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 the example 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.

 

Lexicon

Activist. A person who

  • puts one desideratum above all others;
  • cares not how much it costs to achieve the desideratum;
  • cares not about the costs imposed on others;
  • or believes that government spending is “free.”

Anniversary.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.

Compassion. A trait that an activistliberal (progressive) claims to possess, which is measured by the cost (to others) of achieving their desiderata.

Data. The most offensive of the many abhorrent usages now current is the treatment of “data” as a singular noun. A person who says “data is” is at best an ignoramus and at worst a Philistine.

Language, above all else, should be used to make one’s thoughts clear to others. The pairing of a plural noun and a singular verb form is distracting, if not confusing. Even though datum is seldom used by Americans, it remains the singular foundation of data, which is the plural form. Data, therefore, never “is”; they always “are.

Fowler says:

Latin plurals sometimes become singular English words (e.g., agenda, stamina) and data is often so treated in U.S.; in Britain this is still considered a solecism…. (H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, second edition, p.119)

But Follett is better on the subject:

Those who treat data as a singular doubtless think of it as a generic noun, comparable to knowledge or information…. [A generous interpretation: ED.] The rationale of agenda as a singular is its use to mean a collective program of action, rather than separate items to be acted on. But there is as yet no obligation to change the number of data under the influence of error mixed with innovation. (Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage, pp. 130-1)

To say “data are” is to present oneself as a learned person of high standards. That, unfortunately, is an “old fashioned” attitude in this day of dumbed-down vulgarity.

He. It has become fashionable for academicians and pseudo-serious writers (e.g., those who spill pixels at The New Republic) to use “she” where “he” long served as the generic (and sexless) reference to a singular third-person. Here is an especially grating passage:

What is a historian of ideas to do? A pessimist would say she is faced with two options. She could continue to research the Enlightenment on its own terms, and wait for those who fight over its legacy—who are somehow confident in their definitions of what “it” was—to take notice. Or, as [Jonathan] Israel has done, she could pick a side, and mobilise an immense archive for the cause of liberal modernity or for the cause of its enemies. In other words, she could join Moses Herzog, with his letters that never get read and his questions that never get answered, or she could join Sandor Himmelstein and the loud, ignorant bastards. (Ollie Cussen, “The trouble with the enlightenment,” Prospect, May 5, 2013).

I don’t know about you, but am distracted by the use of “she.” First, because it’s not the norm, my first reaction to reading it in place of “he” is to wonder who this “she” is; whereas,  the function of “he” a a stand-in for anyone (regardless of gender) was well understood. Second, the usage is so obviously meant to mark the writer as politically correct, that it colors the reader’s assessment of the writer’s authority, for good or ill (and definitely for ill, as I see it).

Liberal (or progressive). Same as activist, but with a long list of desiderata.

Man. Here’s another word (like “he”) that was for ages perfectly understood (in the proper context) as referring to persons in general, not to male persons in particular. (“Mankind” merely adds a superfluous syllable.)

The short, serviceable “man” has been replaced, for the most part, by “humankind.” I am baffled by the need to replaced one syllable with three. I am baffled further by the persistence of “man” — a sexist term — in the three-syllable substitute. But it gets worse when writers strain to avoid the solo use of “man” by resorting to “human beings” and the “human species.” These are longer than “humankind,” and both retain the accursed “man.”

The political-correctness feminazi brigade needs to invent a better replacement for “man.” “Huwomynkind” perhaps?

The feminazi brigade’s fondest wish, of course, is to replace men, or simply to eradicate them. Luckily, those of their number who come early to the feminist religion are unlikely to reproduce. This is a blessing to the children they will not have and to the future of man — the species known as homo sapiens.

Niggardly. Some years ago, I met with a group of employees to discuss the state of the company’s budget. In the course of the discussion I used the word “niggardly” (meaning stingy or penny-pinching). The next day a fellow vice president informed me that some of the black employees in her division of the company had been offended by “niggardly.” I suggested that the correct response to their objection was not to abandon a serviceable word, but to offer remedial training in English vocabulary.

Where’s the (Intellectual) Beef?

That’s what Virgina Postrel asks, in effect (“Harvard Pledge Values ‘Kindness’ Over Learning“):

When the members of the class of 2015 arrived at Harvard College this fall, they encountered a novel bit of moral education. Their dorm proctors — the grad students who live with freshmen to provide guidance and enforce discipline — invited each student to sign a pledge developed by the Freshman Dean’s Office. It reads, in full:

“At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that ‘each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.’ That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

“As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.”…

Kindness isn’t a public or intellectual virtue, but a personal one. It is a form of love. Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism — even objective, impersonal, well- intended, constructive criticism — isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating “kindness” as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it….

Consider a common argument in favor of the pledge. It starts with a survey last spring in which then-freshmen were asked to indicate how they believed Harvard ranked various values, and then to do the same ranking for themselves….

Where in the list of ranked values are curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth? (Were these values even options?) Where is critical thinking? No wonder the pledge talks about “attainment.” Attainment equals study cards and good grades — a transcript to enable the student to move on to the next stage. Attainment isn’t learning, questioning or criticizing. It’s getting your ticket punched.

Harvard is the strongest brand in American higher education, and its identity is clear. As its students recognize, Harvard represents success. But, it seems, Harvard feels guilty about that identity and wishes it could instead (or also) represent “compassion.” These two qualities have a lot in common. They both depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.

Harvard’s emphasis on “kindness” reminds me that empathy is overrated:

[T]here 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.