Monday, July 22, 2013

Practical empathy

This was an interesting video about the relevance (possibly revolutionizing effect?) of empathy in our society. The video discusses the difference between affective empathy where you feel what another person is feeling, and cognitive empathy, which is about perspective taking or "stepping into somebody else's world."

An interesting assertion was "We make assumptions about people. We have prejudices about people which block us from seeing their uniqueness, their individuality. We make we use labels and highly empathic people get beyond those labels by nurturing their curiosity about others." Do people make assumptions about sociopaths? Do empathic people choose to go beyond those labels by nurturing their curiosity about sociopaths? And if so, is this a net good or net bad?

The video tells the story of how George Orwell tried to nurture his curiosity about the under privileged classes by going on an "empathy adventure", "tramping" about London in disguise, to understand what it felt like to be in the lower classes -- literally putting himself in the shoes of another.

The narrator also discusses the possibility of having empathy not just on a personal level, but on a grander scale -- political, national, religious, etc. As an example, he tells the story of the English abolitionists who got former slaves to share their experiences as slaves, which movement eventually led to the illegalization of slavery.

The narrator talks about how traditionally people try to empathize with the downtrodden, but argues that we should be more adventurous in who we try to empathize with and to focus on more practical and strategic purposes of empathy, e.g. empathizing those in power because "only then are we going to be able to adopt effective strategies" for social transformation. Similarly, he thinks the gap between what we know about climate change and what we do about climate change is also due to a lack of empathy, particularly individuals failing to empathize with people on the other side of the world and people who have yet to be born.

The thing I found interesting about this video was that (1) it was very practically and not morally based analysis of empathy and (2) although the narrator only made the distinction once, he basically was only talking about the practical usefulness of cognitive empathy. I don't think that means that affective empathy is never useful, but it has its limitations in time and space. For instance, it's difficult to say that you are feeling the emotions of people you have never met and know nothing about. Similarly, it should be impossible to say that you are feeling the emotions of people who have yet to be even born. And yet we can feel cognitive empathy for these people by trying to imagine what it might be like to be them. If we exercise our cognitive empathy by putting ourselves in their shoes like George Orwell did, our perspective will broaden and we will get greater insight into not only the institutions of the world that we live in, but also perhaps some insight into our own selves. The good news is that anyone with theory of mind can practice cognitive empathy, including sociopaths, who actually do it perhaps better than most.

More on trying to gain more awareness of our own minds:


  1. Affective empathy is beyond my emotional scope, even wherein my closest family members are concerned.

  2. When delving into the mind of another, one of the most important tasks is to determine someone's motives. If you know what people want, what makes them who they are, what drives them, then you can predict how they will act or react in any situation. Someone who is considered a sociopath receives a set of motives; selfishness, cruelty, and evil. Since people avoid thinking about the evil acts they themselves are capable of committing, most who cognitively dip their toe into the pool of a sociopath's mind, testing the waters, will quickly step away.

    I think sociopaths can be defined much more simply. They are childish. They act on a whim, can hurt or help others spontaneously, and will break any rule they think they can get away with. Now, I don't mean to patronize sociopaths. If you give a child cunning and power, you have a very dangerous combination. However, a child with cunning, power, and the ability of introspection becomes a different creature altogether. That child can choose his actions carefully, and can reign in his wild tendencies.

    Most people will define humanity as empathy, but I would define it as introspection. Being aware of one's own inner world leads to the realization that others have inner worlds as well. Thus, introspective sociopaths are primal. They know their own desires well, and rather than mindlessly submit to them, they carefully control their actions to meet them. It must be hard to be a child in a world of grown-ups. Then again, being a grown-up boils down to subverting one's own desires and embracing social conformity. Don't you look longingly at childhood and its freedom from cares and responsibility? Sociopaths embrace that freedom, and the truth about those who hate them is that they are not filled with hatred, but jealousy.

  3. We see the world not as it is but as we are. From childhood we are
    "programmed" with certain assumptions and cultural beliefs. These
    beliefs may provide us with a sense of community and make us feel secure
    on a temparary basis, but they do nothing to promote long-term well being.
    These beliefs are ineffective in otherwords. They are responsible for the
    sickness of this world. These beliefs must be discarded and they can be
    discarded IF you can see how harmful and counterproductive they are to LIFE.
    In the material world, you have to work for everything you get. If I'm
    300lbs and want to get down to 150 to I have to diet and exercise. This
    entails strenious effert.
    For spiritual comprehension, NO strenious effort is required. Strenious
    effort is actually counterproductive. Repression saps energy. All one
    need do is have a relaxed, open attentive mind so you can see. In the
    spiritual world the SEEING is the DOING. You don't follow any preplanned
    code. Preplanned codes don't work in the spritual world. Religion (words)
    are death. Vital spirit is life. Disgard the ineffective and the un
    workable and you have an empty void which is real life.
    As far as empathy is concerned, it is summerized in the quote: "Do unto
    others as you would do unto yourself

  4. I think the distinction between affective empathy and cognitive empathy is key here. I cannot, at all, feel what another person is feeling. I intellectually can understand their state of being, but there is no 'mirrored' feeling on my end. This cognitive empathy allows me to understand a person's mindset and proclivities which allows for great ammunition when trying to manipulate a person. However, I also do not think that the sociopath must be using this cognitive empathy for manipulation or control at all times.

    Other than being sociopathic, I belong to another marginalized group. I find that I am invested in the struggles of this group, but the reasons for such are still something that I am understanding. Where the line exists between self-interest and group-interest is unknown to me and is something I am constantly reflecting on. However, even though I belong to that marginalized group, I cannot 'feel' the struggles and pain of other members. I can simply support them knowing cognitively what they are feeling and offering a shoulder to cry on without any tears of my own. I think, through cognitive empathy, that it is still possible for a sociopath to better society as a whole even if they still reside (as I suspect I do) locked in their own struggles rather than being attached to the harm others suffer.

    1. hi. i am hearing you and seeing myself. i do not think that i will use a person like a sociopath but I am very very certain i know how.

      I have mood disorders so I must be with people tolerant. I pick people who appreciate the way i am with them (like you from what i read) so they will reciprocate.

      i do watch this in motion. i would not ever want to be with a person with heavy affective empathy .i do not want to be around a person crying as i am crying.

      I wish that i did not have to feel i must behave in a way so someone will be tolerant of me, but i feel it is best to figure out what their requirement from me is and tailor it so they are more willing to put up with me. ( I do not pick many people want to be around a depressive so there had better be some thing to outweigh the burden. ) Most people like to feel there is an even distribution of empathic needs met.

      May i ask this... do you need empathy?

      I sometimes pick people like you, who can see and respond without absorbing.

      I like the way you articulated the feelings you have about group struggle and your self interest. i have similar thoughts.

    2. wow i used a bunch of i sentences. oh well.

    3. Hi 710,

      I also am afflicted by mood disorders, but they have waned as I, with the help of others, have discovered more about myself and who I am. There will always be that chemical pulling of my strings, but I feel much more empowered these days. I do think the trick for any relationship, either with my approach as a sociopath, or with a non-sociopaths approach, is to find people that will either accept the image you project or accept the true, underlying person. It is your choice to determine how long to hold up the fa├žade.

      I was in a LTR once with someone who was not very empathic, but also wanted to 'fix' me even though, at the time, neither of us knew exactly what was 'wrong'. I understand the sentiment of not wanting to be with someone who is reciprocating to such an empathic degree when one's self is in the midst of a depressive state. However, I did enjoy the temporary closeness that their concern would bring whenever I was in a real, or fake, depressive state. (Yes, I would sometimes fake severe depression because my partner was drifting and yes, this was not an optimal strategy)

      Your feeling of behaving a certain way in order to attract tolerant people does resonate. When I was in a down state, I would hide my depression before opening up for various reasons (be it for the closeness that would come with a non-sociopath who was legitimately concerned or for the tension relief that comes with being honest about mental illness).

      As for the question 'do I need empathy': I need empathy from others because it equates to concern and love for me. Love or other close bonds really does not register for me on an emotional level - I get, intellectually, what these relationships mean, but feel nothing about them. When I was in a rough patch, a person who I once cared for was able to give that empathy and made me feel both appreciated and cared for. However, empathy by no means implies that such a person will survive the cut when I inevitably purge those that are costing me more energy than they are worth.

    4. Thank you so much for your response. I always wanted to talk to a sociopath who has mood problems to see how they sort out manipulation from manipulation with mood as a tool.

      Re: faked depression. You have faked it when a partner you felt was going to leave ? I believe I have treaded in this direction.When i see that I treading i have great fear that one day they will accuse me of holding them "emotionally hostage." blegh i hate that expression. I am very responsible with my moods so if i start to use them i fear the person might not trust when in a very bad way. that is just a very silly thing to do imo. ANd yet.....

      It is very hard to know how i got to a mood state but i am learning like you said you did. I believe i will get even more control of things the way you describe you did :) Thank you for that hope.

      "However, empathy by no means implies that such a person will survive the cut when I inevitably purge those that are costing me more energy than they are worth."

      But this makes sense not even from a sociopathic standpoint. who the hell wants to put out more than they get time after time?

  5. As an empath, I don't feel jealous of a sociopath for embracing the freedom of a child. I create freedom by working for myself & have planned time to relax & play. Which gives me tremendous peace of mind knowing my bills are paid. ALL the socios I've known from surgeons to petty scumbag users don't exude any peace of mind.

  6. We create our worlds by our perpetual thoughts as in the movie The Secret. Bruce Lipton., a biologist has a very interesting book & video lecture series that can be found on YouTube doing mind exercises a stroke patient with several areas of the brain damaged could teach themselves how to function again normally. Could a sociopath willing to try exercising empathy actually create physical changes in they're mind to create empathy? Would a sociopath even desire that? Emotions create good & bad feelings & with each different emotion various chemicals are released into the body. I'd be most interested in scientific study that relates to endocrine systems of.socios since they are fearless they wouldn't have stressed adrinal glands being that they're fight & flight response would be different.

    1. I would not like that. Cognitive empathy will suffice, thank you! I've no yearning to become some sort of weepy sap every time I hear of someone's troubles. The world is a mess, quite frankly, and I don't know how 'neurotypicals' bear it.

      I suppose many of them don't, given the number of people who go mad, or need medication to keep from doing so.

    2. Being a weepy sap is difficult. The world has been a shitty place lately. Would not blame you at all for having no desire to understand this experience. Sometimes the "feels" as the Internet memes have started to call it, can be remarkably touching in a positive way, and I wouldn't choose to change my own existence, but there is a lot of pain and suffering as well. I am very interested in learning more about the sociopathic experience as I would identify myself as a hardcore "empath." There are things to be learned from both experiences and perspectives, and I am all for breaking down stigma.

  7. I am utterly engrossed in all of this.

    I heard about M.E.'s memoir on MSNBC, then listened to the short NPR interview, and am very interested in reading the book. It is all fascinating. I am diagnosed bipolar disorder type II with a whole bunch of other issues, primarily anxiety but I also got an ADHD description and find Ritalin to be very helpful with my depressive episodes. Now that I'm in this mindset, reading these posts I almost feel as if I gamed the system to get that ADHD diagnosis. Do I believe I fit the criteria? I certainly answered the questions honestly. But I don't believe in the boxes psychologists/psychiatrists put us in, and Ritalin has helped me in very interesting ways. And I knew I wanted to try it because of severe lack of motivation, problems with attention/procrastination etc. But is that really ADHD or is just more a part of the deep depression I feel?

    Anyway, I'm fascinated with M.E.'s discussions of the sociopath's ability to see situations clearly because of lack of emotion/empathy. I feel through therapy (I am still relatively young, I have been dealing with issues since my mid-teens, so I've grown and my brain has developed along with drugs and therapy, for what that's worth...) I have been able to become a relatively remarkable observer, both of my own emotions and experiences and those of others.

    The most interesting aspect, though, is that unlike a sociopath, I have so many emotions, and feel so much, and the pain is almost unbearable at times. But I have trained myself, in my darkest times, to remember that these feelings are not because someone hurt me, or because of any outside factor, but because I have a mental illness. It doesn't make me hurt any less, really.... but I don't have actionable thoughts of suicide. I call my doctors, I reach out to friends. I can objectively say "I am not okay. I need to get help." And yet be in a pit of hell and depression.

    What is this? What would M.E. call it? What is this interesting ability that some of us have developed, or maybe are more keen to develop, to have an observational capability? I feel like I am no sociopath in any diagnostic way--I almost feel as if I have too much empathy sometimes. Or maybe I'm misinterpreting it. But I feel as though I feel things deeply-I cried reflecting over the Travon Martin case and I am a young white woman. I have felt that my mental illness has broken down empathy barriers for me-any stigma someone faces, I can relate to my own fear and shame about my illness.

    I am so mind-blown right now. I am questioning so much. I had begun to notice this ability in myself to see myself from the outside despite intense emotional experience, but the way M.E. describes it just leaves me wanting to know more. And all it does is leave me with "empathy" (I'm tired of using this word now) for her. I am so curious about her experience, because it sounds so foreign from my own and yet I can relate to some of it.

    I am eager to read and research more.


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