Thursday, October 09, 2014

How universal is empathy?

I had a court psychologist say that I lack empathy. In deposition I tried to find out exactly what he meant, and it turned that that empathy was just a meaningless buzzword that he used against people. He could not even define what he meant.

It turns out that the word has several quite distinct meanings, and it is culturally dependent. Anthropologist Peter Frost writes about whether empathy is universal across cultures:
The question is tricky because empathy has three components:

1. pro-social behavior - willingness to help people out, hospitality to strangers, acts of compassion.

2. cognitive empathy - capacity to see things from another person's perspective and to understand how he or she feels.

3. affective or emotional empathy - capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately. Failure to help a person in distress can trigger a self-destructive sequence: anguish, depression, suicidal ideation.

Pro-social behavior is very widespread among humans and may even be universal. It isn't unconditional, however. It can be used strategically and is often influenced by previous experiences with the person in question.

Cognitive empathy seems much less universal. In Oceanic cultures, for instance, there is both an unwillingness and an inability to know what other people feel. A person's inner feelings are said to be private and unknowable (Lepowski, 2011).

Affective empathy has an even more restricted range. If the range of empathic guilt is indicative, it may reach its highest incidences in the "guilt cultures" of northwestern Europe. In these cultures, guilt outweighs shame as a way to enforce social rules. What's the difference between the two? You feel shame when someone from your community sees you breaking a rule. With guilt, no witnesses are needed. You feel guilty when no else is watching or even when you merely think of breaking the rule. ...

In short, the Chinese participants could see things from another person's perspective and understand how that person felt. There is much less indication, however, that they involuntarily experienced the feelings of other people, especially feelings of distress. This is not to say they were incapable of such emotion transference, but rather that it seems limited in scope, perhaps being confined to family members and not extended to strangers.

In general, empathy is perceived in China as a moral duty and not as an involuntary emotional response.
In my experience, the people who talk about empathy have the least amount of it. For example, among the court psychologists and other shrinks who talked about empathy, none of them ever showed a capacity to see things my perspective or to understand how I feel. They showed no signs of the other kinds of empathy either.

While it may seem better to have more empathy, some of our prevailing norms say the opposite:
It’ll seem counter-intuitive* to some, but lower class people in this study were more empathic. When you have fewer resources, the external environment exerts more influence on your life outcome. A well-off person can insulate himself from trouble (hi, Cheap Chalupas!) in ways that a poorer person can’t. So the poorer person needs to be more aware of potential dangers (and benefits), and that means being better at reading people to determine if they will hurt or help him.

No comments: