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|