Friday, November 4, 2016

Enough with the Empathy

Long have I inveighed against the psycho world’s mania about empathy. Here I do feel more like a prophet than a latecomer.

On this blog and in my book The Last Psychoanalyst I have argued that psycho professionals are obsessed with empathy because they believe, by twisted reasoning, that if we all felt empathy there would be no more violence and no more war. It’s part of the profession’s feminization program.

The professionals have reasoned that since psychopaths presumably do not feel any empathy for their victims, if we could inject them with empathy they the milk of human kindness would be coursing through their veins. Thus, they would act more kindly and would be less likely to rob, loot, pillage, rape and murder.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

For one, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discovered, when you are feeling the feelings of someone who is being abused, you are less likely to feel sympathy and more likely to want to retaliate against the abuser. I discussed the issue in my post on “Sadistic Empaths.”

Since Bloom discovered the concept in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments it is fair to say that it has been around for a while. Smith preferred that we exercise reason in making decisions, thus, that we not go with our guts.

To keep things interesting I would add this point. Let’s say that you want someone to feel what you are feeling. After all, if empathy is a magical elixir, why would you not want to help other people to expand their capacity for it?

Let’s imagine that someone just punched you in the face. You are feeling some considerable pain. How would you ensure, to a certainty, that your assailant could feel the same pain that he has inflicted on you? Easy, you punch him in the face. It’s called the law of the talion, a primitive scheme for ensuring justice, embodied in the phrase: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Could anything be more empathetic? To me this suggests that the mania about empathy is a retrograde effort to return to a primitive scheme of justice, one that relieves you of the need to think about how you respond to aggression and abuse.

Now, as we await the arrival of Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, we note some remarks that the estimable Melissa Dahl has written for New York Magazine.

Dahl opens with the argument for empathy. Apparently, those who have dreamed up this argument have the emotional maturity and critical judgment that you find in viewers of Sesame Street:

And it does seem obvious that if you can feel what someone else is feeling, you’ll be more likely to act with kindness toward them. That’s why empathy is typically seen as a cornerstone of a moral life, as it’s understood to motivate prosocial behaviors like cooperating, volunteering, sharing, or donating money. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report led by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit group behind the kids’ show — found that most teachers would rather their students had empathy than basic manners.

The Sesame Street crowd believes that we cooperate with people because we feel what they are feeling. Enamored as they are of their mind-centered model they assume, unthinkingly, that having the right feelings, the feelings that they approve of, will naturally lead you to become more generous and to vote Democratic.

Yet, one is shocked to see that these teachers prefer that children develop empathy ahead of basic manners. One suspects that they are thinking with their guts, because good manners are a primary way to show someone consideration and respect.

These teachers do not understand that manners are a language you need to learn. You learn or do not learn how to behave well toward others. You can be polite and write a thank you note without feeling the right feeling. If you don't write the note you are an ingrate, regardless of how you feel. If the report is correct and most teachers ignore the need to teach good manners, this tells us why many young people are enslaved to their emotions and are lacking in good manners.

Yale researchers, led by Bloom, draw a distinction between feeling what someone is feeling and caring about what someone else is feeling.

Dahl writes:

All of which helps make a new study, published earlier this fall in the journal Emotion, so interesting. In it, a trio of researchers from Yale University draws a distinction between empathy, or feeling what someone else is feeling, and concern, or caring about what someone else is feeling —what you might call sympathy. (One of the three researchers is Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist whose book, Against Empathy, will be published later this year.) In three experiments, they find that while concern reliably predicts helpful behaviors, such as donating money, empathy does not always do so. In their words, “empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe.” In other words: You can behave kindly toward someone even if you aren’t personally buoyed by their happiness, or dragged down by their sadness. Feeling another person’s emotions is nice, but it may not be as necessary as you think.

She concludes:

“Taken together, these three studies suggest that feeling what others feel is psychologically distinct from caring about what others feel,” the authors write in their conclusion, adding that “caring about what others feel is a much stronger motivator of prosocial thoughts and actions than feeling what others feel.” You don’t have feel like doing something in order to do it.

And also,

He added that this new study provides “fresh evidence that you don’t need to feel other people’s emotions — you just need to care about their well-being.”

True enough, and the point cannot be stressed enough, you do not have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Believing that you need to be in the right state of mind before you can do the right thing or believing that once you arrive at the right state of mind you will naturally do the right thing is one of the most pernicious myths in the world of psychotherapy. It allows therapists to abrogate their responsibilities to help their patients learn how to conduct their lives.

The problem is: knowing the right thing to do is not as simple as knowing that you need to show benevolence. When someone offends you and you feel angry how should you respond? Will your emotions and your sense of kindness be a sufficient guide?

When it comes to sending a thank-you note, behaving courteously and politely, showing tact and consideration, and knowing how to deal with insults and slights… your state of mind will be of little use if you have not learned and practiced the proper behaviors.

It is certainly true that you do not need to feel the right feeling to do the right thing. Surely, when you receive advice you can learn what the right thing is and might  even be able to do it… without even knowing why you are doing it.


Shaun F said...

There is a funny anecdotal story about John Constantine(graphic novel character) and empathy, which I will take a moment to share. In one of the issues the enemies of John Constantine - "the Enlightened Ones" decided to build an "Empathy Amplifier" with the believe that if we all felt each others pain - we would stop hurting each other. However, when the Empathy Amplifier was turned on - everyone started committing suicide as there way too much pain in the world for people to bear. The whole push for empathy in leadership roles seems to be the flavour of the month.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... that's great!!

Ares Olympus said...

Every time I hear about empathy, I go back to the question of different kinds of empathy:
Empathy is generally divided into two major components:
* Affective empathy, also called emotional empathy: the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's mental states.
* Cognitive empathy: the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state.

Cognitive empathy can be subdivided:
Perspective taking: the tendency to spontaneously adopt others' psychological perspectives.
Fantasy: the tendency to identify with fictional characters.

Stuart: Let’s imagine that someone just punched you in the face. You are feeling some considerable pain. How would you ensure, to a certainty, that your assailant could feel the same pain that he has inflicted on you? Easy, you punch him in the face. It’s called the law of the talion, a primitive scheme for ensuring justice, embodied in the phrase: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Could anything be more empathetic?

That's actually a very useful question, but actually this is COMPLETELY wrong. It denies any responsibility for the situation that lead to the violence.

That is to say, AFTER you've been punched in the face, probably it means you were actually not paying attention, while if you WERE paying attention, you surely would have seen SIGNS of a person who is agitated, and perhaps you were OBLIVIOUS to the other person's emotional state that you did NOTHING to de-escalate a situation before a blow was offered.

But perhaps there are situations where you're paying attention and still get socked, or perhaps you were not even interacting with them, so they came up from behind you when you were focused on someone else, and perhaps it was a jealous boyfriend? Who knows?

But MAYBE punching him back in the face is NOT the best reaction. And perhaps you use your cognitive empathy and realize that unprovoked punches are socially disappoved of, and sometimes you may be better off letting other people observe the situation, observe your calm and collected manner, and the violence of your rival, and decide he's in the wrong, and then you don't need to hit back. Gandhi took good advantage of this approach, and it works in a social setting, at least where your humanity can't be denied.

Perhaps Jesus gets the credit for the Turn-the-other-cheek response of empathy, or like one of the Four Agreements:
"2. Don’t Take Anything Personally - Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering."

So there's a choice involved, and perhaps there are times to fight back? But no one seriously thinks a person hitting will suddenly understand what pain feels like by getting hit back. Surely they're already in pain by some other cause, and something that is more painful than mere physical force. So the better choices to me would always be to back away, gain higher ground, and fend off any more attacks.

A more likely scenario of counter-violence would be if a bully hits a weaker person, and then a stronger observer decides to intervene and hit the bully, so they know what it feels like to be bullied. And perhaps that's not a bad plan - especially since the stronger person can CONTROL a situation, and doesn't need to use excessive force, but can use just enough to get attention.

Anyway, I'd say all of this is working with empathy, and using empathy to overpower instinctive feelings, rather than succumbing to them. And empathy perhaps is most useful when applies to yourself, having some awareness and compassion that dealing with your own unrly passions is hard.

Trigger Warning said...

"That's actually a very useful question..."

No, actually, it's not.

The talion is about justice and the law, not "empathy", Snowflake.

Trigger Warning said...

"But MAYBE punching him back in the face is NOT the best reaction."

I guarantee it's not if he can kick your a**.


AesopFan said...

Sometimes you need de-escalation and walking away, sometimes you need to punch the guy in the face. It's called judgment and discernment.

Small case in point: here is someone punching back who hasn't even been hit yet, from the tribe (and I use that term deliberately) that is generally preaching "empathy uber alles" --

"A homeless woman quietly demonstrating in support of Donald Trump near his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Thursday was violently harassed and abused by a group of people who surrounded her, yelled insults at her and appeared to knock her to the ground....
In the videos, men can be seen shouting and cursing at the woman before taking things from her cart. One man accuses the woman of “spewing hate.”

“You spewed hate and you got hate,” one man tells the woman as she lies on the ground, with bystanders ripping up her signs. “You got exactly what you were dishing out. I told you. I warned you.”

The apparent assault happened one day after Otis, wearing a construction worker’s uniform, repeatedly struck Trump’s star with a pick-ax, destroying it. . "
What I think frightens me most about the Left is their total lack of empathy or concern, and their complete inability to recognize irony.

PS If you are wondering about Trump's demographics, read some of the comments.

AesopFan said...

In case you think I am lacking in empathy, one of my kids was punched from behind by his girl's jealous ex-boyfriend, while standing in line to board the school bus (that may give you a clue about why the BF was ex-).
It happened so fast he never even got a chance to punch back before the vice-principal had the perp in hand and hustled off to the squad car; however, later he was asked if he wanted to press charges, which would get the other kid expelled and saddled with a legal rap sheet, and he chose not to -- because he understood how the boy must have been feeling.

Everything he knows he learned from me (lol) -- or at least from being subjected to an environment of discussing books and tv shows and other peoples' emotions, and dragged to church for the Basics.

David Foster said...

"if we all felt empathy there would be no more violence and no more war" Reminds me of a passing in Erich Maria Remarque's great but neglected novel, 'The Road Back.' After the armistice that ended WWI, the narrator (Ernst) and his fellow soldiers are withdrawing back to Germany. They pass a hospital for German gas casualties: 'bad cases that cannot be moved. Blue faces, waxen green faces...wheezing, choking, dying men.'

A little later on, Ernst is feeling joyful about his imminent return home--'hope, exaltation, imminence.' But then he wonders about his own reactions:

"There behind me on the stretchers my comrades are now lying...It is peace yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed--And that is odd. Because one can never wholly feel what another suffers--is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?"

It always struck me that there was something wrong about Ernst apparent conclusion; that wars are created as much by the presence of empathy (for wrongs done or believed to be done to one's own countrymen or other parties) as much as by lack of empathy (for the enemy).

Ares Olympus said...

AesopFan said... What I think frightens me most about the Left is their total lack of empathy or concern, and their complete inability to recognize irony.

What you're describing seems to be categorized under "illiberal left" and probably it does fit well within Stuart's "Sadistic Empaths" or where empathy tends to be related to ingroup protections, and outgroup aggression.

Myself, I think experience and knowledge teaches us how emotional empathy works, and how it fails to serve a greater good, and I think cognitive empathy is the balancing factor to the excesses of emotional empathy. Safe Spaces — Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt on the Disturbing Trend of Vindictive Protectiveness
This is an excerpt from the Waking Up podcast, titled "Evolving Minds: A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt", published on the 9th of March 2016, in which Sam Harris speaks to Jonathan Haidt about the safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and the disturbing nature of "vindictive protectiveness" on university campuses. Harris and Haidt also discuss religion, immigration, politics, and morality during the rest of the podcast.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Here's an interesting talk about empathy, and moving away from affective empathy which allows understanding of another to cognitive empathy which allows action.

Of course Roman Krznaric looking for how we express "Human rights" and "Social justice", while the Political Right is unable to see "Human rights" or "Social justice" as real things.

The Political Right seems to only believe in "Right to life" for the unborn as real. But once you're born, you're on your own, hopefully with good parents as Social Darwinism demands.
--- Roman Krznaric: How Empathy Can Change the World
Empathy comes in two distinct forms: affective empathy is our instinct for mirroring the emotions of others, while cognitive empathy is our conscious ability to understand someone else’s perspective.

In this instalment of Aeon In Sight, the British writer Roman Krznaric argues that empathy is a uniquely powerful – if often overlooked – tool for transforming and improving societies on a mass scale. Using it effectively, however, requires much more than affective empathy’s rush of emotions and reflexive reactions, to which the culture today seems particularly inclined.

Rather, to get the most out of empathy, we must focus on widening our moral concern through cognitive empathy, finding ways to move from the personal to the collective.