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.