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empathy used to abuse others and empathy used to help others
March 26, 2013 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The two aspects of empathy, cognitive and affective, as described succinctly and clearly by neuroscientist Simon Baron Cohen. Ever wondered how chronically abusive people seem to have X-ray vision knowing just what cruel thing to say to hurt most? It's because they have greater cognitive empathy and less - or very little - affective empathy. Psychologist, Daniel Goleman adds another aspect of empathy into the picture, compassionate empathy.
posted by nickyskye (37 comments total) 105 users marked this as a favorite

 
I had to read this twice to make sure this wasn't his more famous cousin, Sacha. Have to run out the door but will definitely watch this later.
posted by jquinby at 1:52 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have trouble with understanding empathy: how much is too much? Do I have too little? So I can't wait to watch this later. In the meantime, learn about empathy through song!
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:42 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Professor Baron-Cohen certainly does describe the concept of empathy succinctly.

Regular function = cognitive and affective empathy.
Autistics = impaired cognitive but normal affective empathy.
Dark Triad = normal cognitive but impaired affective empathy.

It's such a neat model that I'm reluctant to consider compassionate empathy as a third element to be added to the picture. But Goleman is right that there are people who possess a certain... something, a quality that drives them to take action while others dither and stand around. But couldn't this capacity for compassionate empathy be more a matter of training, and less of an innate quality in someone's personality?
posted by Kevin Street at 2:43 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kristin Neff talks about this in an interview (look especially at 14:00 and 17:05).

This failure to distinguish has been a pet peeve of mine for quite a while, like, more than a decade. Since the self-compassion movement is taking off, I'm glad to see that Baron Cohen has realized that the idea will sell. He's very good at discerning what the media and the public want to hear.
posted by tel3path at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know some people with autistic children (and bodies full of scars to show for it) who would be a little bemused by his blanket statement that autistic people don't hurt or injure others. I'm not sure if that is fundamentally a challenge to his model or if its a case of a certain kind of information processing problem interfering with the autistic person's "normal" empathic response (i.e., that it's not so much "I don't care that hitting Mum with this heavy object will hurt her" as "for the moment I can't really comprehend that hitting Mum with this heavy object will hurt her") or what, but it did make me wish for a more nuanced account.
posted by yoink at 2:51 PM on March 26, 2013


I had to read this twice to make sure this wasn't his more famous cousin, Sacha.

Sacha's more of a field researcher, when it comes to behavioral science.
posted by Strange Interlude at 3:03 PM on March 26, 2013 [22 favorites]


if its a case of a certain kind of information processing problem interfering with the autistic person's "normal" empathic response (i.e., that it's not so much "I don't care that hitting Mum with this heavy object will hurt her" as "for the moment I can't really comprehend that hitting Mum with this heavy object will hurt her")

Yes, it is an information processing problem called an autism spectrum disorder. Difficulty with cognitive empathy is a defining feature of autism spectrum disorders. Cognitive empathy is the ability to figure out what other people have going on in their heads, including things like pain. There are also other aspects of autism spectrum disorder that might lead to aggressive behavior as well, and neurotypical children can also be aggressive.

You're not at all challenging his model, you just don't understand it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:05 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The argument he provides in the first minute about why we should prefer scientific investigations characterized in terms of empathy rather than in terms of evil was a red herring, though he kind of cruised on by it. Two points:

(i) "Evil" needn't be defined as the absence of good (as Baron-Cohen proposes). And even if "evil" were so defined, that wouldn't be circular. We'd simply need to provide a definition of "good" that isn't in terms of evil. So the concept of evil is not "circular" (as Baron-Cohen claims).

(ii) "Being evil" and "lacking (affective) empathy" are predicates that serve different functions. The first is evaluative, the second merely descriptive. Baron-Cohen's provided a neat way of explaining why certain people are evil. Why? They have a low degree of affective empathy, which causes them to act in ways we consider evil. However, this story doesn't explain the evaluative component --- why do we consider those acts, rather than others, to be evil? This is still a good question, it's one that we need the concept of evil to ask, and it cannot be answered using only the notion of empathy.

The point is that even if we accept what Baron-Cohen says about empathy --- and again, the story is a neat one --- we really can't dispense with the concept of evil, or operationally define it in terms of empathy.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:22 PM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Kevin Street : It's such a neat model that I'm reluctant to consider compassionate empathy as a third element to be added to the picture.

Well said. I feel ambivalent about the third aspect too but the other day I was describing this dual aspect of empathy to a police officer, who was standing there guarding the bank, while I was waiting to see one of the people at a desk. It ended up being almost an hour's wait and he told me about his life as a soldier in combat, how he had culminated in thinking of empathy as merely catering to others' needs, rather than a healthy response. For him, this urge to be compassionate put his life in danger as a soldier and an officer.

He also described seeing a woman who had been involved in a traffic accident that morning in Brooklyn, lying cut in half on the street. I could see that he was struggling to find a way to accept himself as a soldier, a cop and a man, who wanted to be loving but afraid of the consequences.

In describing the functions of empathy to him, I found myself trying to describe the empathy needed as part of a professional position in life, as a person exposed to others' pain and having to respond appropriately, neither over-the-top emotionally, nor overly detached. It seems this is a sort of professional empathy Goleman is describing, that he calls compassionate empathy, one in use by people constantly exposed to suffering, hospice workers, doctors, nurses, therapists of all kinds, fireman, cops, teachers in high school. It is an empathy to some degree kept in check wisely but not overly.

Curious if you or anyone has thoughts on that.

voltairemodern : we really can't dispense with the concept of evil, or operationally define it in terms of empathy

I agree with you on one hand and disagree on the other hand. For many years I've studied the relationship damage done by a pathological narcissist, one who is gifted with cognitive empathy and seriously deficient in affective empathy. The people abused by narcissists tend to describe the abusers as evil because narcissists know full well what is right and wrong and do the harmful thing, sadistically.

But, pathological narcissists are neurologically impaired, in that they are deficient in affective empathy. They cannot respond appropriately to others' suffering, unless forced by some circumstance to do this. The appropriate affective response does not come naturally to them. Because narcissists - sociopaths or psychopaths - have a choice and do the right or wrong, and choose the harmful thing, they are considered evil.

This may be a social response, saying it's evil, but, neurologically, it may not be evil, because it is the response they make because they are affective empathy impaired. Interesting subject semantically speaking.
posted by nickyskye at 3:36 PM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


You're not at all challenging his model, you just don't understand it.

He says, in so many words, that autistic people, while they do not understand other people's motivations and actions, DO feel affective empathy for their emotional states and therefore did not inflict injury on other people--which is clearly a false statement when made in that blanket fashion. I think you have misunderstood what I was troubled by in his presentation.
posted by yoink at 3:41 PM on March 26, 2013


They have a low degree of affective empathy, which causes them to act in ways we consider evil. However, this story doesn't explain the evaluative component --- why do we consider those acts, rather than others, to be evil? This is still a good question, it's one that we need the concept of evil to ask, and it cannot be answered using only the notion of empathy.

We consider those act to be "evil" because the majority of humans in the middle of the bell curve of empathy can empathize with the pain caused by those acts. We can understand that the act was hurtful to the other person, and we can feel hurt even though the act was not perpetrated upon us. It doesn't take a supernatural sense of Evil existing in the world to explain this. Empathy actually does a really good job of explaining why we approve of some acts and disapprove of others.
posted by vytae at 3:42 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


vytae: It doesn't take a supernatural sense of Evil existing in the world to explain this.

I forgot that this was one other part of Baron-Cohen's brief discussion of evil that I found perplexing and unnecessary. Evil is not necessarily a "supernatural" concept, and I don't see why anyone would think that it is. The general line of thought seems to be connected to the (terrible) argument that atheists can't have a morality because moral/evaluative terms only have meaning in the context provided by religion. But that's just not true. Acts can be evil whether or not God exists.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:56 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


What do you mean by evil?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:04 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I try to explain the similarity in the phenotypes of the cluster of traits tagged as BPD and ASPD, I use a cognitive model of empathy a lot. Remember its evolutionary origins: it's a kind of a spandrel of neural arrays that helps you model the behaviour of others, so you can make predictions about where and when best to pounce and eat them.
posted by meehawl at 4:16 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm an atheist and I think I have pretty good morality. But just as I don't believe in God, I don't believe in Evil as a noun. It's a useful adjective to describe deplorable acts, but it is not a thing that causes those acts. Evil is not an explanation for why people do bad things.

So voltairemodern, I think we're on the same page. Like you said, "Acts can be evil whether or not God exists." But empathy is what allows us to evaluate acts as evil or not evil. We don't have to be able to see whether an act has elements of some outside thing called Evil, because there is no outside thing.
posted by vytae at 4:29 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


I thought the discussion of "evil" was about the fact that it's not a descriptive or scientific concept. It doesn't tell us anything, it can't be measured, it's just a stronger synonym for "bad".

Also I think when he said autistic people don't hurt others, he meant that they don't get anything out of hurting others. But I was disappointed that he didn't explain why psychopaths do seem to get something positive out of hurting others. Maybe they do have affective empathy but reversed, like the signal comes in upside down.
posted by bleep at 4:29 PM on March 26, 2013


Amusingly, I know one person who perhaps separated his emotional and cognitive empathy into his different life activities, which suggests the truth might be more complicated. I'd consider this distinction an interesting, and useful, approximation nonetheless, well that's everything in psychology.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2013


bleep : he didn't explain why psychopaths do seem to get something positive out of hurting others

I think he does point at this (6:39 in the vid) by saying diminished affective empathy is connected with being abused as a child (emotional neglect and absence of parental love), a genetic component (MAO-A gene) and fetal testosterone.
posted by nickyskye at 4:47 PM on March 26, 2013


Did anyone else notice that the linear fit in the graph at 8:22 is complete BS?
posted by cman at 4:53 PM on March 26, 2013


cman, a better image of that same graph is here.
posted by nickyskye at 5:09 PM on March 26, 2013


This is really fascinating stuff. Thank you!

If anyone wants more detail from Baron-Cohen, there's a longer, more involved version of this talk that he gave to the RSA, found here. He expounds on the "erosion of empathy", and goes into a bit more detail on the points in the TEDx talk (plus bonus empathetic Rhesus monkeys and a Q&A)
posted by menialjoy at 5:33 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Remember its evolutionary origins: it's a kind of a spandrel of neural arrays that helps you model the behaviour of others, so you can make predictions about where and when best to pounce and eat them.

Of course, we often predict, pounce, miss and go hungry.
posted by carping demon at 5:34 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


And what vytae said.
posted by carping demon at 5:37 PM on March 26, 2013


I get that a gene interacting with an abusive environment is linked to not having the same ability to feel other people's pain in a way that makes you not want them to come to harm. Probably because its never modeled for you and neither is it built in. But the other part is that actually causing people harm seems to bring positive pleasure or thrill. It's not just lack empathy, it's the opposite of empathy.
posted by bleep at 6:28 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


bleep, what you're talking about is a topic that really interests me and for which I have no answers, only speculation. Perhaps there is some writing out there about this, I just have not come across it yet. I think the neurological deficit in affective empathy is one part in the sadism of narcissists/sociopaths. The sadistic part seems to me to also connected with the concept that people who are wounded tend to want to inflict pain on others, "acting out" the emotional damage they experienced and finding some relief in that release of aggression.
posted by nickyskye at 7:00 PM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


vytae, voltaire: "why do we consider those acts, rather than others, to be evil?"

I should think it's obvious: it's a value judgment originating from affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy does not ascribe value to emotions; it merely recognizes them. A crying face indicates suffering. A laughing face indicates pleasure. The suffering and pleasure of others have no intrinsic value from a cognitive empathy standpoint.

It's affective empathy that imbues them with value. I know that suffering feels bad; making others feel bad makes me feel bad; thus, I should try not to cause suffering.

Thus we have evil: what the majority of neurotypicals feels bad about.
posted by leahzero at 7:49 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I should think it's obvious: it's a value judgment originating from affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy does not ascribe value to emotions; it merely recognizes them. A crying face indicates suffering. A laughing face indicates pleasure. The suffering and pleasure of others have no intrinsic value from a cognitive empathy standpoint.

It's affective empathy that imbues them with value. I know that suffering feels bad; making others feel bad makes me feel bad; thus, I should try not to cause suffering.

Thus we have evil: what the majority of neurotypicals feels bad about.


This is Schopenhauer's "On the Basis of Morality," minus his metaphysical interpretation of ethics. I'm not going to dig out my copy, but the brief quotes on the Wikipedia page give an adequate sense of Schopenhauer's essay. Schopenhauer puts Kant's Categorical Imperative out of its misery, in my opinion.

As for the post itself, too many emotional triggers for me. I will watch and read when I'm in a better frame of mind.
posted by TrolleyOffTheTracks at 9:59 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the other part is that actually causing people harm seems to bring positive pleasure or thrill. It's not just lack empathy, it's the opposite of empathy.

Maybe it's not just that they suffer from a complete lack of affective empathy but that their cognitive empathy and affective empathy capacities are sort of wired at cross-purposes, so that other people's suffering triggers more or less the opposite emotional affect. Don't people with these sorts of issues also tend to feel bad when they see other's experiencing happiness?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:03 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article on compassionate empathy talks about empathic concern being missing from politicians during the Katrina crisis, but also mentions how a social worker can't afford too much empathy. While, of course, we want politicians to have empathy, might not the same thing be said about them as is said about a social worker? That too much would hinder good decision-making?

I'm certainly not arguing that "enough" empathy was displayed in the Katrina case, just wondering if there is some good way to talk about how much, what kind, and best allocation of empathy might be best in a political context.

What I mean is -- do these kinds of writings help point to a way to have a real (not to hot, not too cold) discussion of what qualities to seek, nurture, and educate in our politicians? After all, we find and make them. We could do a better job. Is this being addressed anywhere?
posted by amtho at 7:31 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Finally got around to reading the Goleman piece. I wish he talked more about how people can maintain their empathy without experiencing burnout, when their daily jobs are to help people who are suffering. I'm an oncology nurse, so goodness knows my coworkers and I could use that kind of theoretical framework.

"With this kind of [compassionate] empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed."

Goleman talks about burnout coming from a person's inability to keep their own emotional empathy tamped down, but contrasts this with the equally unappealing indifference that can appear when someone in a helping profession detaches completely from the emotions of their clients. He seems to think that compassionate empathy is the solution somehow, but I disagree. The battle between giving into and completely squelching our emotional empathy is tough, yeah. But personally I think a much, much bigger source of burnout is being constantly thwarted in our compassionate empathy. It sucks to do everything you can for someone, and to know that there are still so many things they need help with that you can't fix.

The truth is that a social worker, a nurse, people in caring and helping professions can almost always see ways in which a person needs help, that we are not empowered to provide. Often these issues are outside of our scope of practice, which is tough. I wish I could cure someone's cancer, or help their spouse get a job so that the kids will be provided for when they're gone, but those aren't things a nurse can do. But more frequently, and more distressingly, there are often things that are within the scope of nursing that I simply don't have the time to help with. Every day I go to the hospital and work like crazy to help people, but I still don't have time to do everything I feel I should be doing for my patients. I am "spontaneously moved to help," but when the realities of the situation don't allow me to do so, again and again, that is what leads to burnout.
posted by vytae at 8:42 AM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


vytae, First of all, thank you SO much for the job you do and for being a compassionate person. I am sure those who experience your compassion are most grateful for it.

As a late stage cancer patient I've come to the conclusion through experience, that many of the surgeons and doctors are more technicians than doctors in the whole sense of that concept of being a doctor. I think quite a few of the likable doctors I've met are somewhere on the Asperger's continuum, not able to read other people's feelings very well. This ends up being part of the doctor-as-specialist thing, rather than doctor as healer.

It then falls to the nurses to be the compassionately empathetic ones, which is such a huge burden, unfairly balanced in a hospital. I can well imagine how particularly hard that would be as an oncology nurse.

As someone who helps those who have survived emotional damage done by pathological narcissists, I have on occasion experienced empathy burnout because I used to over-extend affective empathy. So I interpret Goleman's idea of compassionate empathy as being a more professional kind of empathy, a sort of well-muscled version, that has become honed with experience to neither be despairing nor over-extended. Although the truth is that I still sometimes feel despairing and still sometimes over extend, but a lot less than before.

Perhaps nurses might get together with administrators to discuss the topic of empathy in a scientific way, in a hospital setting? The motivation might be that it would likely be a way that patients would be less likely to sue out of anger. It might bring down medical malpractice lawsuits and the cost of that insurance for the doctors/hospitals? The only reason I suggest that is that empathy has traditionally not been that valued, except in women in their roles as mothers and wives, ie in relation to their roles with men. The doctors are mostly male, so there is this divide in hospitals between male technicians with less cognitive empathy and female caretakers with frustrated affective empathy. There might be empathy classes for both doctors and nurses? Like showing them the Cohen video, practical ideas on how to be empathy balanced?
posted by nickyskye at 10:15 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nickyskye, I would love if my hospital had a program like that. I see 2 competing interests in hospital work as a whole lately, the first being to accomplish more with less resources/money, and the second being to improve patient satisfaction scores which are reported publicly online. On a cynical day it seems like hospital administration only cares about those patient satisfaction numbers because they think the scores will affect patients' decisions about what hospital to go to, which hits their bottom line. On hopeful days, I realize that those patient surveys are one way nurses can make the case that giving us time to be empathetic is good for the hospital's financial status. I'd like to think everyone in healthcare is there to help people, but I can also see the reality from the business side that if we go bankrupt we won't be able to help anyone. As with most things in life, there are frustrating compromises to be made.

I think that balance you describe, where we're neither despairing nor over-extended, sounds perfect. "I can't do anything!" and "I can't do everything!" are both miserable places to be. "I can do something" is important.
posted by vytae at 1:16 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


"One thing those of you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not: we who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs or seem to seek them, who are hyper-sensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors – we're not that way from perversity, and cannot just relax and let it go. We've learned to cope in ways you never had to." – Piers Anthony

there's a longer, more involved version of this talk that he gave to the RSA

that reminded me of this one by jeremy rifkin on empathy as the basis for civilisation :P (never mind morality!)
posted by kliuless at 3:21 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fascinating. My ex had zero cognitive empathy and a ton of emotional empathy. He was also abusive. I feel so bad for him - and like nickyskye and voltairemodern both illuminate so eloquently above, I don't think this is about him being evil. I think that lacking empathy and being evil are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but I also think they are related.

And although some people might consider what abusers do to be evil, I don't - I think it comes from a missing piece or screw or crossed wire (metaphorically speaking). I actually feel a lot of empathy for people who have no cognitive empathy. What a horrifying life they must be living, particularly during those painful moments where they recognize what they are doing.
posted by sockermom at 8:49 PM on March 27, 2013


sockermom, those with little or no cognitive empathy, people on the autistic scale, basically cannot recognize what they are missing when it comes to not being able to read others in the same way that neurotypicals can read others' emotions.
posted by nickyskye at 5:52 AM on March 28, 2013


But they can still feel pain, and even moreso because they feel the results of hurting someone knowing they lack the tools to know how to not hurt that person in the first place. Although I've read in some cases people who can't intuitively read peoples' faces and cues can learn to.
posted by bleep at 10:15 AM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Two empathy, very nice I like! - Simon Baron Cohen
posted by amitai at 9:40 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


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