Saturday, April 27, 2013

Empathy and Compassion: Notes from an Amateur

El Buen Samaritano (1838) Pelegrí Clavé i Roquer 
I'm not an especially compassionate or altruistic person. I mean, I'm not heartless or cruel, but I don't give a large chunk of my money to charities, or spend much time volunteering. I'm more of a thinker than a feeler, and I'm jealous of my time, which I mostly want to spend thinking about big questions--what's true, what's good--that sort of thing. I tell myself that if I ever really do have insights into some of those things, and if those insights influence anybody to do some good in the world (or not do some bad) then my time is justified. But really, what are the chances?

Anyway, I'm no expert at compassion, either at an emotional or intellectual level. But I do think compassion, as well as its relatives, altruism and empathy, are central to some of the big questions in life. One question is: What are those things good for? It may seem shocking to even ask the question, but a lot of people do. Related questions are: What's the proper balance between selfishness and altruism? Is some degree of selfishness reasonable? Would a world of entirely selfless people, who never thought about themselves, but only about each other, even make sense? After all, what would be the point of thinking about others, if they don't care about themselves?

For the record, I do think compassion, empathy, and altruism are good things. Very good things. And contrary to the Ayn Rand acolytes of the world (and those who have somehow convinced themselves that callous selfishness is compatible with Christianity), I think the world would be a better place if people were nicer to each other. Crazy, I know. But I understand that you can't necessarily help or trust everyone. Being all heart and no head doesn't work well. I even understand people who say that kindness and altruism are good, but shouldn't be the concern of government. I disagree, mostly, but I understand the argument. I also understand that some people believe it sincerely, while others use it to rationalize their own callousness.

Another question about altruism and related impulses is: what exactly are they? That's the question I'm really going to address in this post. I keep listing the words "compassion", "empathy", and "altruism", instead of just using them as synonyms, because they actually aren't synonyms--they're related, but distinct. Empathy basically means insight into another person's thoughts and feelings. It doesn't necessarily mean you have the best interests of others in mind. The animal behaviorist Frans De Waal points out that a car salesman needs empathy to understand what will make you want to buy a car, but he may still have no qualms about selling you a lemon. When most people talk about empathy, they really mean compassion or sympathy, which involves understanding or even mirroring other people's thoughts and feelings, especially suffering, as well as actually wanting them to feel better. That last part is crucial. Actually, I don't see why compassion couldn't also mean feeling happy when others are happy, or wanting happy people to be even happier (why focus on just the negative?) but that's not how most dictionaries define it. Finally, altruism is the actual act of helping others. It's often motivated by compassion, but not always. It can also be motivated by a sense of duty, or even the old-fashioned fear of going to hell.

What really needs to increase in the world is compassion and altruism (applied with a good dose of realism) but to understand how that might be done, I think it helps to take a closer look at empathy. Empathy is surprisingly complicated. There are multiple kinds of empathy, mediated by different circuits in the brain. There's cognitive empathy, which means having insight into what another person is thinking. Then there's emotional empathy, which is insight into what another person is feeling. Emotional empathy can be further subdivided. Some people respond to the sight of people suffering by getting distressed, but that doesn't mean they will want to help out. They may just want to leave. That's emotional empathy, but not a particularly kind variety. Some people may be able to read other people's emotions very well, without feeling any particular benevolence toward them. Once again, this is empathy without benevolence.The kind of emotional empathy that underlies benevolence is sometimes called "empathic concern" which seems to be more or less synonymous with compassion or sympathy.

The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (not Sacha, that's his cousin) has studied how empathy explains different psychological disorders. Psychopaths, in the technical sense of people with antisocial personality disorder, have an impaired sense of emotional empathy, or more specifically compassion. They may have insight into your thoughts and feelings (sometimes to a scary degree), but they just don't care about them, except to the extent that it helps them get what they want. If psychopaths are shown pictures of painful accidents or people screaming, they are unmoved (sadists might actually be excited, but not all psychopaths are sadists). People with narcissistic and borderline personality disorder also have empathy problems that make then extremely unpleasant to be around, if not as truly dangerous as psychopaths.

People with autism or Asperger syndrome are like the reverse of psychopaths. They aren't unusuallly callous or cruel, at least not on purpose. Their problem isn't with emotional empathy or compassion so much as cognitive empathy. They can't read other people's thoughts and feelings well, even though they might care about them. They can't decipher facial expressions, and they're often confused when other people see them as rude. Common social activities can seem arbitrary and bewildering to them, and they prefer more systematic pursuits like math, computer programming, and learning about or collecting things, which they may get a little obsessive about (People who hang out by themselves writing cerebral blog posts aren't necessarily on the autism spectrum--they are just weird).

Those with Asperger's and autism may have trouble navigating in the world, but they can have some very positive traits. Lots of intellectuals and techy types are a little Aspergery, and they have given the world some great ideas and inventions. If we're talking about how to make the world a kinder place, these people aren't our focus. The real question is, how do we keep people from acting like psychopaths? Because under the right conditions, most people are capable of it.

What are those conditions? Very few people are born psychopaths, though some may be if they have certain genetic and neurological defects. Male babies exposed to too much testosterone in the womb can develop antisocial tendencies later. But most psychopaths are the product of horrifically neglectful or abusive households.  At the individual level, both nature and nurture can create a psychopath, though nurture may do it more often.

What are the conditions under which normal people lose their sense of compassion? What led average Germans to go on with their lives while cattle cars full of people went by? What allowed Americans to keep slaves, or to massacre whole villages of Native Americans? Why did so many of our ancestors enjoy blood sports and attend public executions?

Simon Baron-Cohen believes that any time people are cruel or callous, they have lost their sense of compassion, at least temporarily. It can happen in a fog of rage or fear--for example, when something hurts or scares us. I'm a very peaceful guy, but I once killed a rooster with a hammer. I was carrying the hammer, and it spurred me from behind. It hurt, and I was bleeding. When I turned around, it was coming at me again, so without thinking I flung the hammer at it, and killed it. And then I was sorry, but it was still dead. Something very similar happens all the time in the rougher sort of bars. Joe takes a swing at Bob, who pulls his gun and shoots Joe dead. Bob might be very sorry afterward, but Joe is still dead.

Baron-Cohen lists other compassion-killers, including ideology, conformity to peers or to authority figures, and in-group/out-group dynamics (the worst atrocities tend to happen when all three happen at once). Most people think their ideology will make the world a better place if it can just be put into practice. But ideology can cause atrocities when people are too sure of them, and start thinking it's OK to hurt others in the name of a higher cause or greater good. During the inquisition, priests tortured people, reasoning that it was better to torture a few people to root out heresy than let more people risk going to hell. Some of the inquisitors may have even been compassionate people, who thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils--which means compassion doesn't always keep people from hurting others.

Of course, not all destructive strains of ideology are religious. The communism of Stalin and Mao, the ultranationalism of Hitler and Mussolini, and even the "enlightened" egalitarianism of the French Revolution all led to piles of dead bodies. As Solzenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelego, "Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology."

Another thing that can erode compassion, or at least make people do things that violate it, is conformity Psychologists have shown that if people see others ignoring someone in distress, they'll probably ignore them too. The mob mentality can also lead to horrors, as anyone knows who's seen photographs of smiling people posing next to the person they've just lynched. Obedience to authority figures will also make people do awful things. The famous Milgram experiments showed that a majority of people will shock another person, raising the voltage until they scream and finally go silent, as long as someone in a lab coat is hovering over them and telling them not to stop. They may shake uncontrollably, but they keep administering the shocks. Frans De Waal points out that Nazi soldiers early in the war often wept when they were ordered to shoot Jews, but they usually shot them anyway. Eventually, they probably stopped weeping. They got used to it. Habituation is surely another way that compassion erodes. We can get used to nearly anything, if it happpens gradually enough.

Finally, in-group/out group dynamics can determine who falls within our circle of compassion, and who doesn't. Humans are social animals who have to cooperate to survive, so we have evolved to have some degree of compassion, empathy, and altruism toward our relatives, our friends, and to a lesser extent, anybody else we consider "one of us". But we don't necessarily have compassion for outsiders, especially if we see them as a threat or a competitor. History is full of examples of one group of people enslaving or massacring another group; treating them as if they weren't really human. Most of us have grown up with a milder version of this. I know many Americans who couldn't care less about people in other countries, simply because they aren't Americans. Sometimes they will defend this attitude by saying it's impossible to take care of everyone, so we should just focus on our own country and let others focus on theirs. There's some validity to that kind of argument (some), but there are a lot of people who truly seem to think an American life is more valuable than a foreign life. I don't get that. Is there some magic essence that you have if you happen to be born American, that you don't if you are born in, say, Saudi Arabia?

Historically, our natural lack of compassion toward outsiders has been intensified by propaganda; by blood libel and depictions of the outgroup as demons or vermin. It's a lot easier to kill someone you don't consider fully human. Take a look at the depictions of the Japanese in WWII propaganda posters. They look more like demons than people. No wonder there were pop songs that happily mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If we want a kinder world, one tactic is to teach people to recognize and avoid the things that lead to erosion of empathy and compassion.  If we teach kids to think for themselves, to try not to follow the crowd too much, and to question authorities who tell them to do things they know they shouldn't, that would help. Teaching critical thinking could also help people hold ideologies at arm's length, because if you're questioning the foundations of ideas, your'e not likely to be so sure of them that you find a little death or torture acceptable. Teaching people to take the perspective of others, and to be on guard for nasty in-group/out-group dynamics, could help people feel in their bones that it's not just people like them who feel pain or want to live a decent life. Thinkers like Steven Pinker have argued that the rise of mass-produced books and movies describing the lives of other kinds of people have lead to an expansion of empathy to other groups. Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its sympathetic depiction of slaves, inspired more than a few people to be abolitionists. Certain kinds of meditation seem to increase a sense of compassion, perhaps by temporarily blurring the boundary between self and others (a boundary that is created by the mind more than we usually realize).

As I write this, I'm surprised how close the connection between good reasoning and the cultivation of compassion turns out to be. That may be my particular bias, since I'm a big fan of good reasoning, and I even try to do it occasionally. But it's striking that being skeptical of ideologies, being wary of groupthink, and avoiding knee-jerk ethocentric and egocentric thinking--all hallmarks of good reasoning--may also help make us more compassionate. People think of reason and emotion as separate and even opposed, but they don't have to be, and emotion isn't necessarily more conducive to kindness. To the contrary, the destructive ultranationalism, and the faith in the inevitable greatness of particular nations or economic systems, both of which caused so much trouble in the 20th century, were born in the emotion-laden romanticism of the 19th century. In his book The Expanding Circle the philosopher Peter Singer argued that the expansion of rights to wider groups of people, and even to animals, has been driven in large part by reason. If someone points out--quite reasonably--that there is no particular reason that their happiness and welfare should be less important than mine, then it's hard to argue with them. Because they're right. Reason--real reason, not rationalization--is opposed to provincial, biased thinking. Reason tells me that your feelings and aspirations are likely to be just as real and powerful to you as mine are to me. If reason doesn't necessarily make me more compassionate to others, at least it makes me ask why I'm not. Emotions like anger, greed, and pride may be more likely to tell us to be selfish than cool reason.

Besides, as much as we need more empathy in the world (or really, more altruism and compassion, effectively applied) benevolence and good deeds can only go so far. As Steven Pinker points out, they may be too unreliable to base our hopes for a kinder world on, at least entirely.
When the Americans and the Soviets stopped rattling nuclear sabers and stoking proxy wars, I don't think love had much to do with it, or empathy either. And though I like to think I have as much empathy as the next person, I can't say that it's empathy that prevents me from taking out contracts on my critics, getting into fistfights over parking spaces, threatening my wife when she points out I've done something silly, or lobbying for my country to go to war with China to prevent it from overtaking us in economic output. My mind doesn't stop and ponder what it would be like to be the victims of these kinds of violence and then recoil after feeling their pain. My mind never goes in these directions in the first place: they are absurd, ludicrous, unthinkable. Yet options like these clearly were not unthinkable to past generations. The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy, but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights. 
I think he's right. We shouldn't pin all our hopes for a kinder and more just world on something as variable as human kindness. Compassion, empathy, and altruism aren't panaceas. By themselves, they won't give us world peace. They aren't even always positive, if they aren't applied effectively, or applied for the wrong reasons. Still, the particular kind of empathy called compassion is almost always a good thing. It can't save the world all by itself, but we could still use a whole lot more of it.


The Erosion of Empathy  A short, excellent talk by Simon Baron-Cohen. I can't recommend it enough.

The Greater Good Science Center: An institute at UC Berkeley on the psychology of leading a meaningful life. Good explanations of empathy, compassion, and altruism. The tone is a little touchy-feely for my taste, but the site is based on real science.

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty / Simon Baron-Cohen

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined / Steven Pinker

The Expanding Circle / Peter Singer

The Moral Behavior of Animals: A TED talk by Frans De Waal. He's really funny, and the video clips of animal behavior are amazing.

Let's Revive the Golden Rule: A TED by Karen Armstrong

Prisoner's Dilemma: The Challenge of Cooperation: One of my blog posts, about the evolution of empathy and cooperation.

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