Two Paths to Empathy

By all accounts, the ability to empathize with others is the hallmark of social behavior.  Indeed, when we come across those rare individuals whom we view as anti-social, or those even more rare individuals that we label as sociopaths, the diminished or missing feature of their personality is empathy.

There are two paths to empathetic behavior, one innate, and one constructed.  The innate system is  part of our biological heritage, based on emotion, and is shared to some degree with other animals.  Neuroscientists believe that a major player in this system are so-called mirror neurons, which take as input sensory information about what others are experiencing and produce emotional responses in us similar or identical to what we would have felt if we were actually experiencing the same thing ourselves.  Mirror neurons are what allow us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.  This innate empathetic system interacts with other cognitive/emotional systems, and so even if we all have a similar capacity for empathy based on our mirror neurons, the end result can be quite different from human to human.  One could reduce the plight of the narcissist to their lack of empathy: whereas a normal person will take subtle clues from those around them and feel emotion, the narcissist — whether it be a failing of their mirror neurons or interference from other mental systems — will systematically ignore (or not perceive) those same clues.

The second path to empathetic behavior is based on a more conscious logic or pattern of thought that does not require a visceral emotional response to function.  To illustrate this point, consider a society with a well-functioning and highly sophisticated legal system dictating all manner of behavior and whose citizens act in accordance with all these laws the vast majority of the time.  Would it be possible to tell whether an individual in such a society was acting out of empathy for his fellow man, or because he is following the law?  On the flip side, there are societies small and big in which civility may equally be the result of a strong set of rules, or an ethos (instilled from birth ) of caring for one’s neighbors and strangers.  So what is constructed empathy?  It’s the logic of the mind (both conscious and unconscious) which allows us to see how it is in our own best interest to treat another as we would want to be treated ourselves.  In other words, constructed empathy is “enlightened self-interest”.

In the real world, we are all a mix of both types of empathy.  We each lie on a spectrum, where on the one end are the bleeding hearts and the other the sociopaths, with most of us falling naturally somewhere in between.  And on a given day, or in certain circumstances, we can be acting more on one type than the other, as dictated by our individual dynamic range.  What is interesting to observe are different thought patterns that emerge and different choices that people make when acting from from innate empathy vs constructed empathy.

It is also interesting to observe how this empathetic dualism allows us to reconcile the argument between those who claim that there’s no such thing as altruistic behavior — that we’re all ultimately in it for ourselves — and those who claim that humans are naturally interested in doing good and helping one another.  Like in most age-old debates, there is some truth to both sides, but each one frames the issue incorrectly, too simplistically.  And with this new lexicon and set of concepts, it is easy to see that we are at once cutthroat and altruistic, and that there is no contradiction in that statement.

  • Jaewoo Joo

    Very interesting. I have never met any academic psych paper which tells me that there are two paths to behave empathetically. But, it totally makes sense.

    One business designer suggests that when empathizing with a single person or a small group of people, it does not lead to empathic understanding. He proposes that empathizing with multiple groups of people is a key.

    What do you think?

  • This original blog by Rafe and Jaewoo’s response bring up several ideas:
    a) the “2 empathies” argument is backed-up by the Aspie book, Look Me In the Eye, by John Elder Robison
    b) the “categories” of empathy and sympathy, as they relate to psychology, imho, actually relate less to all the “reasons” and ways in which we define them, and more with the mirror neuron system;
    c) so instead of saying someone’s mirror neuron system works differently, we can get judgmental about whether or not someone is empathetic or sympathetic, from our perspective; in social networks this can become a “self-fulfilling prophesy”
    d) the “danger” in using words to describe still-emergent neurologies is that we can make broad stroke arguments/statements and say they’re psycyhology-based, without them having anything to do with actual brains;
    e) a psychology not based firmly in neurology and cognitive neuroscience is mythology, not science :)

  • Jason McKinley

    Once again your article has piqued an interest and gets the juices flowing:

    Empathy can be both innate and constructed (learned), but not forced by society and laws. When helping others is dictated or forced by law it is not empathy, but compliance. The result might make society better as a whole, but the individual can experience resentment or other negative responses, that might inhibit a path to empathy.

    Learned or constructed empathy is developed as a survival mechanism. Imagine a child in an environment that is abusive and threatening. Developing empathy and an ability to understand visual clues as an important survival mechanism for self preservation.

    It is also not in our best interest to treat others as we would want to be treated. What is in another persons best interest and what is in my best interest depend completely on the type of person one has become and what they consider best interest. It is in societies best interest as a whole for us to treat one another as we would want to be treated, but not necessarily in the individuals best interest. I would content that it is “enlightened whole-interest” not self interest that drives empathy.

    Empathy is the gateway to insight into others or mind reading, so therefore the truly selfish person should study to enhances this ability. However during the process be careful because you might change.

    “there’s no such thing as altruistic behavior” I had someone tell me this when I was 13. The person said that because I derived pleasure from the act of being good and helping others it was a completely selfish act. I quit going to church after this….

    Great article Rafe….I’m a big fan of empathy

  • Is the second path, the rule based path, really empathy if the person following the rules is doing so without thought or actual consideration of their impact on other people or themselves? I can see how it is constructed empathy in the sense that other people that do care constructed it, but the people that don’t think about it and blindly follow is that really empathy, even constructed? Maybe I’m missing what you mean by that.

    In “The Sociopath Next Door” the author spent a very few brief paragraphs talking about how if our culture is changed, while people with sociopathic tendencies may still exist, those who have a tendency toward violence may decrease. Which sounds like another argument in favor of creating a society with a greater sense of the importance of both real empathy, and constructed empathy.

    I really have no problem with people helping others because it makes the helper feel good. I’m not sure whether it is altruistic matters as long as it is actually helpful to the other person.

    I do have a problem with people helping others because it makes them look good though, especially if they aren’t really thinking about whether or not they are helping and simply using that person they are ‘helping’ as a prop. Usually these people are narcissists.

    I hadn’t thought about hyper-vigilance, as a form of empathy, but it seems to make sense.

    • Rafe Furst

      I believe empathy as colloquially understood actually consists of both dimensions (emotional and logical), though we don’t usually acknowledge the logical as part of the equation. I believe that this denial is tantamount to assuming the conclusion you are trying to prove: empathy is purely emotional (assumption) so therefore people who depend more on the logical side aren’t really empathetic. But if you grant that empathy may consist of both emotional response and social logic, then you can start to explain behaviors better and predict behaviors better. And in the search for truth, explanation and prediction are what it’s about.

      On a philosophical level, if you are still not comfortable with this, consider the following. When you posted your comment, what were your motivations, deep down, for doing so? Were you commenting purely for everyone else’s sake? Or do you get at least some amount of personal satisfaction or benefit from it?

      • Alex Golubev

        Just last night I started listening to the audio book “Hold Me Tight” –

        Without being grounded in a little bit of reality of what it means to be human (being born and having imperfect parents), this argument quickly turns into a stalemate of semantics. The key is that we all have:
        1. unrecognized hangups and internal conflicts that affect us from the past and they reverberate – aka “baggage”
        2. imperfect ability to communicate our needs for a variety of reasons
        3. imperfect understanding of the emergent nature of relationships. #1 and #2 are SUFFICIENT conditions to cause two people to split between escalating conflict to communicate a need, while the other one flees the conflict to protect their own need. Both people end up being even more INSECURE about getting what they need from the other, so when the next conflict arises, they resort to this type of DE-solution, if you will. This turns into a cycle of negative reinforcement.

        So what’s the connection? Thinking about path dependency gets us out of the semantic stalemate of this debate. Mirror neurons are almost crying out for us to give (in) FIRST. Look to the past to resolve internal conflicts. I highly recommend the book. $15 and a soulmate vs a lifetime of stalemates ;)

        • Rafe Furst

          Love it!

        • Thanks for the book suggestion!

      • Yes my understanding until this article, has been that empathy is an emotional thing. So part of my questioning/dialogue is to gain a better understanding/broader perspective/interpretation of the world.

        I’ve been accused of lacking compassion or empathy by some, and deeply praised for my compassion and empathy by others . . . so this is a topic I’m very interested in.

        “When you posted your comment, what were your motivations, deep down, for doing so? Were you commenting purely for everyone else’s sake? Or do you get at least some amount of personal satisfaction or benefit from it?”

        The short answer is both. For my benefit in terms of learning more about a concept that intuitively seems useful but that I don’t sense that I understand well*, to help others that may not understand, and the comment about helpers & props, is a of a personal pet peeve about narcissists leaking out– so helps me in some ways via venting it and hopefully helps others become actually more helpful which in turn might help those who need help.

        * also so that I perhaps gain a broader context/framework with which to influence the world (even if by one person at a time) to a better place . . . which in turn makes my experience of the world better.

        I’m still uncertain about the answer to question “but the people that don’t think about it and blindly follow is that really empathy, even constructed? ”

        I’m not just asking if the people blindly following the constructed rules of logically based empathy are emotionally empathetic, I’m asking if they are even aware enough to engage consciously in logic based empathy. (Ie being ‘good’ because it’s a good idea, rather than because it feels good).

        The concept of socially constructed empathy reminds me of some aspects of what might have been the purpose of religion a long time ago.

        Also what you call ‘enlightened self interest’ I used to think of as actual rational self interest, but since that term comes with Randian baggage, I think I like your term better.

        • Rafe Furst

          “I’ve been accused of lacking compassion or empathy by some, and deeply praised for my compassion and empathy by others . . . so this is a topic I’m very interested in.”

          Me too :-)

          I am low on the innate scale and extremely high on the constructed.

  • Wayne

    You say, “What is interesting to observe are different thought patterns that emerge and different choices that people make when acting from from innate empathy vs constructed empathy.” But what are the “different choices people make”? You never say.

    • Rafe Furst

      One common dynamic for those far on the innate/emotional end of the spectrum is that they “feel bad for people” who do not share their same values and would take exception to your assuming they are themselves unhappy. The reason they feel bad is their mirror neuron system projects them into the other person’s situation and responds emotionally AS IF IT WERE THEM. But it’s not them. And there are many situations where this leads to inappropriate behaviors and conflict. Canonical example: Pat says to Chris, “I don’t just want you to do the dishes; I want you to want to do the dishes”.

      For those on constructive/autistic end of the spectrum, they can’t “relate” at all to how the other person feels, and often doesn’t even know what the real issue is in a conversation. They take everything literally. Pat says to Chris, “I’m so upset! My dad got mad at me for getting his dog that cute little Gucci Poochy doggy vest for Christmas. I’m so offended! How can he be so ungrateful?!!” and Chris replies, “Here’s the solution: don’t get your dad anymore presents and then he can’t make you upset.”

      Constructive empathy without innate leads Chris to “solve the problem” when all Pat wanted was to feel understood.

      Innate empathy without constructive leads Pat (ironically) to narcissistic behaviors because Pat can’t fathom that other people (and animals) don’t have the same values as Pat and react totally differently than Pat would in the same circumstance.

      • This is a really good explanation of the phenomenon of people who want to help and hurt when they help– they are helping someone as if it were them, without the understanding of where the other person might be coming from. Am I interpreting that accurately?

      • Marisa

        Interesting. Actually in the two situations, both Pat and Chris seem to act in an attempt to “solve the problem” and not in an attempt to simply understand the other.

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