The Greater Good: Session 1


Lynne Soraya

Lynne Soraya

Writer, journalist, disability advocate; blogger for Psychology Today


Meghan Falvey

Meghan Falvey

Writer, journalist; contributor to n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, and Modern Painters

G. Anthony Gorry

G. Anthony Gorry

Professor of Computer Science at Rice University and Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine 

Peggy Mason

Peggy Mason

Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago; author of Medical Neurobiology

Session 1


Lynne Soraya

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?



Meghan Falvey

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.



G. Anthony Gorry

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.



Peggy Mason

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.



Amy Alward wrote :

This has been a tough concept for me on my own autism journey. I think others have found me callous and lacking in empathy at times; at times that lack of understanding what another person was experiencing emotionally (or even physically) may have had others thinking I was cruel.

Empathy for me differs from sympathy. Sympathy tends to imply understanding of another's experience, while empathy seems to imply feeling what the other person feels. These aren't scientific definitions, just some basic semantics (and I do agree that better definition and operationalization of this construct is severely lacking in a concept that seems to be so key to autism research and diagnostics).

For me to truly empathize with another, I need to have had a similar experience and a great deal of understanding of what they are feeling. I have to have the same emotional language.

Since I spend much of my life navigating scripts, analyzing body language, word choice and scanning faces for meaning--on top of managing my own sensory overload issues--I find that my emotional understanding and experience is stunted or dulled compared to other adults my age.

This doesn't mean that I'm incapable of feeling, just that I often have to put feelings on a mental backburner just to get through my day. They have to be processed and expressed when I am not extended to my cognitive and physical limit. Unfortunately, this means they generally aren't available for action or interaction in the heat of the moment, as they seem to be with NTs.

This results in some things that NTs might find odd: flat affect (not letting on and maybe not even acknowledging to myself how intense my feelings might be), concentration on task in emotional situations, and possibly even the apparent lack of understanding. I've learned that this is more of a capacity issue than anything else. Secondarily, all that accumulated time shoving emotion aside to get through the business of living has left me stunted due to lack of practice and connection with some things.

Not broken and unempathetic, just having a bottleneck issue.
Amy Alward posted on 09/25/12
ictus75 wrote :

Crikey, not the old "autistics don't really have empathy" thing again. I don't understand how anyone can determine that rats have empathy (LOL) and autistics don't. As an Aspie, I know that I have empathy. I just don't "wear it on my sleeve" like so many NTs do. I have empathy for my wife, my kids, my pets, and others around me. In fact, like many Aspie things, I probably have too much empathy! Because of this, I have learned how to put a lid on it (like many other emotional things) so it doesn't overwhelm me.
You want to know about empathy in Autistics? ASK US!

I have too much empathy--I stopped watching the news because it affected me too much. I often have to abandon books or films because I "feel" too much for characters who are in trouble/danger, or who are in a very embarrassing situation. I don't want to hear about the little girl down the street who has cancer and will die soon, not because I don't care, but because I will take it all in and be consumed by the sadness of it. Yeah, I have lots of empathy, but I have built walls to protect myself from this and other emotions. Welcome to my world.

You want to know about empathy? Just ask me . . .
ictus75 posted on 09/25/12
Jeannie Rivera (Aspie Writer) wrote :

I would have liked to see the panelist address empathy in autistics directly. It appears that we have skirted around the issue, and even by the definitions, explanations, and opinions offered here, those on the autism spectrum display a large degree of empathy. In my opinion, autistics may have more empathy than the general population; you just may not recognize it.

I am the author of a blog about the life of a writer on the autism spectrum. I have Asperger's Syndrome (AS). My thirteen-year-old son very likely has Asperger’s as well, although we are still waiting for an "official" diagnosis. Within the past week the subject of empathy has come up several times.

My 13-year-old took the initiative to get out of bed and take care of his baby brother because he was concerned that Mom was tired and had not had enough sleep. I wrote about my son's actions, and a commenter mentioned his "empathy."

My son's actions, and the commenter's words, lead me to begin to think about empathy in autistics, and spurred another post. I have examined the definition of empathy and clearly outlined exactly how empathy is displayed in autistic people, or rather how I experience empathy.

I was astounded that over the past few days I've received consistent feedback from others in the autism community who conveyed that they felt the exact same way.

We continually search and seek out others who are like ourselves, scour the internet for articles and blogs by those who we can relate to, and feel-—possibly too intensely at times--the emotional energy of the people around us.

How is it then possible that we lack empathy? We do not. We actively seek situations in which we can empathize with others. We feel alone, so we look for others like us, to see our own reflections; we crave empathy.

Jeannie Rivera (Aspie Writer) posted on 09/25/12
David Cameron Staples wrote :

Thinking on these comments further, it seems that in all three statements, empathy is stated to be this strange nebulous thing which we don't know what it is, but we know that autists don't have it.

Even when the "definitions" being used are only self contradictory as a result of not thinking about empathy as a collection of related skills, but as one fungible thing.

To Ms Falvey's argument: it is only self-contradictory if there is one atomic thing called empathy. It makes perfect sense, however, if you split off the functions. It is important in business to make people feel good, which requires the skill of reading their emotions, and the skill of presenting the appropriate response as required. Actually feeling empathy with someone else, on the other hand, actually feeling bad if someone else has something bad happen to them, is actively a hindrance because it might make you stay your hand against a competitor or rival. Or, in other words, you have to either be, or make a good impression of being, a psychopath to succeed in business. Suddenly, there is no more paradox. "Sincerity," as the saying goes, "once you can fake that, you've got it made."

Autists find it very hard to fake sincerity. It's practically a defining characteristic.

Professors Gorry and Mason have actually upset me with their arguments, which both amount to the same thing:
* Empathy is what makes us human.
* Autists may have "apparent concern", but this is merely a "neural circuit."
The logical conclusion is disturbingly obvious.

The response is, of course, to ask how you know that nonautistic people "actually feel" empathy, or is that also merely an apparent condition resulting from a "neural circuit"? How do you know that autistic people don't really feel pain at another person's pain? Have you asked any?

And, again, the traits which are picked out of the nebulous thing called empathy are those which are to do with reading other people's emotions, and presenting appropriately. What one actually experiences is irrelevant, or at least skipped over. So, again, those parts of Empathy which are valorised are those which can superficially be presented by the worst of psychopaths, while the experience of suffering vicariously (which is at the etymological root of "empathy"--Greek "ein pathos," "one feeling"--and "sympathy"--"syn pathos," "united feeling"--both) is either ignored, or explicitly denied. In Prof. Gorry's case by denying that autists have any such feelings, and in Prof. Mason's case by making that strength of feeling itself evidence against having empathy as humans know it, by positing "empathic helping" as some new trait which autists don't have.

In all cases, the panelists have valorised empathic skills which are displayed by psychopaths, while using slippery "definitions" of empathy which excludes it from autists by definition, and at the same time praising how empathy is what makes us human.
David Cameron Staples posted on 09/25/12
Tammy Kacmarynski wrote :

First I would like to say how grateful I am that this conversation is occurring. I have Asperger's Syndrome myself, and the most difficult aspect I had with excepting this was the "expert's" belief that someone with autism lacked empathy. I completely and absolutely disagree with this "theory." My hope is this conversation will open a dialog and a true conversation, specifically with people with autism, as how will the truth ever be discovered if we don't begin at the source.

I found Ms. Falvey's statements very interesting and enlightening. I had never contemplated self-centeredness may be at play with empathy, nor that one could use empathy to gauge their self. I do not have any first-hand experiences with this and I won't pretend that I know this to be true or not.

Mr. Gorry also provided an interesting perspective with two interesting points. The first was his statement “been taught to adopt the perspectives of others—to make their concerns our own and to react as they do” and I wonder if that might be the problem in relation to the lack of understanding between neurotypicals and autistics. I personally have had much difficulty but I believe that this is based in the fact that I have never been understood. How could I trust what I was being told as being factual, if my 'teachers' (meaning parents, friends, teachers, etc...) were completely unaware and often incorrect with their assumptions about me.

The second statement of interest to me, was “impediments to action—the feeling, for example, that one can do nothing for the person in need—can stifle empathetic response.“ If there is an emergency where quick choices must be made and I am familiar with what needs to be done (meaning I have the skill set needed, whether it is to call 911 or to intervene), I am absolutely the type of person someone would want to assist. I have been described as bold and fearless and while these terms are complimentary, they are less than accurate. In the moment of crisis I do not have an emotional response but fear not, I will experience the effects. Unfortunately, I am unable to determine exactly when those reactions will occur. I have learned that I need to be proactive with my emotions and I have developed a self-care system to ensure that I will not suddenly "shut down" as a result.

What Ms. Mason stated provoked an immediate response in me, I knew some of her views were based in an inaccuracy. “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.” Wow, I was actually shocked to read this, as I cannot stress enough, how incorrect this is, at least for people with autism. I absolutely reason through these typical everyday events, at least until I have learned the context of the smile. I reason through every interaction with another person, unless and until, I have obtained sufficient knowledge that assures that I am understanding what is occurring. When I was younger and someone smiled at me, my first assumption was this may be a threat, which is far from what would cause me to feel happy. I am extremely aware of the details when I am interacting with another person and if I am unsure or unsettled about the conversation, I will 'play' it back often. Before I was aware that I had Asperger's, this caused a great deal of problems, as I had a very limited "social skills" and would often interject incorrect assumptions. A great example is when someone is lying. There words are clear but yet their body language, the tone of their voice, and their facial expressions are obviously not matching up. I would never had assumed that they were lying but I was very aware that something was not right. These type of inconsistencies occur often and EVERY single one of these events meant hours or days of contemplation, which rarely, if ever provided the answers I was seeking.

When Ms. Mason goes on to say, “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,” I completely agree, but yet I am confused because that is exactly how I operate and I am told that I "lack empathy." Which is it: do I lack empathy or am I what people really want to see as empathic concern? (Not meaning this comment towards Ms. Mason but in the general sense against the "lack of empathy argument.")

Once again, I want to applaud the panelists, the moderator Lynne Soraya, and the Guggenheim Museum for opening the dialogue on empathy.
Tammy Kacmarynski posted on 09/24/12
David Cameron Staples wrote :

I think at least part of the problem is that everyone seems to just know what empathy is (or isn't), and no one's concept of it seems to agree, except that it's a quality that autists and psychopaths don't have.

Which means that 1. everyone's talking at cross-purposes, and 2. whenever an autist shows that they are distressed by someone else's pain, or a psychopath is suave and charming, it's not a display of empathy by definition.

In my personal model of the concept, there are three main aspects of empathy, and for lack of any predefined useful terms I call them cognitive, affective and demonstrative.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognise the feelings of another. The ability to see someone else smile and recognise it for a sign of happiness, or to see it as forced and hiding distress. To see tears and recognise tears of grief or tears of joy. This is, for most people, an instinctive skill requiring little thought.

Demonstrative empathy would be the ability to display emotions such that others can recognise it. Both blunted affect and labile affect would count here, in so far as there is a disconnect between the display and the experienced emotion. This is also an instinctive skill for most people, although the profession of acting requires that it can be trained.

The last is affective empathy: the internal experience of empathy. The personal feeling of distress at another's pain, of happiness at their joy. (I use "affect" because the usage in the literature seems to be one of those "I know it when I see it" definitions. Sometimes it describes the display of emotion, sometimes the experience, sometimes both as if they were the same thing.)

I submit that autists have a greater than usual affective empathy, but deficits in cognitive and demonstrative. Thus the actions of DJ mentioned above show that when he becomes aware that someone else is in pain (which may not necessarily be obvious to him), he experiences a desire to lessen that person's pain, and attempts to help. What counts as helping for an autist will not necessarily look like a neurotypical person's instinctive response, but that does not mean that the impelling feeling is not the same, or even greater. Peggy Mason's penultimate paragraph describes this thesis very well, although as someone with Asperger's, I take issue with "Maybe some individuals with autism are in fact empathic." "Maybe"? "some"? Have you asked any?

By contrast, psychopaths are famously charming, when they want to be. They, under this analysis, have good cognitive and demonstrative empathy: they can read people like a book and display the appropriate emotion to put someone at ease, but they don't have an adequate affective response: they don't care about the other person, and that other person's pain does not impel a need to fix it.

But even if my pet model isn't sufficiently useful, I posit that it's still better than the vague and ill-defined use of the term "empathy" to describe anything and everything to do with the concept as a big nebulous, opaque and unanalysable thing, which changes functional definition in the middle of a sentence to include or exclude whatever has been predetermined to have or not have that quality.
David Cameron Staples posted on 09/24/12

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