Monday, November 23, 2015

Less Empathy Please

Remember the old days when mothers loved their children. Remember the time when mothers had a maternal instinct that told them how to care for their children. Remember the old days when fathers also loved their children, but had a paternal instinct that told them to protect and provide for their children.

Well, in the minds of today’s psychologists those days are gone. We are living in the kingdom or queendom or persondom of empathy. Mothers and fathers do not, respectively, nurture and protect. They feel empathy for their offspring. It’s as though the psychologists were reinventing human nature by reducing all human sentiment to their favorite emotional fetish, empathy. Whatever they do, whatever they feel, it’s all a function of their empathy.

Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. Since his expertise is in empathy, he sees it everywhere. It’s an occupational hazard. But he became especially attuned to it after his wife gave birth to their first child.

Zaki is totally in touch with his feelings:

I’ve grown more suspicious of strangers, for example. I’ve mentally rehearsed potential sidewalk conflicts. I’ve researched nearby boxing gyms, as though by becoming stronger or more threatening, I could somehow keep her safe.

One might say that this is normal fatherly behavior. Fathers protect and provide for their children. They feel especially protective toward their daughters. Frankly, it has nothing to do with empathy. Zaki is not feeling his daughter's helplessness. He is feeling his own power and responsibility. It has everything to do with being a father.

And you might think that Zaki, like a normal father, loves his daughter beyond anything he has felt before. And yet, he does not call it love. He calls it empathy:

First—and this one is easy—I feel empathy for my child on a scale I’ve never experienced before. Second, I can feel my empathy for others sometimes diminish in her presence. A spate of research on parenthood and family suggests that I’m in good company.

This should not be too much of a shock. We do not care equally for everyone. We do not feel everyone’s pain. Our capacity for empathy, Zaki is suggesting, is limited. We cannot care equally for everyone. If you do, you have a problem.

One wonders whether anyone ever thought that we could. After all, a helpless neonate, being your flesh and blood has more right, not so much to your empathy but to your care and concern and attention. As always, it’s not so much what you feel but what you do. This is even more true when said being is totally helpless and has a very limited vocabulary.

It ought to be obvious that a psychologist would want to bathe the mother- infant relationship in empathy. He is curious about the way infants communicate with their mothers and the way mothers learn what the different cries and noises mean. It should be obvious that mothers are guided by their maternal instinct. It should also be obvious that mothers gain experience with their children and learn to identify different cries and noises. Does this mean that women have greater empathy or does it mean that they spend more time with their babies and give themselves over more fully to caring for them?

The question is not merely sensitivity to needs, but also the ability to read signs and to know how to respond. You can call it empathy if you wish, but I suspect that there is more to it than feeling someone else’s pain. Feeling and doing are not the same thing. The latter does not necessarily follow from the former.

One might well call it an apprenticeship in caring for neonates, as Zaki does, but clearly there is more to it than that:

Psychologists argue that the need to support helpless offspring drove the development of neural, chemical, and psychological sensitivity to others’ needs. These same responses can also inspire all sorts of prosocial behaviors towards non-family, from large-scale philanthropy to everyday acts of kindness. Through the course of evolution, the story goes, children taught parents how to care.

Obviously, there are different ways to care for different people. A mother and a newborn is an extreme case because of the baby’s complete helplessness. And also because an infant, as the Latin root of the word suggests, cannot speak.  And yet, if you care for other people the way you are caring for an infant, you might be accused of infantilizing them.

Zaki continues:

In 1999, the psychiatrist James Leckman found that new mothers study spent, on average, 14 hours per day thinking about their newborns. Much of this time was spent on positive feelings, but it also included recurring fear for their child’s safety. Like someone repeatedly checking the stove to make sure it’s off, new parents vigilantly search for any risk to their baby.

If it is true that new mothers are naturally inclined to spend most of their waking hours thinking about their newborns,  doesn’t that suggest that they are most qualified to care for them. Surely, it does not suggest that they must rush back to work as quickly as they can, lest their career advancement be compromised. Will a worker in a daycare facility care as much for a child as a mother will? Will said worker be able to provide what a mother would?

One recalls a recent New York Times story about a young mother who, being the family breadwinner, was forced to go back to work to support her family. She put her baby in daycare. Something happened on the first day in daycare and the child died. Link here.

It might have been an unavoidable accident, but still one wonders why we do not consider some of the potential problems that arise when we decide that mothers should be breadwinners.

Zaki’s theoretical interest lies in the fact that once a child is born the family tends to divide the world into us and them. The family tends to prefer those who need them the most and who carry their genes. This causes it to have diminished empathy for the needs of outsiders.

He writes:

 Parental nerves can also double down on another core feature of human psychology: our tendency to split the world into us and them. These social boundaries can be biological (old versus young), cultural (Yankee fans vs. Red Sox fans), or momentary (one pick-up basketball team versus another). Each type of division causes people to elevate their own side and fail to empathize with the other. And when people are stressed, past research has found, they’re more likely to feel a stronger sense of “groupiness” and to help only others who are close to them.


Family, the most powerful and smallest us to which most people belong, carpets the world in a vast, undifferentiated them. This boundary can dampen our empathy for outsiders, especially when they might imperil our own tiny tribe. 

Of course, if we are spending so much time caring for our children we have less energy and less focus to care for the children of other people. This seems fairly normal, and Zaki admits it to be so. We can explain it easily by saying that we assume that other human beings will possess the same instincts as we do and will want to care for their own children. They might not even want us to interfere in the process. You might call this apathy, but it also shows respect for the moral capacity of other beings. Keep in mind Stoics considered apathy to be the ultimate in human feeling. They believed that it was better to be free from the influence of emotions. 

It does not seem to be completely unintelligible:

To me, the risk is not that fatherhood will cause me to feel antipathy for outsiders, but rather that I’ll feel apathy towards non-family members—in essence, that caring for my daughter will make it harder for me to care about anyone else. Will I still be able to invest in my friends’ hopes or my graduate students’ tribulations when she needs me so much more than they do? I know what Kevin meant when he describes parenthood as heart-expanding. But by funneling our empathy into one person, it might contract us, too.

So, Zaki wants to know whether our capacity for empathy is finite or infinite. It is not the most interesting question, but here is his answer:

Based on my own research with Dweck, I have a hunch that empathy works the same way—people are most likely to run out of it when they believe they have only so much to give. Some psychologists have drawn distinctions between two types of empathy: vicariously sharing someone else’s pain, and compassionately wishing to improve others’ experiences. In this view, the former leads to emotional fatigue, while the latter rejuvenates. People who construe empathy as compassion, therefore, might find more space for it within themselves. 

One appreciates that Zaki has replaced empathy with compassion. The first definition makes good sense: empathy is about feeling someone else’s pain. The second, the wish to improve someone else’s experience is not really a function of empathy, so one does not know why he threw it in. Besides, feeling someone else’s pain does not, I would emphasize, mean that you know what to do about it or whether you are responsible to do anything about it. If you feel an infant's helplessness you will also feel that you are helpless to do anything about it.

There comes a time when you have to tell yourself that not everyone needs or wants your compassion or even your pity or even your love. What makes us think that we have a duty to solve everyone’s problems or to reduce their suffering? If they ask for our help, that is one thing. But empathy presupposes that we can feel their pain without their even telling us that they are feeling it and certainly without their asking us to solve the problem that is causing it. Unless they are neonates most human beings have the capacity to solve their problems. Most of them do not want other people butting into their business. The more we insist on helping people to solve their problems the more they will become habituated to having someone else solve their problems for them.

Perhaps, instead of aspiring to become maniacal empaths we should learn how to respect the privacy of other people.


Sam L. said...

I believe Zaki has been educated way past his ability to learn.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: ...feeling someone else’s pain does not, I would emphasize, mean that you know what to do about it or whether you are responsible to do anything about it.

This statement is obvious if we assume the purpose of empathy is to help someone else. But if the purpose of empathy is to assess your own response to them, then it might make more sense.

Like in October, the St Paul Black Lives Matters group was threatening to block the runners from finishing the last mile of the marathon. Of course the marathon had NOTHING to do with their cause, but they had invaded the Mall of America and got arrested, so that worked well, and they blocked the Light rail service to the Vikings game, and got the city to send buses to redirect riders around the blockade, so that went well, and they blocked the roadway to the State Fair and got to shout "Pigs in a blanket, fry them like bacon" to the cops that were esorting their illegal protest, so that went well.

Anyway, we can see its hard to feel empathy for a moment that uses such tactics to disrupt the needs of others, and its hard for them to have empathy for the rest of us, since well, they're dying, and that's more important. Like one of their rationalizations was shown in a graphic that said "It's just a race." and there's no counter argument to that.

And I wondered, why these BLM groups have no empathy for the feelings of the police officers, like the one who laughed at their diddy saying "Yes, I like bacon too", so that's proof it was all in good fun, just letting off a little steam, couldn't possibly have any negative effects upon the morale of the police force, couldn't possibly generate any resentment in individual police officers. It's just fun.

So that attitude is curious to me, but I can at least try to imagine empathy, if I was in their place, and my attention was hyperfocused on all negative interactions between police and cops, and know some fraction of their contained police brutality, and neglect the fact that some suspects might have some attitude issues which are intended to provoke, and then claim brutality. So from that filtered lens of a victim mentality, I can have empathy for their obtrusive while supposedly nonviolent behavior.

So as long as I don't take their actions personally, I can feel empathy for their perspective, and accept it is an important issue, and it may not be given proper attention by police leadership.

But all that said, if I'm running a marathon, and someone has blocked the road, I'm going to be frustrated and diplomatically say "I understand your issue is important. How many minutes would you like to add to my finish time to show my solidarity to your position?" And from what I could tell their proposed answer is "Your marathon doesn't matter to us, the fact you're going to start to freeze and shiver in a few minutes doesn't matter to us, the fact your dry clothes are a mile away, we're not going to let you get to them."

And at that point you say "Thank you for explaining that. Now get out of the way before I risk legally assaulting you." and see how that goes.

Anyway, many people would prefer the assault first, since you know the BLM group is in the wrong, why have a dialogue when punching first feels so much better?

And I guess some of Trump's "enthusiastic" followers are on that side, and it definitely is more fun.

Empathy is for family and it means fighting the good fight to keep the bad people properly punished and humiliated. (Remember that article about the dark side of empathy?)

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. On a related subject of empathy, a friend shared this rather long article recently, basicaly calling all forms of child discipline as abusive:
Decades of research into spanking demonstrates what happens in the brain when we hit a child, even though it’s only been recently that we’ve been able to make sense of some of the findings. Children who are spanked are, according to a preponderance of the studies, more likely to commit crimes, more likely to suffer from depression, more likely to go to jail, more likely to get into fights, more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. They also typically have lower IQs and poorer academic performance. The studies are, of course, mixed, and they suggest correlations, not causations.

Myself, I'm not taking sides since I'm not a parent, but it shows the predicament. If our traditional forms of discipline have negative side effects, what's the alternative? Apparently one is called a "Time in", working with mirror neurons to help teach more positive social behavior. Obviously its not easy, and child age-dependent.
Siegel has suggested several methods of integrating the various neurological systems that comprise the “whole brain,” that web of neurons that extend from the brain in our head to the nervous systems distributed throughout our bodies. In terms of discipline, one of the most important is “time-in.” The idea of time-in is that parents direct attention to emotions to help children become aware of their inner lives. Teaching time-in means teaching mindfulness, but in order to prevent his idea of mindfulness from being conflated with teachings within religious traditions, Siegel coined the word “time-in.” While not developed as a counterpoint to time-outs—timeouts ideally foster reflectiveness—the term time-in aims for more consistent and ongoing engagement with emotions, communication, and relationships.

I might consider is it similar to Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication which focuses on "needs" rather than behavior. So part of our "empathic" response to others would be to be a mirror, to dispassionately show them how they look from the outside, so they can calm and regulate their own emotions better, and identify what they need.
Nonviolent Communication (abbreviated NVC, also called Compassionate Communication or Collaborative Communication) is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg beginning in the 1960s. It focuses on three aspects of communication: self-empathy (defined as a deep and compassionate awareness of one's own inner experience), empathy (defined as listening to another with deep compassion), and honest self-expression (defined as expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others).

And as best I can tell the real trap is in the last one, "honest self-expression", which can easily be confused with "throwing all your shit at the world" as honestly as possible, so you need a more subtle version of honesty that includes the needs of others too. (Don't call for the frying of police officers like bacon, even if seems funny.)

Unknown said...

Ahhhh! Parents becoming their children's "friends", rather than taking the very often unpleasant role of "parent".

And this clown wants to excuse those parents who have made that terribly bad-for-their-children choice, because EMPATHY! it!

Real parents do not "empathize" with their children, they love them and guide them to adulthood, recognizing that children want boundaries on their own behavior and respond well to reasonable expectations; the establishment of which can create friction between the boundary-setting parents and the demanding, but secretly-wishing-to-have-boundaries-set, children. If one empathizes to the point of failing to set boundaries and expectations to avoid conflict, then the parents have become mere friends and bad ones at that.

Will "teh stoopid" never end? Short of a bloody revolution that is???

Unknown said...

As for Ares O's insipid comments on physical discipline and the clearly biased research claiming that such discipline is "bad for children".

I say we take a poll of those remainders from the "Greatest Generation" and see if those folks were turned into criminals and other damaged types by physical discipline.

The prisons are full of men and women who grew up fatherless. Who normally administers discipline in the family? The father, who's love for his children is conditional---as opposed to the mother's total and unconditional love. (How many mothers of murderers or other nasty criminals, do we hear claiming their little Johnny is a good boy and "dindoo nuthin'bad", even in the face of video evidence that little Johnny shot that guy in cold blood? Meanwhile, dad will say, "Yeah, he was a bad kid despite everything we did for him"!

I repeat myself:

Will "teh stoopid" never end? Short of a bloody revolution that is???

Dennis said...

I am reminded of Dr Spock who probably did more damage to parents and their children than almost anyone alive at the time. A sort of "Mary had a little lamb" approach. As "Unknown" states children need boundaries and they will keep pushing until the boundaries are set.
My next door neighbor years ago had a wife who was really into Dr, Spock. His two boys were the epitome of little monsters until mommy watched them, in front of her, grind peanut butter and jelly into the carpet with reckless abandon. She finally let Dad does some correction and they finally had the boundaries mommy refused to set to the detrimate of these two boys.
Life will make one pay if they don't recognize its boundaries.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @November 24, 2015 at 3:54 AM:

"This statement is obvious if we assume the purpose of empathy is to help someone else. But if the purpose of empathy is to assess your own response to them, then it might make more sense."

So the purpose of empathy is to pretend you're interested in someone else when really you're concerned about yourself? You're suggesting we actually HELP people when we feign understanding of their plight? With no other distinctions whatsoever? We
just nod and say "I understand."??? You're connecting with them to assess what YOU will do next? That's bizarre. It makes no sense at all.

You sound like a Millenial, Ares. Like so much of what you say -- in great volume -- it makes no sense.

There is precious little real love in our self-absorbed society. Everyone is so busy tolerating everyone else that they have no real time for connection. This means that people are zombies, knowing that being nice is a terrific rationalization to balance their acquisitiveness. And they learn this from the Glowing Box.

You see, people are playing by the rules. The rules today are clear: you do whatever the hell you want to get what you want, so long as you put a nice veneer on it and say the right things about the victim class and play pretend with other peoples' feelings.

It's good to read that Dennis is back!

Ares Olympus said...

IAC: So the purpose of empathy is to pretend you're interested in someone else when really you're concerned about yourself?

I don't know why you say "pretend you're interested in someone else."

I'm saying the cooperation requires understanding. If you want to be a consumer individualist where every relationship in your life is being able to pay someone to get what you want, then empathy and understanding is not required. You just reward or punish people for giving you what you want, or failing to.

But in every other world of social interaction, you need to understand where people are coming from, and putting yourself in their shoes, or contrasting your experiences to theirs, and imagining why they might see things differently will make it easier to not simply reject them for being different.

One of the most enlightening experiences I had in the last 5 years was an orientation process for a presbyterian church by my house, and over 3 week afternoons I learned about the 2000 year history of divisions within the christian church.

It is apparently a lot easier to "go your own way" than to work to find common ground that is strong enough to handle your differences.

So for me empathy (at least cognitive empathy) would seem vital, whether or not we are capable of emotional/affective empathy for a given situtation. (Like please, don't call police pigs, just don't.)