One day, I picked up my smartphone and popped Twitter open. Two tweets about empathy caught my eye, one stacked on top of the other. The first text discussed how people with autism lack empathy. The second read, “Rats have empathy, study finds.”
I laughed. This pastiche of scientific concepts unintentionally portrayed a topsy-turvy world. Autistic human beings lacked an ability that rats apparently practiced with ease. Was this science’s real message?
I was reminded of one my favorite humor pieces, Richard Lederer’s “The World According to Student Bloopers,” a distorted, but often hilarious, account of world history compiled from student papers. I wondered: What if we created such a compilation from all of the materials published on empathy? What would that look like? What would it tell us about what we, as a society, think of empathy?
The two references I saw on Twitter that day were only two of the many ways we talk about empathy, and after reading them, I had to question whether the respective authors meant to convey the same thing. In the case of the rats, an altruistic act of releasing a trapped cagemate was said to indicate that they were capable of empathy. This suggests a definition akin to caring about others’ distress and acting to mitigate that distress.
Apply this particular model to people with autism; it’s hard to categorically say that they lack empathy. Take, for example, an incident related by Ralph James Savarese, in his book Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (2007). Mr. Savarese’s nephew had recently passed away from cancer, and his sister was immersed in grief. Seeing her pain, Savarese’s nonverbal and profoundly autistic son, DJ, grabbed his typing machine and wrote a message to his aunt: “Do you have reasonable people to help you with your hurt?” To me, this seems to be an example consistent with the definition of empathy used by the authors of the rat study.
But is this the definition intended by the author of the tweet about autism? I don’t believe so. In autism research, empathy is often discussed with much more complexity. It involves not only caring about distress and acting to mitigate it but also concepts like “mind reading”—the ability to predict, or “read,” what others are thinking and feeling. If we apply this concept to the rat experience, can we claim that rats have empathy? Are they really going through the same higher order of reasoning that we ascribe to humans?
Reviewing only these two examples, I’m left with many questions: What exactly is empathy? Do we, as a society, define it consistently? By what metric can it be measured? Are there subtypes of empathy? Can it be broken down into different components—perhaps into concepts like “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy”?
Going a bit further: How do these conceptual differences in the definition of empathy affect how we talk about it, and apply it? What does it really mean to empathize with the subject of a portrait or work of art? Or, simply, what does it mean to empathize with another person that you meet on the street?
I agree that empathy is a slippery concept and one that gets used in sometimes confounding ways. A favorite example is the headline I saw on a CNBC post a few years ago, which read: "Is Your Empathy Killing Your Career?" I kept imagining the questions on the inevitable quiz.
Despite the ruthlessness and competitive behavior that capitalist economics rewards—unexpectedly the Texan sage Rick Perry comes to mind, in the form of the phrase “vulture capitalism”—employees have been encouraged to develop and display empathy in their work relations since Dale Carnegie’s 1937 How to Win Friends and Influence People. The sociologist Eva Illouz has looked at Carnegie’s claim that "[developing empathy] may easily prove to be one of the milestones of your career." Illouz suggests that the management theory that underlies corporate labor relations (and, indeed, has replaced that term with the less contentious "human resources") has consistently relied on techniques of emotional management. Management psychology's interest in emotions and affect tends to lean toward advice on how to marshal them for strategic deployment. In this context, it seems signal that empathy should be universally encouraged. I think that's partly why the CNBC headline sounds funny.
This leads us back to your question about what exactly is meant by the term “empathy.” In the case of workplace relations it seems to denote something that is, in fact, quite self-centered: the ability to accurately gauge how one appears to others. Given that the general understanding of empathy assumes a positive valence—that empathy is linked to altruism, sympathy, and compassion, affects people usually congratulate themselves for possessing—it's interesting to consider it as a morally neutral force. The understanding of empathy that seems at use in the workplace is one that explicitly regards the individual self to be a kind of citadel and takes other people—one's co-workers, boss and subordinate alike—to be pawns, nuisances, or even threats outside its gates.
Two hundred years ago, Adam Smith spoke of our "fellow feeling," which stirs "pity for the sorrowful, anguish for the miserable, joy for the successful.” This reaction to others, which we now generally call empathy, emerged countless years ago as natural selection forged our remarkable human sociability, our nuanced involvement with one another. Recently, neuroscientists have identified emotional centers in our brains that engender empathy, that make us exquisitely sensitive to the observed joy, pain or suffering of others. Hundreds of thousands of years removed from the savannah, we still instinctively wince seeing another's hand struck by a hammer; tilt our own bodies, watching another teetering on a balance; gag, seeing someone else eat something disgusting; choke up, recognizing suffering in another. We respond not only to gross actions but also to the twitch of an eye, tremor of a hand, tensing of a leg, even the dilation of a pupil—all subtle indicators of the intent of the brain within the body observed.
As Smith noted, our highly developed imagination is a powerful adjunct to these responses. Recently, J. K. Rowling echoed Smith when she said that imagination is the “power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared . . . Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places." Neural circuits drive the apparent altruism of the rat and the apparent concern of the autistic, but neither is likely to imagine standing “in the shoes of another” as Adam Smith would have had it.
For millennia, stories have put us in those shoes. Today books, movies, television, and the Internet all feed our hunger to learn about others, to share their experiences, to empathize with them. We so enjoy stories, we gossip about people we don’t know, inventing stories of their lives for our own pleasure. Every day we see the interplay of empathy, imagination, and storytelling in our families, our neighborhoods, at work, anywhere people gather.
The extent to which ordinary individuals empathize with their compatriots, however, may vary markedly. For each person who seems naturally sensitive to the feelings, experiences, and stories of others, another may appear almost indifferent. Then, too, the extent to which we have been taught to adopt the perspectives of others—to make their concerns our own and to react as they do—affects our reactions to their circumstances. Those who claim that novels can edify their readers argue that fiction can teach us to care for the orphan and rejoice in the triumphs of the once downtrodden. On the other hand, impediments to action—the feeling, for example, that one can do nothing for the person in need—can stifle empathetic response.
Digital technology increasingly mediates our interactions with others. Life on the screen is reshaping storytelling and thus affecting the way in which the experiences of others, real and imagined, stir the empathetic centers that lie deep within us.
Fundamental to all definitions of empathy is communication of an emotional or affective state between individuals. The eminent primatologist Frans de Waal considers being affected by another’s emotional state as a primitive form of empathy, which I believe is a useful starting point. Such social communication of affect need not be conscious and typically is not. Rather than rely on “higher order reasoning,” basic forms of empathy depend on neural pathways that are shared with other mammals. Passing a person who cheerfully smiles at us makes us feel happier and more likely to smile. We don’t reason through this process; it just happens. Such affective resonance is essential social communication that “works” in any culture independent of words, explanations, or abstract thought. These automatic emotional responses serve as social glue, biasing a group of individuals toward emotional consensus.
As defined above, empathy is a neutral term. Responding to another’s affective state, mood, or emotion does not constrain the actions taken, if any, as a result. Hopefully, seeing another individual in distress induces most to offer comfort or help. However, recognizing another’s emotional state can be used for nefarious purposes, for example to take advantage of emotionally vulnerable people. What we all want to see is empathic concern, an other-oriented emotional response elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of an individual in distress. By adding in the response that is congruent with the welfare of the other, this definition precludes antisocial actions; the action taken by an individual feeling empathic concern is pro-social in nature.
The path to empathic helping is difficult. A potential helper must recognize the distress of another individual while suppressing personal distress in order to act rather than freeze in panic. Finally, the individual motivated to help must figure out what to do. Empathic helping is sufficiently beneficial to survival that mammals have evolved this capacity.
Most humans, like most rats, show empathy, whereas a minority of humans and rats do not display empathic helping. For rats, figuring out how to release a trapped rat is difficult, meaning the motor know-how is a major hurdle that some rats do not get over. Other rats appear unable to suppress their own distress enough to act. I do not know at which point some individuals with autism get stuck. Perhaps some autistic people can’t recognize another’s distress, while others become too overwhelmed by it to act, or have a language impairment that prevents a response. Maybe some individuals with autism are in fact empathic; certainly the actions of DJ reflect great empathy, albeit oddly expressed.
Although rats and mammals share the capacity for empathy with humans, the experiences are surely not the same. Even among humans, internal experiences are spectacularly individual, defining unique. The uniqueness of experience holds true for perceptions, thoughts and emotions. So if all of us humans live our own unique experiences, what are the chances that a rat experiences empathy the same as does a human? Nil. No chance.