Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Empathy Gap

I have on many occasions warned against overestimating the power of empathy. Today’s therapists seem to believe that they possess a superior capacity for empathy. They imagine that they are in the business of doling it out to their patients. 

Moreover, they want their patients to feel the pain and suffering of other people more deeply. This, the therapists believe, will make their patients healthier and more compassionate human beings. Why limit yourself to suffering your own problems? You should extend your capacity to suffer to the pain of other people?

It was tosh then. It’s tosh now.

One will not review the literature and the debates about empathy today. Be thankful for that. One will, however, present the latest study from the field of social psychology wherein the researchers identified something that they called an “empathy gap.”

What, pray tell, is an empathy gap?

In brief, those who have an empathy gap have suffered a misfortune or adversity and have successfully surmounted it. Consequently, they will feel less compassion for those who are suffering the same misfortune but have not surmounted it.

The Daily Mail has the story:

Researchers claim that having experience of the same problems as someone else could make you less empathetic to their plight.

This is because we tend to forget the pain of past hardships, and so we have less compassion for people dealing with the same problems.

If we've already conquered an issue, we often feel like others should be able to do the same.

It sounds perfectly rational, doesn’t it? And yet, it recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when women therapists were selling their services to prospective female patients by saying that only a woman can really understand another woman. Only a being with a womb and XX chromosomes could possible empathize with another being with a womb and XX chromosomes.

Of course, these same therapists also asserted that no man can ever be trusted. Incipient or actual patriarchs could only exploit and abuse women. A woman should never put herself under the care of such a creature. At the least, it was an effective marketing plan.

Anyway, we now know the truth. A woman therapist who has suffered through women’s problems and has overcome them will be less compassionate toward a woman who is suffering the same problems but has failed to surmount them.

It’s hard to imagine, but women’s much vaunted capacity for empathy--capacity that effectively has nothing to do with the studies one undergoes to gain accreditation as a therapist-- is a double-edged sword. A woman therapist might very well feel another woman’s pain more viscerally than a man, but if she has overcome the issue in question she will look down on a woman who has failed to do so.

Caveat emptor!

Naturally, some therapists have not bought into all the tosh about empathy. They might not feel exasperated at someone who has not overcome a problem that they had long since conquered. Instead, they might be willing to use the lessons they learned from their life experience and apply them to other people’s situations.

As long as a therapist does not feel that his or her role is to feel your pain, his or her value might lie in his or her being older and wiser. Better to seek out wise, old therapists than therapists who are younger and more emotionally labile.


Ares Olympus said...

re: Better to seek out wise, old therapists than therapists who are younger and more emotionally labile.

Ah, Stuart's word for the day: labile.

I had to look it up, must be definition c:
Medical Definition of LABILE
readily or frequently changing: as
c : emotionally unstable

Like the moon, don't swear upon the moon as Shakespeare's Juliet adviced.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I see Wikipedia has an article on this important topic, apparently first identified in 2005.
A hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which a person underestimates the influences of visceral drives, and instead attributes behavior primarily to other, nonvisceral factors.

The crux of this idea is that human understanding is "state-dependent". For example, when one is angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one to be happy, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be, (or to imagine the possibility of not being blindly in love in the future). Importantly, an inability to minimize one's gap in empathy can lead to negative outcomes in medical settings (e.g., when a doctor needs to accurately diagnose the physical pain of a patient) or in workplace settings (e.g., when an employer needs to assess the need for an employee's bereavement leave).

The term hot-cold empathy gap was coined by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist, George Loewenstein. Hot-cold empathy gaps are one of Loewenstein's major contributions to behavioral economics.

So the phrase "You should never judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." might still be good advice, BUT we're forgetful, so it maybe needs amending "You should never judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes recently."

The example I think is about skipping rocks. As a teen I tried to show someone how to skip rocks, I was surprised to see when someone couldn't do it. Then I discovered if I tried left-handed, I was just as bad as they were, and that convinced me not to make fun of beginners.

Another example I can think of is winter ice. A few years ago I had a friend who had a bad fall on some sidewalk ice, and its easy to be sympathetic to someone who is injured, but she decided to use her victim status to lecture all her facebook friends about the importance of keeping sidewalks clear of ice. And then my sympathy changed from my friend to all the people she was instantly judging as bad citizens for not keeping their sidewalks clean 24/7.

Myself, I'd had my falls, but would never blame anyone else for them. The idea that the entire outdoors has to be free from ice was unrealistic to me, at least I'd walk many places I couldn't imagine someone being responsible for my safety. I could consider sidewalks as a special case, BUT again I couldn't expect everyone to be perfect so I'd still have to be careful and couldn't trust the world would always be safe from ice.

But maybe my empathy gap is based on the fact that I can't remember being afraid of ice. You just have to be smart about it, not try to stop or change directions quickly, so keep going on whatever moment you have, and you get more cushioning in the winter anyway with a fall.

So my empathy gap was hard to close. In the end I finally considered that my friend wasn't as physically coordinated as me and I shouldn't expect her to feel safe just because I did. Perhaps a lack of coordination is an actual physical disability, and such people should be tested, and be given those handicap parking options in the winter?

I don't think I felt contempt towards her apparent "disability", but maybe I did feel resentment, that she believed she had a right to lecture everyone else to meet her special needs, and I would never be so demanding of others.

I can see you might close the empathy gap not by an identical failing, but something somewhat similar. Or perhaps in this case just projecting forward in time, someday I might be a grumpy old man and be lecturing everyone on everything they're doing wrong. I don't know if fear of being a hypocrite is useful, but it makes me remember when I judge others, just in case I can find something similar in myself later.