Eva Wachter, from Perspecteva, has written a blog on empathy. The original, in German, is on her blog but she has translated it to English to appear here.
Empathy, what does the word actually mean?
This term is today not only in everybody’s vocabulary, it is also used permanently in all kinds of contexts — but sadly it is obviously misunderstood?
Duden calls empathy: the ability, to get into the spirit of a specific opponent, for example even if he has another cultural background.
So it means in the literal sense to put yourself into another persons shoes, thus, to feel with the other person, whatever he/she is presently feeling.
The nonsense starts with the common use of the phrase: the ability for empathy.
It is as a matter of fact a pleonasm, a redundant/superfluous use of more words than are needed. The ability for the ability to feel with another person? The phrase is just about as intelligent as the most other allegations on this subject.
The word has found its way into German from the English “empathy,” which harkens back to the Greek empatheia (εμπάθεια), which actually means passion, but also viciousness.
Empathy is hailed as a keystone of human togetherness, the cradle of human morality. Allegedly it is the typical human ability necessary to make one a functioning member of society. It’s lack is associated — if not equated — with evil and antisocial behavior.
Empathy, as it is meant by word usage today, is basically defined as emotional empathy. Either omitted or equipped with negative connotations is its counterpart, the cognitive empathy, also called “cold” empathy. The adjective “cold” is already stigmatized, as it implies that this kind of empathy is characterized by “cold-heartedness.”
Instead, the fact that understanding what is going on in the other person also can lead to comprehension/insight regarding his behavior and his actual life-situation, is devalued. Cognitive empathy is, by definition, not bound to emotion. It is a neutral understanding of the other person’s feelings. It is based, as the name immediately suggests, on analytical thought/mental processing.
Body language, voice, gesture, facial expression, which words the person chooses when speaking, his eye-tracking system — these and other perceptible facts get cognitively recognized and lead to an evaluation of the inner sensitivities/affectivity/state of mind of this person.
Cognition represents the collective term for the mental vigor of humans. Cognitive science designates/indicates it the sum of all information-processing and structures of an intelligent system — in other words — intelligence itself. Bertelsmann lexicon defines cognition as an umbrella-term for all mental processes required to understand and cope with a situation.
Thinking is an upper/higher brain-function which includes abstraction and the understanding of complex coherence, and therefore — due to this far-reaching overview — is allows us to make competent decisions. Therefore it is possible for us to reckon the consequences for our actions/behavior — not only for ourselves but also with regard to others. This kind of reasoning is the only skill/competence, that separates us from other mammals.
Throughout this evolutionary bonus of sense and language our consciousness received the opportunity to make a quantum leap into a higher level of existence.
This new level is in the realm of abstraction, where we discover our sensual experiences a second time in form of a mental thought construct — our whole world/reality for what it is — depending on what we think, know, or believe about it. Emotional empathy is a social reflex — it makes one feel literally at one with the other person, putting oneself into his shoes
This is where the often mentioned mirror-neurone come into game; it mirrors the same firing-figure that can be seen in the other person, which is widely proved by measuring the brain activity with brain-spectrograms. All mammals (at least) operate this way, so it is obviously our animal heritage.
And it does make sense — or, it would make sense, if, after birth, we had been brought up in a healthy sociotope, as we are shaped and stamped fundamentally throughout it in our first few years of life.
Mothers are supposed to react in a caring and affectionate way on their offspring, who should be more important to her than her own life. All over nature you easily can see the same thing happening. Animal-mothers literally die for their babies without hesitation.
Humans have removed themselves from this fundamental instinctive precondition for a very long time and too far to even have a clue as to what that could possibly feel like. Black pedagogic and other ridiculous reigning concepts as well as the disturbances of the parents themselves make it impossible for them to mirror their kids adequately in the reality they share — one of the most important tools for the rather vague inherent neurostructure of the brain — had it been functioning.
But in our time and society the mirrored emotional empathy does more harm than good to the developing brain of kids.
To give a simple example: If the little child discovers something new, which triggers joy, it immediately turns towards its mother. Facing her — their eye-contact leading to the connection and mirroring of their “mirrorneurons,” they are charged in a similar way.
Usually the mother the mother resonates to her child in a appropriate way, she is sharing its joy, and the kid shares her compersion — so its own joy is thereby amplified.
If the mother does not share the feelings of her kid, no matter if she surpasses it for reasons of abnormal educational-theories, or if she suffers from depression or another disorder herself, the result would be, that the baby suddenly does not get an amplification of its joy added, on the contrary — the feeling it gets mirrored from its mother is coldness, refusal, stress, whatever. The dissonance in the babies brain reacts, causing emotional stress, and usually suppressing any ongoing action. As such event would usually indicate, the kid might be in severe danger of instinctively would freezing and experiencing alarm, waiting for his mother to save it.
Additionally, up until the age of three, the kid is not able to differ between the mother and itself. It experiences them as a unit, as one being. Only when it starts to address itself as I, can it have stepped out of the symbiosis and developed an individually shaped personality. But, as the child was not aware that the feeling of having been refused, or hugely stressed, had nothing to do with him — that it just came from his mother — the permanent presence of two contradictory emotions at the same time, this permanent dissonance without any given reason causes faulty circuits in the net of neurons, it is basically malfunctioning from the first step into its aware being.
Humans, who use this empathy as the basis for how they choose and act, get systematically misled and end up in confusing situations again — as their reflexive emotional response-system is damaged, getting out of this situation by not using their logic and cognition, but instead their next instinctive feeling — will lead them to take the wrong way again, and … you see where this is going. The longer one strays, the smaller the chances that the brain will stay fully functional (which could explain the irritating amount of stupidity and dumbness we are surrounded with). In the meantime several scientists have proven with multiple studies, that empathy actually is noxious / harmful and workshops are offered to get rid of it.
One of the leading opponents of empathy is Paul Bloom, professor for psychology and cognitive science on Yale university.
Also it qualifies as prove that there is no coherence whatsoever between empathy and morality — an allegation that happens to be a keystone of the whole empathy-movement, by the way. Being a good human has nothing to do with empathy.
Furthermore, one has to ask oneself: How can you know, that what you feel, really is the same that the other is experiencing? As our early childhood coinages and personalities are so very different, so are all our following experiences and associations, that build up our world and how we see it.
Every personally conceptualized world qualifies as unique, it isn’t possible, to change brains and experience a complete unfamiliar layout of the world.
Also our personally structured world is all we got. So from a certain point on, everything we seem feel with another person is only projection — it’s what we expect ourselves to feel in the other person’s situation.
Indeed studies have established, that during the emphatic processes admittedly similar neuronal patterns fire in both persons brains — but they activate predominantly neutrons, that are responsible for motions. That indeed motions are mirrored gets obvious in this picture of a soccer-match please note the body language of the player and the watching crowd.
Another popular misconception is that empathy is the precondition for morality and altruism, while the so-called evil only can arise, when your suffer from a lack of it. There are thousands of books out there, preaching empathy in every possible context. Every human knows what is right or wrong, we do not need empathy for that.
If you see a child drowning, you KNOW instant, that the right thing to do is saving the child, while watching it drown is wrong. Of course you can first experience the feeling, how the poor child must feel right now, drowning alone, dying… then you can put yourself in the shoes of its parents, how horrible they must feel, loosing their child under this dramatic circumstances. But what for?? It is absurd, to feel all of this exhausting emotions, while the child keeps drowning. Skipping that part would get you in the water to actually save it much earlier.
We know very well what is right or wrong, and there must not even be any human life involved. So everybody essentially knows, that it is wrong, to bootleg data, to make insurance-fraud, to throw trash out of the window or to steal food from the supermarket. If we obey the rules, is a complete different question, of course. This decision has to be made by ourselves.
Empathy, by the way, is the worst adviser you can get, if you plan to act in a morally right way. For example test persons were given a fair list of kids, who qualify for an lifesaving organ. The kids move up the list one by one, if organs come in. The test person now were told the story of one kid, who was ranking very low, so there would be several other kids be safe before it would be her turn. They were told, that she would die, if she will not get it till Christmas, and whatever. Nevertheless, most of the people wouldn’t do that. Because moving her up the list would not only be a betrayal to all the families, who trust you to be fair in this matter — also it would be your fault alone, that the kid, that deserved the organ as next on the list, had to die now. Every kid has a very sad story, every of them will be dead to 50% before they get on the top of the list.
In the next round of the experiment it was the exact same situation, only that this time the test persons were shown to the same story this picture of the little girl, and they were told her name, and they were told, to put themselves in the shoes of this girl. The goal was to provoke empathic emotions in their test-persons. Now surprisingly the results were completely different: the majority moved her up the list. Which is in fact an unethical, a highly immoral choice of behavior, that said, they also committed a crime now, that could destroy their carrier if it ever came up.
This was only one of many experiments, who gave clear evidence, that empathy blurs and distorts our sagacity. As if this wasn’t enough, empathy also creates a huge bias in our decisions and actions.
Empathy is like a spotlight, that will zoom you into the destiny of a single individual — which causes you to sympathize with him and you will tend to do him some favor — no matter if he deserves it or not.
This is no new insight. Even Stalin knew already: a single death is a catastrophe, millions of deaths are statistics.
Because your power of judgment so easily can be contorted and biased in any desired direction, it is of course used on you already … to collect donations, for example,
if you only show people the picture of a child, they donate twice as much, as if you give them all plausible reasons and data on this matter.
It is a known fact, that people give for one human more than for five — only if they are shown a face and a name. Similar distorted perceptions can be triggered with mass-shootings. Mass-shootings create huge emotional responses, because media will always add a pic of a crying mother, who has lost her child on such an event.
People go in the barricades and demand any possible strategy of prevention, to avoid further events like this.
Completely unnoticed remains reality, which in this case tells us, that all mass-shootings taken together actually only make 0.1% of all homicides in America. This number is so astonishingly low, that — even if it would be possible to prevent from now on any mass-shooting, so this problem is dissolved — you would not even see that in the statistics, the numbers would be exactly the same as before.
Next weak point of empathy is the bias, it creates. Empathy namely only appears, if you can identify yourself with the victim. And of course you identify the better, the more similar the victim gets to you, in every connotation: job, looks, relationship status, age, whatever.
Not to forget, Empathy raises prejudice and preconceived notion distinctly.
It has been proven, that criminals will be sentenced to death the more frequently, the darker their skin color was — but independent from the crimes, they committed. Interesting is the fact, that even people who have dark colored skin themselves, judged the right person on this picture to death, not the one on the left side — that’s how deep the prejudice about black people is rooted in our emotional system.
Empathy suddenly does no longer seem so human and fair, does it? You orient yourself on race, nationality and even group-affiliation, whether you feel empathy or NOT. And as it seems, this feeling is reserved only for a very small circle of near friends or family.
This will be my last example of experiments, therefore its results will be dreadful, if not to say: horrifying.
The brain activity of the test-persons was measured while they were watching a person getting tortured with electric shocks. One group was told, that the person, who was tortured, was a fan of the same team as they were, the other group believed, he belonged to the opposing soccer team. The result was simply shocking: not only there was hardly any empathy for people of the other group, but the results of the measurement even showed enjoyment and pleasure while they watched the guy being tortured. Empathy is reserved only for members of their own group.
Psychotherapy programs in prisons showed a clear reduction of the rape after the prisoner was released into the world again, but only because one single prisoner kept raping afterwards. This blatant misjudgement resulted from the fact that people can identify with the victim, but not with the many woman, who have not been raped due to the program.
In Africa and India healthy kids get crippled, because they get the most money from white tourists, if they were sent begging. So when they were about to fly to this country, the tourists were told not to give these kids any money, because they are not helping, they only caused more children to have their arms and legs cut off; they were promoting this cruel act by giving money.
But nevertheless, most of the tourists still gave the most money to precisely these kids. Their justification was that they felt bad for them. The fact that their empathy caused more torture to children now, left them cold.
UNICEF debunked the poignant cruelty of empathic people. They dressed the same little girl differently for each of the two transits, they did with the experiment, to test the willingness to help.
The experiment had to be interrupted, because the kid became too upset, due to all these declining and even hostile reactions by people when she was dressed in rags.
So, in reality, it isn’t a question of being able to feel empathy. Its the question of to whom you choose to invest this feeling on. Advertising and all other forms of manipulation therefore count on the people’s empathy to reach their goal. Depending on what goal is to be pursued, different stories will be emphasized.
To take as current topic the refugee-issue. On side will show the terrible destiny of a poor refugee, the other one a woman, who has been raped by refugees.
Nobody reflects on the facts and thinks about developing a reasonable assessment of the subject and building up an opinion about a topic. Humans decisions are blindly emotional.
As a given fact effective altruism requires rational thinking.
Quite revealing is the story of Leslie Jamison, who originally was convinced, that the best doctors will have the most empathy, and vice versa. She rather put herself out for this reason in a very ambitious way — until she suddenly became severely sick and so experienced her theory suddenly as a real patient instead of just her theoretical construct about it. Her Odyssey led to a radical conversion of her disposition. She found out that she felt herself in good hands with doctors who had a complete different type of personality than she had expected. To quote Leslie:
Of course it is important, that a doctor treats his patients with respect, kindness, and that he really listens to his problems. He is supposed to understand the problem, and then search for the solution it in a competent way. Empathetic feeling the miserable situation of his patience is not necessary, it even could be obstructive.
Paul Bloom said in one of his lectures something like that regarding psychotherapy:
He wants to be understood, but he doesn’t want to infect his therapist with the depression, which he suffers from.
This is last study, done in Yale — which I hope will clean up this deep-rooted prejudice, that empathetic people are more humane than others in their decisions. The test persons were measured for their empathy scores and then they were told a story:
In Egypt an American reporter has been held and tortured. They had to chose a proper reaction for America to this event out of six possibilities.
The result shouldn’t surprise you at this point.
The more empathetic the test person was, the more irrational and cruel the retaliatory strike, that was held suitable to him. And where is the overall propagandized coherence between aggression / cruelty and the lack of empathy? It doesn’t exist. These results have also been confirmed by a meta study, which analyzed every, literally every single study ever made regarding empathy. The connection is pure fiction.
But what about all the dangerous psychopaths, the serial killer, aren’t they lacking in empathy? Yes they are, but that fact is not the factor, which causes their development into inhuman and dangerous people, in fact, empathy is one of the most irrelevant traits for this.
The following list names the parameter, which in reality show off a tendency for criminal behavior. These are the true risk factors, so to say.
Let us leave our own cultural environment to have a look at Buddhism.
Tania Singer worked together with Buddhist monks on researching about moral competence and social behavior, they in fact can look back at a really long experience and data, that they collected over nearly 20 years from their work. Fifty percent of the people were trained in empathy, the usual emotional empathy, where you are told to put yourself into the others shoes, the other fifty percent were trained in Compassion instead. Compassion is defined as Empathy from some distance – so you are not emotionally involved, but you understand the problem of the other person.
In cognitive science we name that cognitive empathy. Compassion came off as the clear winner, she is a good indicator for the persons moral competence.
The results added shortly.
So what can we learn out of this?
Emotional Empathy is overhauled. It’s nothing more than a rudiment; a mammalian heritage. It lost its usefulness under our actual environmental conditions. Empathy is no proper tool to get adjusted in societies with no relation at all to the bonding — togetherness of social groups, they were built for.
Today it leads to wrong decisions, prejudices, it clouds clear thinking, sometimes it causes aggression, sometimes in large extent, but not called for in the given situation not at all called for. We are living in complex social constructs, where we need to be able to analyze the actual given situation rational and neutral, to get a reliable result, instead of being blinded by emotions.
Instinctive, reflexive reactions are exactly what makes us vulnerable to and unaware of manipulation — and manipulation is actually occurring on largest extent ongoing, if not by other people, then from propaganda, politicians, you name it. We can be programmed like machines throughout this tools on this basis.
Rudiments are features or phenomenon’s in organism, which are designed only incomplete and /or have lost meaningful functioning.
Organs as well as behavior can become redundant or dispensable in the course of time. They regress as a result or sometimes can even become a handicap.
Our appendix may serve for an example: Having played a central role for digestion, in times before some profound dietary change took place bin the lives of our ancestors, which led to its regression.
Of course the appendix — as useless it might be in its present context — has held a useful function for us — like hosting many cells of the lympt-system. The appendix is a retreat area now for the useful gut bacteria, they enter, when some infection is destroying the whole enteric flora, and help building up a new one, after the shitstorm will have ended someday.
But you also can live without it.
Empathy resembles its fate kind of. It may have its benefits, if applied with caution and care.
It will be destructive, if used as basics for your decision making and your judgement.
It makes you dumb, viewing empathy the headstone your humanity, and relying on it — it will make you the game ball for easy manipulation — which you never will understand, even though obeying it.
If somebody wants to become a “better guy” better promotes his cognitive empathy, not the emotional one.
You can live without it.