands of ‘jobs for the boys’ and that has permitted record-breaking standards to be set in self-serving behaviour, arrogance, paternalism, moral cowardice and mendacity. [Lords of Poverty: The Freewheeling Lifestyles, Power, Pres­ti­ge and Corruption of the Multibillion Dollar Aid Business (Lon­don: Mandarin, 1991), pp. 192-193]

The “official aid industry” is realized outside the control of the taxpayer. External control, but internal control as well, is virtually non-existent, according to Hancock, because it is concerned with disaster relief, food relief, medical help, in short: with helping. It is not appropriate in the presence of all that misery to question or criticize the helpers who, in professional and paid positions, go to foreign countries in order to assuage the needs of others. The chari­table impulse at the root of much aid-giving is at its most potent during disasters and emergencies. It is, however, a dou­ble-edged sword. On the one hand it raises lots of money. On the other it stifles questi­ons about the uses to which this mo­ney is put – and makes those who ask such questions look rather chur­lish. Critici­zing humanita­rianism and generosity is like criticizing the institution of mother­hood; it is just not ‘the done thing.’” [Ibid., p. 5]

Further, Godfried Engbersen observes that

poverty generates work, not only for researchers, but also for the professionals participating in those poverty-programs. In the Netherlands, we see a significant growth in the number of employment and education projects, but the effects of this new poverty industry in improving the lot of welfare recipients and long-term unemployed are this far very limited. [“Moderne armoede: feit en fictie,” So­ci­ologi­sche Gids 38:1 (1991), pp. 7-23]

To understand how help can perpetuate conditions it purports to alleviate, the question, “Why do individuals, groups or organizations apply themselves to helping other people, groups or countries?” must be considered in greater depth. Theo N.M. Schuyt mentions a few darker motives: helpers’ own fear and helplessness (e.g, fear of those they are helping), self-interest, and the need for social control. Schuyt discusses these motives at length in “The Magnetism of Power in Helping Relationships. Professional Attitude and Asymmetry,” Social Work and Society International Online Journal Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004).

To fully appreciate how help can hinder people, we must examine the subtle but influential negative assumptions that underlie the act of helping others and the messages received by those who are helped. Research articles by Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi about teachers who overhelp their students  are informative in this regard. Although they must be purchased to view in their entirety, the previews support my view as to how helping reinforces negative self-evaluations of those in need; go here and  here (click “Look Inside”).

Whether one is giving or receiving help, a judgment about what one party has and the other lacks (e.g., resources, ability, etc.) precedes the interaction. Once this judgment is accepted, both parties’ understanding of the power asymmetry in the helping relationship is established:

We do not only evaluate others, but also ourselves, thus making up our self-image, a set of evaluative (and non-evaluative) beliefs about ourselves… But from self image the degree of autonomy of a person depends: if one has a positive evaluation of his own capacities and efficacy, he will pursue his goals in an autonomous and self-confident way. At school, for example, negative evaluations may have a serious impact on a pupil’s self-image, sense of efficacy, and learning: they tend to dis-able him, to make him less active, and possibly induce him to refrain from action. [Isabella Poggi and Francesca D’Errico, “Social Signals and the action – cognition loop. The case of over-help and evaluation,” Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction (New York: IEEE, 2009)]

One must wonder how dysfunctional motives, such as the ones listed above, warp helpers’ perception of themselves and the intended recipients of their help. Within the microcosm of the classroom, it is clear that negative self-evaluations on the part of students result when the teacher overhelps. According to Poggi and D’Errico,

Overhelping teachers induce more negative evaluations, more often concerning general capacities, and frequently expressed indirectly. This seems to show that the overhelp offered blocks a child’s striving for autonomy since it generates a negative evaluation, in particular the belief of an inability of the receiver. [Ibid.]

In conclusion, the manner in which overhelp negatively impacts social relationships and cognition has long been regarded as the reason why the poor stay poor. (See Schuyt, op. cit.)  In the effort to convince everyday do-gooders who support this type of aid because of their own dysfunctional emotional states, however, it will be necessary to frame the information in a more palatable way. In this regard, D’Errico et al. offer a few key questions and guidelines for distinguishing between help that promotes empowerment and autonomy from help that encourages dependency.

1. Is the problem to be solved possible manageable by the helped one?
2. May a humiliating intention (vs. a caring one) be inferred from the helping behavior?
3. Do the consequences of the helping behavior increase (vs. decrease) the power asymmetry needed for the help to occur?

Over-help occurs when the answer to at least one of these questions is positive. If answer to n.2 is negative, then over-help is in good face[sic], and we may speak of benevolent over-help; if positive, we may label it as malevolent over-help. [Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi, “Types of Help in the Teacher’s Multimodal Behavior,” Human Behavior Understanding, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 6219 (2010), pp 125-139]

I see this as a starting point. What else can we do to dismantle the status of altruism and helping behavior as sacred cows? How else can we reframe the discussion in such a way that would encourage others to regard these issues with more objectivity? Any thoughts?

Related reading: Leone, G.. eds. (2009) Le ambivalenze dell’aiuto. Teorie e pratiche del dare e del ricevere. Unicopli, Milano