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.
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.
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.