Empathy is becoming a science. That was the message of a recent article in The Observer newspaper by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, based on his new book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. Our brains, he argues, contain an ‘empathy circuit’. But if empathy is wired into us, does that leave any scope for expanding our empathic potential?
Baron-Cohen cites several cases of people with ‘borderline personality disorders’, who display a distinct inability to empathise, in the sense of lacking a capacity to understand other people’s feelings or step into their shoes. One woman, ‘Carol’, flies into a rage if she feels other people are disrespecting her. If her kids don’t do as she tells them, she screams and shouts at them, saying things like: ‘You’re evil, selfish bastards! I hate you! I’m going to kill myself! And I hope you’re happy knowing you made me do it!’
Another well-known borderline he discusses is Marilyn Monroe. The young Marilyn – her real name was Norma Jean Baker – had a traumatic childhood. Her mother suffered from mental illness and gave her to a foster family. Marilyn was then put in an orphanage in Los Angeles, and later molested by her mother’s new husband. Married three times, she was terrified of being alone and abandoned, was a repeated client of psychiatric clinics, and finally killed herself in 1962 with an overdose of barbiturates.
Baron-Cohen’s point is that people with personality disorders like Carol and Marilyn typically have abnormalities in the empathy circuits of the brain. They may have a lack of binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotinin receptors, and relatively little neural activity in the orbital frontal cortex and the temporal cortex. They might also have smaller than average amygdalas.
This kind of brain-dissecting analysis worries me. This is partly because we still understand so little about how these circuits really function, and how they influence everyday behaviour – a topic I have discussed previously on Outrospection. The picture is far less clear than scientists like Baron-Cohen portray it.
Beyond this, the neuroscientific angle on empathy leaves me feeling distinctly disempowered. Baron-Cohen’s research suggests that our empathy circuitry is, for most part, genetically inherited or formed during our early childhood. But if this is true, then what hope is there for each of us expanding our empathic imaginations in later life? He may well claim that ‘empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world’ due to its power to reduce violence and create mutual understanding, but if we can’t learn to use that resource effectively, or improve its quality or acquire more of it, then empathy may be a much weaker lever for social change than many people believe.
At this point we need to add something to the story we are being told by the brain scientists. And that is the evidence from experimental psychology which shows that it is indeed possible to increase our capacity to empathise throughout our lives. Certainly Baron-Cohen acknowledges this possibility, wisely suggesting that more effort should be made to teach empathy in schools, but this is far from being the thrust of his analysis. So, what does the evidence look like?
In one study led by Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University in the US, a group of college students were shown a photograph of an African-American young man and told to write a short narrative about a typical day in his life. One third – the control group – were given this instruction and no more. One third were additionally told to actively suppress any stereotypical preconceptions they might have about the person. And the final third were given an empathic perspective-taking instruction: ‘imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person, looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.’ The result was that the perspective-takers showed the most positive attitudes towards their subject, followed by the suppressor group, then the control group. The experiment was repeated with a photo of an elderly white man, with the same outcome.
In another series of experiments devised by Daniel Batson, two groups were asked to listen to a tape recording of a woman in distress. The first group were given the instruction to attend closely to the technical aspects of the broadcast. The other group were asked to imagine the experiences and feelings of the person. When given a response form afterwards, those in the latter group demonstrated far higher levels of offering to help her in practical ways, such as donating to a relief fund.
What do such experiments show? That perspective-taking empathy (sometimes known as cognitive empathy) can be induced or developed. Over time, and with appropriate stimuli, we can become more adept at understanding the perspectives of others, which helps to erode our prejudices and assumptions, and results in higher levels of ‘pro-social’ or helping behaviour. Although such controlled experiments are somewhat contrived – the real test is how people act in daily life outside the psychology lab – they do tell us that most people are not prisoners of the empathy circuitry they were born with, or which developed in infancy. The empathy revolution lies not simply in what neuroscience reveals, but in what society can create.