Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rethinking empathy

Journalist Maria Konnikova uses the example of Sherlock Holmes' "perspective taking" ability to put himself in the mind of others to rethinking what we might mean by (or what is truly value about) empathy. The entire article is worth reading, here is just the first few paragraphs to give you an idea of what she is talking about:

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish — the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a 'sociopath'.

Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?

Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does — by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’

Holmes takes an imaginative leap, not only into another human mind, but into the mind of an animal. This perspective-taking, being able to see the world from the point of view of another, is one of the central elements of empathy, and Holmes raises it to the status of an art.

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.

This is something that I have discussed before -- the difference between empathy and imagining what it might be like to be someone else.

The perspective taking is also an interesting phenomenon, particularly because it appears that it can be taught, as evidenced by the success of an intervention program for at risk youths, which teaches the youngsters perspective taking through the use of regular interactions with an infant volunteer (see this fascinating description).

Even though she insists that Sherlock is not a sociopath, I couldn't help but notice some similarities between the way he thinks and the way I think. For instance, a tendency to not think linearly:

But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning.
This default of abstract thinking has helped me immensely in my own career, and the article mentions that this sort of mental flexibility also enabled "an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be." although also means I often have to have my thoughts translated to others or reverse engineer explanations that are more universally palatable than my own scattered thought processes. And when used in the context of imagining other people's minds, better than typical empathy?

Here are some other advantages according to the article:
  • In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse.
  • No doubt Holmes would argue that his lack of emotion gives him a certain freedom from prejudice, as much as a lack of warmth. And recent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it.
  • Because he actively avoids distorting his view of others with his own feelings, "he ends up as a less egocentric and more accurate reflection of what someone else is thinking or experiencing at any given point."
  • Just think how precise are Holmes’s insights into people’s characters, their whims, their motivations and inner states. . . . In our own attempts to understand others, we might think such minutiae below us — why bother with such petty concerns when there are emotions, feelings, lives at stake? — but in ignoring those petty details, we lose crucial evidence. We miss the signs of difference that enable us to walk in those shoes we don’t deign to look at closely. 
  • Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.
  • The psychologists Ezra Stotland and Robert Dunn distinguished the ‘logical’ and the ‘emotional’ part of empathising with similar and dissimilar others. They understood the first as an exercise in cognitive perspective-taking, and the latter as an instance of non-rational emotional contagion. More recently, Baron-Cohen has described how individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not be able to understand or mentalise, yet some are fully capable of empathising (in the emotional sense) once someone’s affective state is made apparent to them — a sign, it seems, that the two elements are somewhat independent.
  • Feelings are not entirely absent from Holmes’s empathic calculus, but they are not allowed to drive his actions. Instead, he acts only if his cognition should support the emotional outlay. And if it doesn’t? The emotion is dismissed.
 She makes a lot of other great points, like how empathy, although evolutionary useful, is unreliable, biased, and often flawed. It's a good overall argument for how one can have low emotional empathy and not necessarily be malicious. She ends with:

Sherlock Holmes might be described as cold, it’s true. But who would you like on your side when it comes to being given a fair say, to being helped when that help is truly needed, to knowing that someone will go above and beyond the call of duty for your sake, no matter who you are or what you might have done? I, for one, would choose the cool-headed Holmes, who understands the limits of human emotions, and who seeks to ‘represent justice,’ so far as his ‘feeble powers allow’.


  1. Replies
    1. i'm reading a book from a psychiatrist who ses most of the dsm is a joke
      the disorders in there are presumed to have a neurological bases but never proved
      now as far as i know only autism and psychopathy have been proven that way
      question are there anny otheres that have?

    2. any other pd that have neurological basis, like if you scanned the brain you could see differences from normals?

    3. yes that's what i ment

  2. Sometimes, when a person was hurt, I could go into a soundless,zone and not care and not feel, even if the person was crying because I hurt him. I would look at him as if he was a bug and I was looking under the microscope.

    Then, I developed an actual mechanism where I could flip out of myself into another person. It was like I was inside him and could feel all he felt. Then, I could flip back into myself. It went dormant until now, and it has come back. It is like flipping the lid of a coke can, in terms of that it is an actual "kind of leaving of myself and a going into" someone, with my consciousness.

    This was how I learned about life. I was maturing and could feel out situations this way. In order to do it, I needed a space between myself and other people. When I became disassociated,, I lost that space. I was enmeshed with everyone, the way I was with my mother. Now, I am getting it back.

    1. Hello, Monica. I hope you had a nice Christmas Eve. The Born Again people I know do not exchange gifts on Christmas. THey look down on Chrisians in their family who do. Do you do gift exchanging for Christmas?

    2. Hi! I am Jewish, so don't celebrate Christmas, per se, but enjoy the songs and sentiments of the season. Thanks for asking!

    3. I thought you were Born again Christian. Who is that person?

    4. I am Messianic Jew. I am Jewish and have accepted Jesus. I call myself a Born Again Christian, for ease of discussion.

    5. Are you for real? After all that Bible stories. Bible Anon is a jew, lol..

    6. Jesus be Jewish. What be your problem, dawg?

  3. Nothing can be better than good old Holmes on Christmas. Thanks for the great article, M.E. it's time to re-read these books with this new knowledge!

  4. :) Good Morning and Merry Christmas Sociopathworld!!!!!!!!

  5. HI Rich ! Merry Christmas to you!!

    I am glad you are here today! I am going to bombard you on Christmas. I hope you are ot put out too much.

    I have a piece from
    lovefraud. I want to hear what you have to say about it because you say you have dated disordered women..

    A psychotherapist wrote:

    Clearly there are fundamental differences between borderline personalities and sociopaths, differences which I appreciate. At the same time, when the borderline personality’s rage or desperation is evoked, one sees (and not rarely) responses that can closely correspond to the sociopath’s calculating, destructive mentality.

    Once inside this mentality, I’m suggesting that borderline personality-disordered individuals can lapse into a kind of transient sociopathy. Commonly, victims of the “borderline’s” aberrant, vicious behaviors will sometimes react along the lines of, “What is wrong with you? Are you some freaking psychopath?” They will say this from the experience of someone who really has just been exploited as if by a psychopath.

    Because this isn’t the borderline personality’s default mentality (it is the sociopath’s), several psychological phenomena must occur, I think, to enable his temporary descent into sociopathy. He or she must regress in some way; dissociate in some fashion; and experience a form of self-fragmentation, for instance in response to a perceived threat—say, of abandonment.

    These preconditions, I suggest, seed the borderline personality’s collapse into the primitive, altered states of self that can explain, among other phenomena, his or her chilling (and necessary) suspension of empathy. This gross suspension of empathy supports his or her “evening the score” against the “victimizer” with the sociopath’s remorseless sense of entitlement.


    (I only did it 2x. I was not in my right mind.) I do not care for the pain i may have caused i do not think i did anything but made them think "she's crazy". I do not think I cared so much. Well, sure embarrassed afterwards. But really I enjoyed to cause havoc. I enjoyed to crazy out on them . It made me feel like a big witch and they had it coming.

    I would be more aware next time and not act on my emotions and choose better people to me.

    But Rich, did you ever think that you were a guilty person with the disordered partner? If so, in what way?

    1. Well, I have to ask, guilty in what way?

      After she would do something wrong and I would confront her about it, she would flip around the entire situation and make herself out to be the victim, which cause me to feel "bad" that I made her feel that way.

      One time I hit her with the moral effect from the 48 laws of power...... Iam gonna post what happened on the next post, Ill write it now.

    2. Okay, so my 2 personality disordered Ex was a definate Narcissist to a high degree, and she was a probable sociopath because of the pathological lying, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, ETC.

      First, let me explain the "Moral Effect", the Moral effect is when somebody does something hurtful to you, and than when you have the opportunity you do the same thing back to them, and do it in such a way that they realize you are doing the same thing to him/her as they did to you. Instead of whining and complaining about it you actually make them FEEL their unplesant and unsocial behavior..... I got it from the 48 laws of power and it works great...... I will type the exact thing from the 48 laws of power in a couple hours so you can read it too.

      So we used to live close to each other and when wewould meet up we would meet half way and either go to my house or her house.

      Well one night we made plans for her to sleepover and we met half way, which is like a 15-20 minute walk each way. So we get to my house, go in my bedroom and she puts all of her stuff down and we went out on my front patio to each smoke a cigarette. While we were smoking that cig, her best friend called her and asked her if she wanted to get picked up and go hang out, and she said "Yes, come pick me up" (Completely blowing off all plans with me to stay at my house that night).

      So anyway, I start acting mad/irritated because she made me walk to meet her and we werent even hanging out for 15 mins at my house when she got the call.......

      So we go into my room, get her things, and at that point she was expecting me to sit out on my patio and wait for her friend to pick her up......... Aftr she got her things I made sure she walked ahead of me so she could get out the door first.

      So we get to the door, she walks outside, and I dont say a word to her and had a pissed off look in my face. Well the second she walked outside I SLAMMED THE DOOR SHUT, locked the lock AS LOUD AS IT COULD BE so she could hear it, and turned off the patio light and walked away....... LOL, she was pissed about that.....

      She said what I did to her was really mean and uncalled for and you know what I said back to her? I said "I just did the same thing to you as you did to me, I ditched you, how does it feel?" and she stopped texting me after that......

      Thn the next morning I wake up to a text that says "Thanks alot, I have never cried so much in my entire life" (Bullshit, I 100% believe she NEVER shed ONE TEAR.

      Anyway in the next post here is the moral effect straight from the 48 laws of power

    3. You mirror what other people have done to you, and do so in a way that makes them realize you are doing to them exactly what they did to you.

      You make them feel that their behavior has been unpleasant, as opposed to hearing you complain and whine about it, which only gets their defenses up.

      They feel the result of their actions mirrored back at them, they realize in the profoundest sense how they hurt or punish others with their unsocial behavior.

      You objectify the qualities you want them to feel ashamed of and create a mirror in which they can gaze at their follies and learn a lesson about themselves.

      This technique is often used by educators, psychologists, and anyone who has to deal with unpleasant and unconscious behavior.

      This is the Teacher's Mirror. Whether or not there is actually anything wrong with the way people have treated you, however, it can often be to your advantage to reflect it back to them in a way that makes them feel guilty about it.

      That is a pretty good method right? Robert Greene is a fucking GENIUS!!!! LOL It worked SO GREAT for me....... I would really recommend using it especially if you want to get back at somebody......


    4. hah.
      i do that kind of thing all the time, Rich!

      I have not read that book but it has been mentioned a lot here.

      I used to just skip town when my f-ed up ex narcissist would ditch me or disrespect me.
      HE would call and leave a message he pulled his hamstring, and then when I got hm he would say it was unbelievable he could not get me on the phone. HE would have a ace bandage and it was just to make me feel guilty but I did not.

      it was fun. He left because he was not being respected. Ha

    5. I have been on receiving end of moral effect too. From him, too!

      It pissed me off that I was doing games with him. He won the one that drove him away. He did not like anyone, especially a lowly woman, to play games back at him. He was enraged, how dare *I* even attempt.

      I still wanted him even after I crushed him too badly.

    6. You ladies and perhaps some gentleman should feel good you used it, fuck those people that make you have to result to the "Moral Effect" on them.......

      I kinda feel like a sociopath/psychopath deep down when I use Robert Greene's "The 48 Laws of Power" rules, even he himself says it is amoral,cunning, and ruthless.

      PS_ If anybody wants the 48 laws of power or The art of seduction leave a safe email and I can send them to you. I have both as pdf files. I also have Snakes In Suits :)

  6. Elicit said:
    "I'm not sure what a sociopath actually is. I'm as sweet as sweet can be, but have the personality disorderment :/"

    disorderment is not a word

    what is your calling here then?

    1. I am like that. Do you want me to say for me ?

    2. If you answer yes i will say later. I am going to take a nap.

    3. say now please, I am bored...

    4. WELL, since you said yes so quickly. I will tell you.

      1)I am in a cult. -I can't get out because i am very broke down. I am follower.

      2)someone may be reading and maybe my life can impact theirs. --But this is really not it.

      3)I feel lonely. I am different. I can't talk about these things to others. It makes me feel good to hear other people have differences/disorders/afflictions/good and positive takes on their ways.

      I like to hear how Medusa has gone on and gotten out even though it is maybe not true. I can imagine I can do that too. I like Haven and Monica and Rich because they show vulnerability and I have been ashamed of my own. Themes shows love and I need that.

      I get inspiration from others no matter if they are different than me.

      There are positive people who got unbroke or deal in ways I like to hear.

      i do not think any of this is a calling.

    5. lol Rembrant. I aim to please you and only you.

    6. I understand you. I also feel like this is a place for disordered people but sometimes I am sick of it. I don't want to consider myself part of this. I think of myself as a normal being who doesn't need to use this niche to get its high on life.

      I understand what you find here but I think you should also find pride within you and self esteem to not use something that someone else doesn't use.

    7. What personality disorder do you have, Rembrant?N

    8. or it's just an excuse to not actually try

    9. "I think you should also find pride within you and self esteem to not use something that someone else doesn't use."

      what do you mean ? What am i using that someone else doesnt use?

      I am working up my pride and self esteem.

    10. you mean a crutch? Because i understand this. It is getting help from the outside, not from within. This is one of my weaknesses, but I Will turn it to strngth one day.

      If I leave here i will be forced to do so, but I have fear of not being able.

    11. "I think of myself as a normal being who doesn't need to use this niche to get its high on life. "

      But do you?

    12. I don't want to talk to you any further. You are handicapped and I'm not. I have nothing to share with you.

    13. How could SW be a crutch? I don't get the mechanism of it?

    14. Thanks Themes :) <3

      You, guy or girl, are a nice human being and I appreciate you :)

    15. Theme for Anon 6:49

      Your words were my best gift, today. Thank you!

    16. I like to play with words. It doesn't matter to me that it isn't a real one. It reflects my disdain for the labels the mental health establishment dish out.

      My calling here? I don't know what you mean by that.

      "... I think of myself as a normal being ...
      You are handicapped and I'm not. I have nothing to share with you"

      You then go on to say you have antisocial personality disorder. You can't have it both ways. Either you have a mental disorder and being handicapped to some extent would be necessary to meet any diagnostic criteria or you are normal. Which is it?

    17. Thanks, Themes. It's spot on.

  7. Hss anyone seen "The Master"?

  8. This mirroring thing is not a good idea with a BPD following her rage, could take you to places you should never go. Great idea to mirror her when she is in a loving mood though, because if you don't she will feel rejected and abandoned and you sure will get some rage.

    Rich, your story about the girl you mirrored. Something is not adding up. Could you think of anything you might have said on that 15-20 minute walk that would cause her to want to get out of there? Or, is it possible she wanted you to walk the whole way to get her? Or, go have some nice meal before bringing her home for sex? Something... There is a good chance she was offended about something. Why do you think she changed her mind in that short time span? Any ideas?

  9. Sceli
    I hate when people try to take another person's reality away. Were you there?

    1. I was not there. That's why I am asking him if there is any such possibility.

      Relax. Asking questions should not scare you, no one take another person's reality away by asking questions. If in the process of answering Rich opens up to a deeper reality that's something Rich would appreciate. If not, Rich can simply say 'no, there was no such thing, I can't think of any.' And I'd say, 'I see.'

  10. Do we have any asexuals here?

  11. What happened to the narcissistworld blog?

  12. Is anyone even a sociopath here?

    1. no sociopaths here ther's just bits and bites

  13. i don't do drugs or alcohol i do people

  14. Never love anyone that can't love you back

    1. yeah i sould hide in the shadows like the test of the freaks but i don't i pretend and hide in plain side and fool everyone you'll never see me comming

    2. always funny when ppl consider them a friend i tell them what manipulation i cooked up and they are gobsmacked.(i even don't have to execute it)

  15. damn you are evil damn

  16. i once told a friend i'm a soicopath she sed perhaps a little autistic.but she did the research and did agree.
    month later i told here a story about me forgetting to bring money to a store and being embarrassed about it. she comforted me. i tell here that i don't get embarrassed she still don't get it i think no one does

  17. Is fucked up love, love? What if the person would sacrifice for you, go to trouble for you? What is love, anyway, and is any love worth something ( or other)

  18. She fought the urges for annihilation. Just as nature has anabolism and catabolism, re- birth and decay, crazy and non-crazy, wild and not wild, on and on until she was on the floor, sick. Her mind laughed at her feeble attempts to discipline it into a modicum of fitness, not a flabby hunk of lumpy, white flesh, jiggling and hanging so that you had to wear long black sleeves and long black pants, even in the summer. Her stomach, the empty seat of love, mocked her because it knew that it would be a a long day in Hell that she would ever eat a full meal, fold the napkin and sleep content.

  19. The lies from her childhood populated like cells out of control or mold. Mold can make your house so unlivable that you could not sell it for a dime, even if it was worth a million.
    You have to nod, face betraying nothing. This is how you get along, Sucker, but no one TELLS you. You have to know when a person is so full of shit, that he would turn into a helium balloon and fly into the stratosphere, if lies ever became helium.

    If you don't, you better lie on the railroad tracks, and conjure up the train to meet your appointment with destiny.

  20. You want to kill or strangle it until you hear the last gurgle. You could take a knife and slash like O.J until that lying, cock sucking whore was dead. You could kill it, just to bring it to life and kill it, again, or you could cry thousands of tears that would become a river in which children would play. You could hear them laugh and sing, even though you were on the sidelines, as that was the nature of things.


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