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.

Monday Musings

Seven years ago yesterday I became a resident of Austin, Texas. To put it differently, yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my residency in Texas. Note well that I say “seventh anniversary,” not “seven-year anniversary,” in the usage of the day.  Why? The word “anniversary” means “the annually recurring date of a past event.” To write or say “x-year anniversary” is redundant as well as graceless. To write or say “x-month anniversary” is nonsensical; what is meant is that such-and-such happened “x” months ago.

A long life is a good thing if it is lived well and in good health. Among my male ancestors, I have a paternal great, great, great, great (g-g-g-g) grandfather who lived to the age of 92. Perhaps he owed his longevity to a vigorous life; he emigrated from Dusseldorf to the colony of Pennsylvania, and fought on the wrong side in the Revolutionary War, for which he was rewarded with a tract of land in Canada. One of his grandsons (my paternal g-g-grandfather) lived to the age of 80. On my mother’s side, I can claim a g-grandfather who made it to 84 and a g-g-grandfather who lived to the age of 87. I do not know how well these ancestors lived, or the state of their health as old men, but they have (in some measure) bequeathed to me a good chance for a long life. Living well and to doing what I can to stay healthy are my responsibilities.

Speaking of genealogy, if you want to trace your “roots” without spending a lot of money, buy a software package (like Legacy Family Tree), consult your relatives and whatever materials they may have compiled, and hit the internet, where there is a wealth of free information. It takes a lot of searching and cross-checking to make connections and fill gaps, and what you find may not be well documented, but in the end you will have a much richer picture of your origins. I have traced 16 generations of my family, from Orne, France, in the 1500s to Virginia, U.S.A., in the 2000s.

All of this revelatory rambling reminds me of Facebook. I acquired a Facebook account so that I can follow the remarks of my daughter-in-law, who posts (usually) funny notes about events in the life her and my son’s household. Unfortunately, I have acquired a few other Facebook “friends” whose musings are of no interest to me. I have solved that problem by (a) hiding them on my home page and (b) going directly to my daughter-in-law’s Facebook “wall.”

Facebook “friends,” in most cases, are like work “friends.” It is possible to have a real, long-standing friendship with a work “friend,” but (in my experience) almost all work “friendships” end when “friends” no longer share an employer. Moreover, the older one gets, the less interested one is in acquiring friends (work-related or otherwise). I have two long-standing friendships; both started at work, but a long time ago (40 and 38 years, respectively), and neither is a close or deep one. I made my last work “friend” (and last friend of any kind) about 25 years ago, and that “friendship” dissolved about 15 years ago, even while both of us were still working at the same place. Other friendships — with neighbors, school-mates, and fellow collegians — have long since died of geographic, economic, and intellectual distance. I  have a small circle of acquaintances in Austin; they are good for a laugh over dinner and drinks, but I have no wish to become close to any of them (nor would I, even if they weren’t lefties, which is about all you can find in Austin). Given what I have just said, it is possible that I owe my dearth of friendships to my aloof personality (see this, this, and this). Friendships are said to contribute to good health and longevity, to which I say “bah, humbug!”

Which brings me to families. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with this famous sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I believe that happy families are as rare as close, long-standing friendships. I have a rough model of family relationships and the degree of lovingness and mutual regard that is to be found in them. From closeness to distance, it goes like this:

Spouse-children-grandchildren (all about the same)

Grandparents

Parents

Nieces and nephews

Cousins

Siblings

There are, of course, exceptions for those members of a family who are especially sunny, gloomy, nice, nasty, hard-working, indolent, temperate, drunken, etc. But my money is on a model in which sibling relationships are the most fraught of any.

You may have noticed the absence of in-laws from my model. I am loath to generalize about them. In my own case, I have a highly esteemed daughter-in-law. But it is easy to imagine cases in which many of one’s in-laws are at or near the bottom of the list.

Happy Monday.

The “Big Five” and Economic Performance

The “Big Five” doesn’t comprise Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, and Chrysler (soon to become the become the “Big Four”: Honda, Toyota, Ford, and GM-Chrysler-Obama Inc.). The “Big Five” refers to the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I discussed the Big Five at length here, and touched on them here. Now comes Arnold Kling, with an economic analysis of the Big Five, which draws on Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. Kling, in the course of his post, discusses Nettle’s interpretations of the Big Five.

Regarding Openness, Kling quotes Nettle thusly:

Some people are keen on reading and galleries and theatre and music, whilst others are not particularly interested in any of them. This tendency towards greater exploration of all complex recreational practices is uniquely predicted by Openness….

High Openness scorers are strongly drawn to artistic and investigative professions, and will often schew traditional institutional structure and progression in order to pursue them.

Precisely. For example,  a high Openness scorer (93rd percentile) progressed from low-paid analyst (with a BA in economics) to well-paid VP for finance and administration (with nothing more than the same BA in economics), stopping along the way to own and run a business and manage groups of PhDs. The underlying lesson: Education is far less important to material success than intellectual flexibility (high Openness), combined with drive (high Conscientiusness and Neuroticism), and focus (low Extraversion and Agreeableness).

Kling says this about Conscientiousness (self-discipline and will power):

I think that people with low Conscientiousness annoy me more than just about any other type of people.

Me, too (Conscientiousness score: 99th percentile). I find it hard to be around individuals who always put off until tomorrow what they could do in a minute, who never read or return the books and DVDs you lend them, who are always ready to excuse failings (theirs and others), and who then try to cast their lack of organization (and resulting lack of personal accomplishment) as a virtue: “Life is too short to sweat the small stuff.” Yeah, but you never sweat the big stuff, either; look at the state of your house and your bank account. The small stuff and big stuff come in a single package.

According to Kling, “Nettle thinks of Extraversion as something like lust for life, sensation-seeking, and ambition.” More from Nettle:

We should be careful in equating Extraversion with sociability… shyness is most often due to … high Neuroticism and anxiety….

…The introvert is, in a way, aloof from the rewards of the world, which gives him tremendous strength and independence from them.

Right on, says this introvert (Extraversion score: 4th percentile).

Kling says this about Agreeableness:

To be agreeable, you have to be able to “mentalize” (read the feelings of others, which autistic people have trouble doing) and empathize (that is, care about others’ feelings, given that you can read them. Sociopaths can read you, but they don’t mind making you feel bad.)

On average, women are more agreeable than men. That is why Peter Thiel may have been onto something when he said that our country changed when women got the right to vote. If people project their personalities onto politics, and if agreeability goes along with more socialist policies, then giving women the right to vote should make countries more socialist.

Thiel is on to something. Although socialism gained a foothold in the U.S. during TR’s reign (i.e., long before the passage of Amendment XIX to the Constitution), it’s important to note that women were prominent agitators and muck-rakers in the early 1900s. Among other things, women were the driving force behind Prohibition. That failed experiment can now be seen as an extremely socialistic policy; it attempted to dictate a “lifestyle” choice, just as today’s socialists try to dictate  “lifestyle” choices about what we smoke, eat, drive, say, etc. — and with too-frequent success. If socialism isn’t a “motherly” attitude, I don’t know what is. (Full disclosure, my Agreeableness score is 4th percentile. Just leave me alone and I’ll live my life quite well, without any help from government, thank you.)

Finally, there’s Neuroticism, about which Nettle says:

There are motivational advantages of Neuroticism. There may be cognitive ones too. It has long been known that, on average, people are over-optimistic about the outcomes of their behaviour, especially once they have a plan… This is well documented in the business world, with its over-optimistic growth plans, and also in military leadership, where it is clear that generals are routinely over-sanguine about their likely progress and under-reflective about the complexities….

…Professional occupations are those that mainly involve thinking, and it is illuminating that Neuroticism tended to be advantageous in these fields and not in, say, sales.

Neuroticism (also known as Emotional Stability) is explained this way by an organization that administers the “Big Five” test:

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 than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish a ones ability to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress.

Take a person who is low in Emotional Stability (my score: 12th percentile), low in Extraversion, but high in Conscientiousness and Openness. Such a person is willing and able to tune out the distractions of the outside world, and to channel his drive and intellectual acumen in productive, creative ways — until he finally says “enough,” and quits the world of work to enjoy the better things in life.