Sunday, September 22, 2013

The sympathy-empathy fad

A new article notes our preoccupation with Learning Sympathy:
Appeals to our sympathy are everywhere: late-night commercials on behalf of orphans overseas, envelopes bearing pleas from disaster-relief organizations, magazine ads asking help to ease the suffering of piteous (though cute) humans and animals, campus solicitors recruiting students to spend a summer in Central America or Kenya building latrines or conducting AIDS education, and so on. Giving is so popular that companies ride the sentiment. Bono’s “Product Red” campaign channeled a percentage of sales by firms such as Nike and Dell to fight AIDS. Recently, Dignity Health, a huge, nonprofit hospital system, cloaked itself in a “humankindness” campaign, was already taken.

That humanitarian appeals tend to work is not a given of human nature. They work because we moderns have learned to sympathize with the suffering of others as far away as the Congo and as strange as leatherback turtles. Our feelings are the products of a humanitarian sensibility that has risen in the last couple of centuries. We, the Western bourgeois, became more sympathetic as we became more sensitive and sentimental.

Historians of emotions—yes, emotions have a history—have documented the construction of people’s feelings. Before roughly the 1800s, sympathy was less common and more restricted in scope, overwhelmed as people were by practical needs and circumstances.
The longest commercials I see on TV are those that try to generate sympathy for dogs. I don't even know what they are selling, but I can only assume that the commercials work.

The NY Times has a long article on teaching empathy:
“Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”
No, the schools are not going to be better by trying to teach emotional intelligence.

When the forensic psychologist wants to discriminate against the dad, the accusation is often that he has insufficient empathy. This is plausible as women are thought to be more empathic than men, and it sounds as if some psychology expertise is being used.

Florence Nightingale wrote:
Now if I were to write a book out of my experience, I should begin Women have no sympathy. Yours is the tradition. Mine is the conviction of experience. ...

Women crave for being loved, not for loving. They scream out at you for sympathy all day long, they are incapable of giving any in return, for they cannot remember your affairs long enough to do so…They cannot state a fact accurately to another, nor can that other attend to it accurately enough for it to become information. Now is not all this the result of want of sympathy?

I am sick with indignation at what wives and mothers will do of the most egregious selfishness. And people call it all maternal or conjugal affection, and think it pretty to say so. No, no, let each person tell the truth from his own experience.
This was from a personal letter late in her life, so it should not be taken too seriously.

Psychologist Helen Smith says in an interview:
I am surprised how many women have no or little empathy for men. It is important to understand where men are coming from, how they think, and what they fear when it comes to marriage. The law and culture tend to protect women and to harm men. Men are starting to realize this, and women need to understand that men have few reproductive rights, have few legal rights in divorce, and are seen as the bad guy in marriages that go wrong. It is not immaturity for men to be reluctant to marry, it is a rational choice not to place oneself in a harmful legal contract that gives them no safety net.
Nowadays kids are given drugs if they do not seem to have enough empathy. USA Today reports:
Anti-psychotic medications should not be the first treatments doctors or patients think of when dealing with dementia in an elderly person, behavior problems in a child or insomnia in an adult, a leading group of psychiatrists says in a new statement.

The American Psychiatric Association's (APA) new list of questionable uses of anti-psychotic medications is part of a broader campaign to educate patients and doctors about unneeded and possibly harmful medical treatments and tests. ...

The medications in question include brands such as Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel and Abilify.

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