Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Less Empathy, Please

Long time readers of this blog know that I have serious doubts about the uses of empathy. Readers of my book The Last Psychoanalyst know that I have proposed a theoretical rationale for my view.

I mention it because today’s psychotherapists believe that their mission is to enhance our ability to feel the pain of other people. Apparently, they do so because they deeply admire Bill Clinton, a paragon of human decency who famously told people that he could feel their pain.

In our empathy-laden correct world, a man wrote to Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence, to explain that his wife, owner of a ballet school, had received a request by two parents to offer private lessons to their ten-year-old son. The problem was, these parents were forcing the boy to spend two years acting like a girl, dressing like a girl, being called by a girl’s name. The better to help him to feel the pain of being an oppressed female.

I will accept this instance as anecdotal, but it is also true that research into the uses of empathy bears out my point of view.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom reports on it in the New York Times. He begins by asking whether our politics would be improved if we all felt more empathy:

What could be more exhilarating than experiencing the world through the perspective of another person? In “Remembrance of Things Past,” Marcel Proust’s narrator says that the only true voyage of discovery is not to visit other lands but “to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.” This is one of the central projects of the humanities; it’s certainly part of the pleasure we get from art and literature.

Many believe that this psychological connection is also essential for political change. They may argue, for instance, that in order for white Americans to adequately respond to the events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, they need to put themselves in the shoes of those in minority communities. After the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officers, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for changing police tactics, and then added: “The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes, to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams.”

As one might suspect, Hillary was reciting the gospel according to therapy. She seems to have learned it from her husband. The truth is, Bloom continues, we are largely incapable of feeling anyone else’s pain:

In his book “Mindwise,” the psychologist Nicholas Epley discusses experiments in which people were asked to judge the thoughts of strangers. These included asking speed daters to identify others who wanted to date them, asking job candidates how impressed their interviewers were with them and asking a range of people whether or not someone was lying to them.

People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.

Bloom suggests that we should not rely on empathy. He offers a better approach:

Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as “perched precariously between gift and invasion.”

A provocative thought. Therapists are supposed to be masters at listening to what their patients are saying. And yet, if this is true, why do they emphasize empathy and other forms of quasi-telepathic communication?

As for the question of whether an enhanced capacity for empathy improves our moral being, the Clintons should have long since dispelled that illusion.

In Bloom’s words:

Also, Mrs. Clinton might be mistaken in her claims about the moral importance of perspective-taking. Scholars ranging from Adam Smith to the contemporary literary critic Elaine Scarry have pointed out that when we try to act morally toward strangers based on empathic projection, we typically fail. This is in part because we’re not good at it, and in part because, when we allow ourselves to be guided by our feelings, our emotional investment in ourselves and those we love is overwhelming relative to our weak attachment to strangers. We become better people and better policy makers if we rely instead on more abstract principles of justice and fairness, along with a more diffuse compassion.

I will briefly take issue with Bloom’s suggestion that we should base our policy decisions on abstract principles. We do better to base them on facts, not ideals, on an objective appraisal of the present situation and on the record of what has succeeded of failed in the past.


Anonymous said...

There are some ideas in this video that cause me pain. So I don't agree with all of it. However, in this 2 hour video Sam Vaknin (a self-described narcissist) accurately describes, in a systematic way, how my mind and emotions actually work. He discusses the meaning of empathy as a projection of one's own experience onto others (38 minutes to 49 minutes into the video):


In the absence of empathy no inter-subjective agreement would be possible. A high capacity for empathy means a high capacity to have many personal experiences, such as Jesus story about the Rich Man and Lazarus (in this world the Rich Man ignores the suffering of the poor and in the next world he cannot rejoice with Lazarus and thus overcome his own torment). In short the Rich Man lacks empathy in this world and the next.

David Foster said...

In Erich Maria Remarque's great but neglected novel The Road Back, the narrator (Ernst) reflects on his feelings at the end of the Great War, observing that his own happiness at going home is not destroyed by the misery of those wounded so badly that they will not make it, and asks himself:

"Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers--is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?"

It seemed to me when I first read the passage that Ernst's hypothesis was an incomplete explanation, and I still think that. The causes of wars *include* empathy, specifically, for members of one's own nation and/or other people on whose behalf the war is (at least purportedly) being fought.

Ares Olympus said...

re: ...we should base our policy decisions on facts, not ideals, on an objective appraisal of the present situation and on the record of what has succeeded of failed in the past.

It seems like its easy to get confused what we're talking about. Specifically here it would seem we're talking empathy vs facts, or feelings vs facts, but what are facts? What are objective facts? How do we know what we know when confirmation bias means a large majority of the time we're filtering out information that contradicts what we expect to see, so as you say "ideals" are the problem, but how do you fight against seeing what you expect to see? How do turn off that part of your brain that anticipates reality and doesn't bother to check if reality followed through with what you assumed you just observed?

So Iain McGilchrist's presentation, like this abbreviated version suggest something of this dilemma as our "divided brain".

So he says our more left brain is where we create abstraction, where we can replace reality with a model of it, which is perhaps what "idealism" is about, and that allows us a necessary distance from our perceptions to be aware of wider perspectives that what is immediately in front of us, but it also allows us to narrow our attention, filter what we see. And he says language itself is an abstraction that allows us to deceive ourselves that we understand something, while the right brain is not verbal in the same way, and can't compete against rationalizations that are logically consistent, but only because they've eliminated everything that is alive and never fully known from awareness.

So I think he'd say our left brain makes Empathy, cognitive empathy I suppose I mean, and as your blog reminds us, it is wrong more than right, so we are better off asking people than assuming, which no one would disagree, but perhaps we should do both.

Cognitive Empathy allows us to imagine ourselves in someone else's place, and that helps us guess what might be going on inside of them, and the problem is if we assume we know, we'll likely be wrong, yet if we just ask people, they may be caught up in their own "hall of mirrors" of their left brain and totally missing what is obvious to you observing them from the outside, like when you ask if someone is angry and they respond angrily "No!"

If we're social beings, and half of the way we know ourselves is through how others see us, then we have to allow them to see us from the outside, and use their cognitive empathy to imagine how we might feel from the inside, and express those observations and guesses to us for contrast to our own self-perceptions. And that might help bridge us out of our own blind-spots of things we don't want to look at.

Finally I think of like the Golden Rule in relation to Empathy. The Golden rule says "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So its not as simple as you'd like since we're all different, and then you might conclude "I should always ask before I do anything that affects others", and then you get the extremes "yes means yes" where you have to verbalize every action in an intimate encounter and gain affirmation that that action is okay, and that's no fun. But then you can go to the opposite pole that says we're all adults and we're all responsible to say no to anything we don't like, and let the buyer beware. Did the woman want to have sex after she accepted her 6th drink? And even if the answer is "Yes", is she an integrated personality with a single point of view?

So I guess this all means ideals of content or ideals of libertarian maturity don't let anyone off the hook from responsibility. But if you have some cognitive empathy and perspective taking, perhaps you have more ability to avoid morally ambiguous situations?

Anonymous said...

But there is a paradox because without empathy there is no inter-subjective agreement. When we listen to others and respect their experience as different from our own, we treat them as fellow-subjects, and at least attempt to approximate understanding of their unique experience. How is this not an expression of empathy?

Stewart equivocates when discussing empathy, e.g., since empathy is used to justify bullying behavior, then empathy is bad, not the bullying behavior. If the bully had greater empathy for self and others she could not justify her bullying by calling it an effort to teach others empathy.