December 14, 2011
Low Empathy Response Makes Others Seem Less Human?

If you don't feel empathy for someone do you fail to recognize them as human? I think it depends on what you think the full range of variations people can have and still be natural humans. My own view of that the natural full range of what constitutes humanity is incredibly broad and I can hold a very very low opinion about someone and still think them quite human.

"When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human," said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University's Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition -- thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example -- when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts.  But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

In defense of some of these reactions to drug addicts and the homeless: Imagine you felt so much compassion for each drug addict you took them into your home and tried to care for them. Would they stop using drugs? Probably not. There is something quite adaptive about suppressing empathy toward hopeless cases.

I'm reminded of how city dwellers are sometimes criticized for passing by someone in trouble that a country dweller would stop to help. But one of the important differences between city and country dwellers is the much higher number of people in need a city dweller is going to encounter. In order to function in a city a greater level of callousness seems necessary. Being parsimonious about your empathy makes the most sense for those who have a larger list of potential candidates for their empathy.

It is a lot more rewarding to successfully help someone than to fail in your charity. When presented with someone who has low odds of getting their life turned around the feeling of a desire to help is actually counterproductive. If you spend a great deal of effort trying to help someone who is intractable then you do effectively waste effort or resources to help a larger number of people with problems that are both tractable and smaller in terms of time and money needed to help.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students' responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

-- a female college student and male American firefighter (pride);
-- a business woman and rich man (envy);
-- an elderly man and disabled woman (pity);
-- a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity.

Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in social interaction failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

The difference between pity and disgust is interesting. An elderly body is the fate of everyone and so far it can not be fixed. Becoming elderly is not seen as a moral failing. But becoming a drug addict (rightly or wrongly) is widely seen as a moral failing. It makes sense that people are more disgusted by those who make wrong moral choices.

I am as concerned about counterproductive empathy as I am by deficiency of empathy. I think empathy is a necessary attribute for humans to maintain a civilized society. But it is not an unalloyed good. It has to be tempered and empathetic feelings are not a substitute for rational thought.

Here is the research paper for this report.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 December 14 10:42 PM  Brain Ethics Law

Dentin said at December 15, 2011 6:08 AM:

Recently, I moved to a small city. Within a year, I had changed from saying hello to beggars and feeling pity to ignoring them and feeling disgust. It's not that they aren't in a terrible situation; some of them are. It's that they're unrecoverable.

Well, perhaps not unrecoverable, but it's become painfully clear to me that giving anything to them causes more harm than good. I've been caged by the truly downtrodden, but also by people wearing suits and ladies with expensive handbags. One guy in particular made a very large impact on me - wearing no less than five hundred dollars in official NFL jersey, jacket, and other garb, listening to music on an iPod, wandering the street asking people for 'bus fare' to get home. For two hours.

Having walked the beat several times a week for several years, you begin to recognize faces, and that also changes you. You realize that the problem isn't lack of resources; the problem is that the people misuse what they have. No amount of giving will fix that, so I no longer give. It's not cost effective, and often counterproductive.

There's no magic cure, or instant way to make someone change their behavior. Education doesn't come overnight, and cannot be forced. And in the long run, for most of these people, the best we can hope for is simply to 'reduce the drain' on society. Many are in this condition because their brains simply lack the tools, stability, or programming to do better. Many more are biochemical addicts, with grossly different priorities.

This is a Hard problem, and the current method of dealing with it pretty much amounts to 'ignore them to reduce the impact on society, and hope their shorter lifespans make the problem moot'. I don't like that answer, but I don't really see a better one.

Jay Manifold said at December 16, 2011 12:09 PM:

I recommend a stint doing relief work in Haiti (or a similarly challenging environment) for a stern lesson in how empathy must be modulated to be truly effective. Raising the trust and resiliency levels of an entire society differs greatly from helping an individual get off the street. Both have their place but both must be done intelligently. Thank you for this post.

Lee Reynolds said at December 16, 2011 12:40 PM:

Character is destiny.

You can't fix broken people.

I find it interesting that they would use an image of a businesswoman and a wealthy man to incite envy. I would be more inclined to feel admiration. Show me someone who is successful and I'll show you someone I want to learn from. Envy is a base emotion felt by those who feel inferior to others. Winners are happy to see others do well because it shows that they too can succeed. Only losers resent the achievements of others because they know in their hearts such triumphs will always be out of their reach.

Bugs said at December 16, 2011 1:57 PM:

This isn't science. It's social engineering. The implicit question behind this "experiment" is not "How do people behave?" It's "Why don't people behave the way we think they should?" The purpose, of course, is to answer the question "How can we make people behave as would wish them to?"

Andy Freeman said at December 16, 2011 2:52 PM:

People study psychology because they've figured out that they're crazy and they want to figure out how to fix themselves or at least feel better about it. And then there are the psychopaths.

Michael L said at December 16, 2011 3:54 PM:

I am not sure why they leap from "seen as object of social interaction" to "is considered human". There are many reasons for not considering somebody a proper object of social interaction - social status being one of them. And status as enemy in the heat of battle being another, a more extreme one.

Bonfire of the Idiocies said at December 16, 2011 5:18 PM:

Altruism does present seeming paradoxes... if I spend all my time caring for others, who will care for me? If I do everything for someone else, what are they going to do with their time?

I like cats. I can afford to take in some number of strays, but if I take in more than I can reasonably care for or too many that don't get along, I end up hurting the animals instead of helping them.

All of us are aware that we really don't "help" dysfunctional people by enabling their bad behaviors.

Altrusim does present complexities and maybe for this reason it is poorly accomplished by those who don't have much of an interest in thinking things through or don't wish to be seen as "the bad guy" by saying "no."

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