Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Empathy and Up

As always, Wednesday’s Afternoon Inquisition comes courtesy of last week’s Comment o’ the Week winner. That means that northernskeptic gets a shot at it today:


I decided to spend Sunday afternoon taking in a movie and so I went to see Pixar’s Up. I won’t spoil the film but there were times when there wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre, my own included. After the movie was over and I dried my tears with some twitter therapy I began thinking about how the film was able to elicit this response from such a large number of people. Knowing there are people who are not moved by such displays lead me to today’s question.

Do you think empathy is a learned behaviour, or is it hardwired?


The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I think its complex.
    As I think about the different levels of empathy displayed by children of different ages, I think that
    it is largely a learned behavior. It may also be that we have a built in tendency toward it as a survival
    benefit, but it can easily go off the rails depending on your early life experiences.
    Good question.

  2. It is both. The capacity for empathy is hard wired, just like the capacity for language, but to feel empathic, one must have sufficient consilience between your “neurological hardware” that instantiates feelings and the “neurological hardware” of the person(s) you are trying (or not trying) to feel empathy for. If that consilience doesn’t exist, you can’t “feel” empathy for them. It is like trying to feel empathy for an inanimate object.

    I know this sounds outrageous, but I think this is why people on the far right don’t treat people on the left as human. In their heart of hearts they can’t identify or empathize with people on the left and so they consider them to not have “human-type” feelings.

    For example the homophobes don’t believe that GLBTs have the capacity to feel “love” as the homophobes define it. That is the essence of racism and bigotry, not being able to think of someone as sufficiently human to have the “human-type” feelings that you have, and which you project onto all other “humans” who are sufficiently like you to warrant using the term “human”.

    This is the essence of xenophobia, producing sufficient lack of consilience between how you feel and how someone else feels such that you can project them to be non-human and so you have no obligations of respect and understanding. It is a defect of the person with xenophobia, not the victim of xenophobia.

  3. Learned, I’ve watched children and they’re selfish and sociopathic. Pathological liars from the start, we only learn how to behave from example.

  4. Anthroslug has a crew member who told the rest of the crew “If you don’t cry in the first 10 mins of UP, you have no soul.

    I sobbed. Big loud gulping for air sobs. That movie wrung me out.

    In response to your AI, I think it is both. I think we naturally feel for others in pain because we can relate. I also think we are encouraged to feel that way by society.

  5. Learned. You’ll never get past a third date if you can’t fake empathy, and you’ll never get married until you can fake sincerity.

    (I love commenting on blogs my wife doesn’t read.)

  6. Both. Partly inate, partly cultural.

    Most people feel empathy to some degree but plenty don’t feel it to the culturally acceptable level and fake it to fit in.

    There was mass hysteria when diana windsor died, I felt nothing. Other than the slight annoyance of the disruption to the TV schedual.

    Of course it would be unusally to feel nothing at the death of a loved one, but it would be equally odd to be reduced to floods of tears at the misfortunes of strangers.

  7. Interestingly, while I can’t think of a time a mainstream film has reduced me to tears, pornographic films have certain induced a “mirror neuron” response in the past.

  8. Nietzsche says that pity is the ultimate form of nihilism. I’m not sure I even know what that means…

    But I haven’t seen up, and I’m completely empathetic with (for?) people almost to a fault.

    To answer the question, it’s innate, but unless nurtured, you turn into Nietzsche.

  9. I don’t really know that much about behavior, but i can say that for me it’s based on experiences. For example, i NEVER EVER cried in movies until i was in college. Still to this day what gets me is when people are in love and one of the dies, especially young newly married or soon to be couples or old happy couples. And i know i didn’t have a tearful reaction to this kind of thing until after hte first time i’d fallen in love.

  10. @tmarie: Nietzsche was talking about charity rather than pity, but he was talking about individuals trying to help the wretched when they would be able only to prolong their suffering and weaken themselves.

    Not the same as not feeling empathy. In today’s language “If you gave £1 to every begger in the world, you couldn’t help them and ruin yourself into the bargin”.

  11. The hard wiring is clearly genetic in my opinion. The frequency with which one is influenced and/or alters one action’s is often the result of family nurturing, social skill building, habituated behaviors and social influences.

    @SkepLit: Yep, not a good good and if the capacity is sucked out of someone or was never there its abby normal.

  12. @davew: Wow, that’s healthy. Yes, it’s always best to lie to girls and pretend to be interested in them rather than reveal who you really are . We LOVE that.

    As for empathy, I’m on the “both” side of the fence. I think most people can have a certain amount of empathy for others even from an early age. They have known sadness so they can understand the feelings of others who feel sadness, or pain, or fear, or whatever.
    However, there are some people who take it to extremes and allow their empathy to interfere with their lives to such an extent that they can’t listen to certain jokes or watch certain TV shows or drive by roadkill without feeling incredible overwhelming sadness. Not that I am one of these people, of course. Oh no. But I “have a friend” who is.

  13. @Zapski: “I’ve watched children and they’re selfish and sociopathic.”

    I don’t know about this. I’ve seen some children who are naturally very empathetic and sensitive.

    Plus I think “sociopathic” is pretty … harsh, especially as a generalization for all kids. Young children are still learning how the world works, and how to react and process. I don’t think that means they are “sociopathic”.

  14. Didn’t science recently answer this question? I remember an experiment that shows monkeys have a sense of fairness ( I would think empathy, fairness, and altruism would all be part of the same mechanism. I can also it see it as being a survival advantage. It’s much easier to function in a group if you are aware of other members of the group having distinct needs.

  15. @James Fox: And sometimes, someone can be brought up in a very negative household (abusive parents, for instance, bullied a lot, whatever) and STILL grow up to be very empathetic.

  16. Might it be necessary to differentiate between the aesthetic response and the empathetic response in order to answer the question? I’m not sure they are the same, though they are often intertwined.

  17. @davew: If you have to “fake” empathy or sincerity to get a date or get married, I feel very sorry for you, tbh. And your wife. So let’s hoping you’re not being serious.

  18. I think empathy is a code-word for “pro-choice”. Or maybe that’s only in supreme court justices.

  19. Hehe, interesting question. As my daughter has grown, I have been continually surprised by the amount of empathy she shows towards others since she was a tiny, tiny creature. I don’t remember teaching her that skill specifically, but it definitely could have been learned from me. Her dad? Not so much. Lack of empathy is a pretty big red flag of possible mental illness in my book (of course my book is pretty biased).

    Empathy comes a bit harder to me these days. Its been hammered by my therapist that empathy is the only thing keeping my soon-to-be-ex from escalating situations. When I am accused of stealing his money, I have to keep silent and instead offer to cook dinner for him and the kid since he can’t afford to feed her, then send him home with leftovers. Sucks, but empathy helps me keep going by realizing it sucks even more to be him.

  20. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina): “We LOVE that”

    Did I forget a smiley?

    On a more serious note I think relationships are lubricated by a little faked empathy from time to time. I learned this in college. One day I got back to the scholarship hall and there was a girl crying in the foyer. (A scholarship hall that was populated by 50 boys. Girls were a rare sight.) I knew her slightly so I sat down next to her and attempted to be consoling. Oddly enough I noticed many other guys who knew her too were passing right on by. It turns out she was panicked about an organic chemistry midterm she had taken earlier. What can I do about that?! I stayed. We talked. A couple of other guys joined in. We must have stayed there two hours. Eventually we convinced her to join a D&D game and she perked up. (Love chicks who play D&D.) A week later I found out she aced the test.
    Two weeks later she was back in our foyer. Upset. Even if she were my girlfriend or my wife I still would have felt close to zero empathy. If she were my girlfriend or my wife, however, I could have faked it.

  21. For anyone who thinks empathy is learned or thinks that it’s something they have to fake, I genuinely worry about you.

    Just because kids can be selfish brats doesn’t mean they lack empathy. Having empathy doesn’t make someone a perfect person, and plenty of adults who have empathy are still selfish.

    I think that empathy can be expanded and deepened by experience and learning, but it is mostly innate. Babies will cry when they hear others crying, although this could be because of the loud sound. However, toddlers will often cry just from seeing others cry quietly. Most people will laugh just by seeing others laugh. I think many other animals, especially primates, show signs of empathy too, although we have to be careful about anthropomorphizing them.

  22. I think its a little of both nature and nurture. I, too, have see UP, and I was on the verge of crying, but that wouldn’t be manly.

    I think I’m somewhat heartless (not a good thing). There was a vigil for a lady who died in the DC Metro Red Line crash the other day. She was a really nice person. I didn’t care. I think the National Guard officer and his wife who died should have gotten more than just a few words said about them by Mayor Fentey. IMHO, even a snot-nosed jerk in the military always trumps a civilian. They do the things neither you nor I could. But, I have family that has served. I couldn’t imagine being in a war zone. I will never talk bad about your boys and girls in uniform, only those who put them in harms way.

    I apoligize for my tangent into circular reasoning, but hopefully, it struck a chord with some of yall.

  23. I thought I knew the answer until I read everyone elses comments and now I am confused and unsure of myself.

    I do know the first time I genuinly cried in a movie. It was during Lilo and Stitch. When Lilo said “Mahala means family and family means you don’t have to leave” or something close to that. I cried in an almost unconctollable manner. I was recently divorced, was in a custody battle and had my daughter sitting in my lap. I thought I was going to lose my mind.

  24. So are we born with empathy and learn to control it through socialization, so that we aren’t always in a rage of emotions and unable to function in society? Or are we born without empathy and learn it through socialization in order to function in society? Or a little of both?

  25. I’m with the “both” group. Even in kids less than 2 years old, I’ve seen differences in behavior. I have daughters, and one definitely shows more empathy. So I do believe that some kids are born with more empathy than others.
    On the other hand, environment does play a role – how a child is treated and raised will have a lot to do with their personality.
    How much is genetic and how much is environment probably depends on the child.
    (For the record, I just saw “Up” on Father’s Day – no tears. On the other hand, there are a couple of books I read aloud to my students where I have trouble keeping the tears from flowing when a character dies, so go figure…)

  26. @davew: You clearly felt some empathy the first time you consoled her (or you wouldn’t have stopped and then stuck around). I’d imagine the second time around you were a little annoyed, especially since she wasn’t your girlfriend or wife, and didn’t feel the need to console her yet again (some people just freak out, and you probably sensed she was one of those people). But if it WERE your girlfriend or wife and you had to “fake” empathy when your girlfriend or wife was upset, then I’d still feel sorry for you.

  27. @infinitemonkey: You don’t seem heartless at all! Just because you didn’t feel all that sad over a stranger’s death doesn’t mean you are heartless. Especially since you are clearly passionate about people who serve in the military.

    I feel the same way about firefighters, especially those who fight wild fires. My parents were volunteer fire fighters (damn good ones, too; my dad always got called out to the insane brush fires that are common in the desert), and man…that is some intense work.

  28. I call false dichotomy. I think from the game theory examinations, and the examination of other primate behavior, we can safely conclude that evolutionary mechanisms are capable of building and hardwiring neural circuits dedicated to creating other people well. But it is an engine, and how universally and diligently its effects are applied is clearly a result of enculturation, which, indeed, it would seem to require to function- one more reason why the dual-inheritance theory folks, despite not getting much press, are probably the only ones getting any of this sociobiology stuff right.

  29. @marilove: “But if it WERE your girlfriend or wife and you had to “fake” empathy when your girlfriend or wife was upset, then I’d still feel sorry for you.”

    Well, there you go. I confess my empathy dial is set lower than most. I have to be able to understand someone’s situation before I can really empathize with it. Just because someone is crying doesn’t mean a “There, there, dear” is the best way to help them. I’m probably not the best person to commiserate with about a dead hamster. On the other hand I’m exactly the sort of person you want around should you accidentally put a steak knife through your hand. I’m not going to spend much time thinking about how you feel until the last stitch goes in. Then you have my full sympathy. Steak knives hurt.

    Is it possible empathy levels are another male/female difference?

  30. As many of the comments pointed out I don’t believe that there is an easy answer here, I think it is a combination. I look forward to reading the responses when I get home from work, and thus will be able to comment more effectively.

  31. @davew: @marilove: People fake empathy all the time! How many times have you been to a funeral out of formal convention and said to the mourners at the line up “I’m very sorry for your loss, he/she will certainly be missed” when inwardly your thinking “I’m not sorry at all, we both know I’m only here because I’m expected to be here. How long before we get to the bun-fite?”

    Or when someone is banging on about how their granny’s dog’s diabetes is ruining their lives, don’t you just nod, say yes in the right places and zone them out?

  32. @davew: You can be level-headed and still be empathetic. I am pretty empathetic person, but I handle high-stress situations VERY well (after the fact, not so much) — like that one time when I was 10 and my mom accidently stabbed herself in the hand with a knife, and it went all the way through her hand (!!). I was more than able to get a towel and get her things together so that her friend could take her to the hospital (both were EMTs, so there was no real need for an ambulance), but after they left, oh boy, I lost it (SO MUCH BLOOD!). (My mom is the same way; she didn’t even wake up my dad, who was asleep at the time.)

    Not reacting strongly to an acquaintance who is crying over a test is not all that abnormal. Claiming to feel no empathy for your upset wife or girlfriend is different.

  33. @russellsugden: We’re talking about faking empathy with your wife or girlfriend (and davew implied it happened regularly), which I think is bullshit, unless you don’t have any feelings for your SO.

  34. @davew:
    (Not so) funny story: I once was the “one phone call” person for an acquaintance who put a rather large knife into the shoulder of her boyfriend because he wasn’t showing her enough empathy in regards to her mother’s recent cancer diagnosis. Or at least that’s how it started.

  35. @russellsugden: Also, you can feel empathy about a person feeling sad or whatever, without giving a rats ass about the dog that died. I felt really bad for my close friend when her yippy dog died, but I really didn’t care much about the actual dog (god, that dog was annoying).

  36. Using the substitution test, let’s first try with “hunger” instead of “empathy”:

    “Is hunger learned or hardwired?”

    Answer: well, it’s clearly hardwired because any human starts feeling hungry when deprived of food for a certain period time. However, it’s also clearly “learned” (i.e. “modeled by external circumstances”), because you can get used to eat at 12, 1pm, 2pm depending on social conventions, and your body then prefers to eat meals at the same time, etc.

    Conclusion: it’s a false dichotomy. As any other human feature, hunger has most certainly evolved as a subroutine to interact with the environment and, as such, it would be illogical for it to be fully independent from the environment. And the same applies to empathy, I would say.

  37. @catgirl: Empathy is something that we have to fake all the time. It’s one of the rules of the Game. The are certain “expected” or “acceptable” responses to every situation that we learn have to learn and then apply.

    for example, exchanging gifts with co-workers and family at xmas; contributing to “whip-rounds”; tipping generally; pretending to care about our people only marginally connected to you; and most importantly never ever passing a comment contrary to whatever ridiculous social norm exsists.

    Unfortunatly the mutton heads who dictate such things change the rules all the time (which is also part of the Game), for example it is now unacceptable to remark that the worst thing about sucides on the london underground (as on monday) is the knock on effect in delays to the network and my getting home on time and that people who want to kill themselves should do so without inconvenincing others. Ridiculous I know

  38. I agree completely with Marilove, and echo her in calling daedalus’s post fucking awesome.

    If you’re faking sincerity, you’re in a relationship with the wrong person -_-

  39. Both. Kind of…

    Our social skills appear to be regulated by groups of nuclei in the brain known as the amygdala. Damage these nuclei, perhaps by feeding bits of them to toxoplasma parasites, and you may wind up with paranoia. Hobble their communications by eliminating sections of the genetic code of chromosome 7 and you wind up with more empathy and trust than is prudent, gene variants on the same chromosome increase the predisposition to autism spectrum disorders with their related social impairments.

    That being said, what we observe as empathy in others is a poor indicator of sound neurological empathy. We’ve no idea if the stranger sitting next to us in the movie is dabbing away tears because they genuinely empathize with the character on the screen or because they’ve learned they’re supposed to cry during scenes that are socially accepted as “sad”.

    Our base neurology is over layed with so many millions of learned responses that I’m confident we only notice empathetic disorders when combined with other disorders – the sociopath with sex and violence issues, the autist with language and learning issues, etc…

    Basically, the function of the amygdala is just the material, learned responses and personality determine what is made of that material.

  40. Sorry to be the language stickler, but it appears that a lot of commenters on this thread are confusing empathy and sympathy, and hence confounding the discussion. Slightly different meanings between the two.

  41. Think about puppies and kittens being made into jam…
    I vote hardwired…
    There can’t be many who would be indifferent to cute fluffy jam making.

  42. Take my boss (please) for instance,
    I often can’t/won’t empathize with her emotions due to the fact she can switch to Vulcan immediately when things are work related. I can justify business/personal separation to a degree, but no one should expect their feelings to be sincerely communicated if they appear able to turn them on and off at will.

  43. @daedalus2u: But if people on the right don’t get their empathy thus triggered, what accounts for their empathy among themselves? They display very little empathy towards those with opposite views, but are usually very receptive towards those sharing their own views.

    On the other hand, some months ago there was this research showing how conservative people were precisely more likely to have strong emotional responses than non-conservatives.

    I think we shouldn’t turn a claim on biology into a claim on politics. Religious people are merely being coherent with their own views; I don’t think Steven Novella can be accused of “not showing empathy” towards Jenny McCarthy.

  44. I don’t like the work “fake” as applied to empathy. I prefer the term “emulate”. If you go through the motions with the intention of comforting the person, even if you don’t “feel” anything, that is “emulating”, and is not a bad thing. If you go through the motions with the intention of hurting and/or manipulating the person and extracting something from them, then it is a bad thing and is “faking” it.

    One of the problems for people on the autism spectrum is the signals that neurologically typically developed persons use to communicate things such as empathy can be extremely difficult for people on the spectrum to detect and to project. They may seem “fake” because they need to emulate those behaviors because they are not hard wired (the way they are with NTs.

    As davew mentioned, being able to dissociate from feelings so as to focus on a task that needs to be done exactly right is not a bad thing. That is what people on the spectrum are doing all the time, their brains are hardwired to dissociate from feelings to free up those neural pathways to do other things.

    It takes a lot more hardware to emulate something than to do it “native”. That is the difficulty that people on the spectrum have trying to emulate NT-type feelings. NTs can’t even come close to emulating ASD savant abilities. Regular communication is the “savant” ability of NTs.

    Determining if someone’s internal cognitive motivations are “fake” or not is non-realizable. There is no way to “read someone’s mind”, the only observables are the external actions. Trying to impute someone’s internal mental state from external action is mind-reading, and we all know that there is no such thing. Not when psychics pretend to do it, not when people do it in normal conversations.

  45. The question was about empathy, which I take to mean “feeling how someone else feels”. If you can’t in some way emulate the other’s persons thinking and feeling process, you can’t feel how they feel.

    People can have empathy for people that are very similar to themselves. This is because the neurological structures that support feelings are very similar and so one can emulate the others feelings. When there are such differences that the feelings cannot be emulated, then empathy cannot be felt.

    This is what xenophobia does, it dehumanizes “the other” such that feelings of empathy are not possible and so “the other” can be treated as something non-human. This is what conservatives do all the time. This is what the anti-abortionists did to Dr Tiller, dehumanized him such that one of them saw him as non-human and killed him. This is why the conservatives can’t support anti-hate legislation. They don’t have the capacity of seeing GLBTs as “human” and so can’t conceive of it being possible to not hate them.

    Dr Novella can have empathy for Jenny McCarthy because he can understand and emulate her thought processes. Jenny McCarthy can’t have empathy for Dr Novella because she cannot understand him and emulate his thought processes.

    To empathize with someone you have to be able to feel something as they would feel it. To have sympathy for someone you only have to feel badly for their misfortune. Homophobes may feel badly for gays when they have been mistreated, but they don’t have the capacity to empathize with them.

    People on the right don’t feel empathy for poor people because they lack the neurological structures to emulate how it feels to be poor. They then rationalize their lack of feeling for such people as being because poor people deserve the situation they are in. The lack of feelings is rationalized by projecting the “cause” of the lack of feelings onto the other person, rather than seeing the defect that is within.

    Virtually everyone doesn’t have the capacity to observe their own deficits in ability to understand someone else. This is why bigots always have a rationale why they are bigoted. It is always about the people they have xenophobia for, not about themselves. Some of them can hide it because they have found that openly expressing racist and bigoted ideas is frowned upon.

    This is why skepticism is so important, and especially important to apply to fundamental feelings about things, understanding “why” you don’t like someone is important. This is why Rush projected that Powell supported Obama simply because of race. Rush can’t conceive of supporting someone who is the slightest bit liberal for any reason, but Rush can conceive of supporting someone because of skin color.

  46. It’s both, but it can’t be formally taught. Empathy was actually “taught’ when I was in med school. It transformed no one. It was almost amusing to see my classmates’ reactions as the concepts were taught, discussed, and practiced. Those who were empathetic prior were empathetic aftwerwards and those who were not empathetic prior were better able to discuss what empathy meant , but were not suddenly more empathetic. As corny as this sounds, vivid , emotionally intense or intellectually engaging events in everyday life is “nature’s” classroom. Empathy CAN be learned there. But … some people NEVER get it, no matter how vivid or how intense.

    So, in my experience, it’s mostly hardwired and occasionally learned, but just like I will never dunk a basketball, some will never know empathy.

  47. @daedalus2u: “People can have empathy for people that are very similar to themselves” + “Dr Novella can have empathy for Jenny McCarthy” = ergo Novella is very similar to McCarthy. Go figure.

    I thought “empathy” had a good connotation. I don’t expect that, by my openly expressing my utter dislike and criticism about somebody, I could be “empathizing” with them.

    This is where it gets really confusing: are we supposed to feel empathy with those with whom we disagree just because we happen to see why they’re wrong? The more strongly we disagree and more precisely realize why someone is wrong, the more we’re “empathizing” with them? No way.

    As a professional, Steve Novella may certainly fully understand and emulate a pathological assassin’s thought processes, but I’m also pretty sure that won’t necessarily make him feel empathy in any relevant sense.

    I still don’t see the political interpretation of “empathy” and I resist to consider all people trying to be consistent with their own standards (even if flawed) as “failing to be empathic”. When Steve Novella advocates for standards in science and is consequently reluctant to accept somebody else’s snake oil into the mainstream, that’s not lack of empathy for those guys, that’s well-founded disagreement. And I can certainly believe that people on the right may feel the same way with respect to skeptics regarding their own beliefs (even if I would agree they’re objectively wrong). That doesn’t make them less empathic to homosexuals, just as empathic to them as Steve Novella is to Jenny McCarthy (i.e. very little?). I see no problem in Novella’s criterion, so I cannot complain about the same in the others, precisely because I am emulating their thought processes.

    Also, people who practice manipulation can certainly “emulate” other people’s thought processes, but usually feel no empathy at all.

    Empathy = thought emulation/politics? Connection lost.

  48. @Mykie: I dunno, that sounds delicious to me. My sister just brought home a puppy that the rest of the family didn’t want, and eating that whining, underfoot little piece of AAARGH would just make my day.

    Can you tell I’m a little agitated?

    And anyway, that’s further proof that culture plays a role, seeing as dog meat is traditionally a part of Asian food.

  49. @davew: I’m glad you weren’t entirely serious, but sorry that you do feel it’s appropriate to fake empathy for someone you’re supposed to care about. I mean, sure, you might not always get what they’re upset about but if you care about the person then you should feel for them when they’re upset.

    @catgirl: “I think many other animals, especially primates, show signs of empathy too, although we have to be careful about anthropomorphizing them.” That’s pretty much my biggest problem. Actually, I anthropomorphize trees and cars and wine glasses. Oh wait, no I don’t. It’s “my friend” who does.

    Anyway, I think some of us are confusing sympathy and empathy.

  50. Hey guys…haven’t been around for a while, but I find myself with some free time again.

    I really kind of skimmed down most of the comments (because I’m in a rush to get out of here at work), but it does seem that most of us agree that empathy is both.

    The hard wiring of empathy has a great potential to cover a -wide- range of levels, but it’s like learning a language. No one race or person is predisposed to learn a particular language. Language itself is hard wired, but it is not until one is exposed to a particular language do we know what to do with the hard wiring.

    However, I will note that I do not consider my parents to be very empathetic OR sympathetic. My friends consider me to be the most empathetic and emotionally intuitive person they know. I have a knack for knowing people’s emotions, even when they don’t want me to. So where did I learn it? I have no idea…but I wish I could thank whoever I picked it up from.

  51. So I brought this topic up at home. If there are those of you here who wished me to be slapped around for about 90 minutes… rest assured it has happened. One thing did emerge between the hail of blows was a possible semantic distinction between sympathy and empathy. I’m not going to attempt to define the difference lest I be further exiled into the neighbor’s doghouse tonight.

  52. Skepthink, empathy does not have a good or bad connotation; it is the ability to understand a person’s mindset and feelings the way that they understand them. Being able to understand someone means not projecting your own feelings onto them. That is something that many people simply cannot do, and especially on the right. When liberals disagreed with the policies of Bush, the conservatives said “why do you hate America?” The conservatives are unable to conceive of any reason why someone would oppose Bush other than by having hatred for the US. It isn’t an act; they really don’t have the capacity to understand how someone could love the US and oppose Bush.

    The anti-vax zealots can’t conceive of any reason why anyone would be pro-vaccine, other than being a pharma shill. It isn’t an act; they really don’t have the capacity to understand why someone would be in favor of vaccines. They really do think that pro-vaccine individuals would injure children to get a few pennies from big pharma. They really think that all the pro-vaccine individuals are completely and utterly morally bankrupt such that they put tiny amounts of money from big pharma ahead of children’s lives. They live in a really scary, frightening nightmarish world of their own fantasy.

    Jenny McCarthy can’t understand how Dr Novella doesn’t feel that vaccines cause autism. She doesn’t have the capacity to arrive at a tentative idea based on facts and logic. Dr Novella can emulate the thought processes that she has gone through to arrive at her incorrect conclusion, even as he dissects the thought process and shows where it has gone wrong and produces an invalid result.

    Dr Novella can do this because he is emulating the thinking process of the anti-vax zealot. When you do an emulation you necessarily break the emulated process down into more primitive steps, emulate those steps separately and tie them all together. By emulating the steps separately, each step can be evaluated and checked for errors.

    When the process is running “native”, that is where the details of the computations are transparent to the user, a detailed analysis of each step is not possible.

    This is a lot of the problem that people have with autism. Autistic brains are wired differently, such that things like empathy don’t run as well “native”. People on the spectrum can emulate empathy, but it is slower and clunkier, and that shows up as looking “fake” to people who run empathy “native”.

    When you learn something, what you are doing is changing the configuration of your brain so that it does the task you are learning. There are many degrees of this, for many different tasks, and all people do not have the same degree of plasticity in the same types of neural structures to achieve the same outcomes. The more you do the task, and the more you practice it, the more the plasticity of your brain is used to optimize performance on that task.

    Empathy is a mental task too. When you try to empathize with someone, you are trying to configure your brain such that you can think the way that they do. This is anathema to most conservatives. They don’t want to think the way that liberals think. They don’t want the capacity to think the way that liberals think. They don’t want the ability to empathize with liberals.

    This is the source of Nietzsche’s quote: And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. If you try to understand something, the act of understanding will change your thinking process. You can’t help it, that is how our brains are configured, to learn. If you block learning, then yes, your thinking process doesn’t change. That is precisely and exactly what the conservatives are trying to do.

  53. I feel the need to ask “What is meant by empathy” in this?

    Browsing through the posts and checking with ‘official’ dictionary versions it seems to boil down to three meanings, but I can’t quite understand any of them.

    1) Able to perceive the emotional state of others

    This can be done by observation without a need to ‘get inside their head’. I observe someone crying they are probably upset, someone laughing is probably happy. Computers with pattern recognition can manage this in a crude way, yet I doubt they would be empathising with the person – merely calculating visual input.

    2) Able to perceive and ‘feel’ the emotional state of others

    Okay, you take what you perceive their state as and apply it to yourself by connecting it to a similar memory. How person ‘X’ feels about something may be completely different than ‘Y’s association (differences in the emulation setup so to speak) – the only way I could truly feel what another feels is by being them. And presuming to know someone’s internal state definitely rubs me the wrong way.

    But what about things like movies and other artificial constructs? How can one empathize with fiction? How does one empathise with animals they can never think like a human, nor can a human think like them?

    3) Ability to perceive and act appropriately on a person’s emotional state.

    Again, this likes back to one, with the expansion that an action is performed. I don’t need to ‘know a persons feelings’ to avoid a faux pas. Just observe the persons external ‘body language’ and the social situation it is in and select from appropriate activities. (ie; don’t laugh during a funeral etc).

    As a sideline while looking it up was mention of the EQ or emotional quotient. Though reading on it showed it appeared even more suspect than the more common IQ rating system. Though if tested, from what I read, I would probably rate around zero or negative numbers. Ah well.

  54. @marilove: Absolutely, I’m constantly amazed at the capacity of humans to overcome their family of origins.

    And it seems to me that the extreme left is every bit as myopic, narrow minded, judgmental, and non-empathetic toward the extreme right as the righties are toward them. They both seem equally unable to understand or appreciate why the other person may feel or think the way they do.

    @Gabrielbrawley: One of my kids favorite movies when they were small and the inspiration for my avatar.

  55. I don’t know whether empathy is learned or innate, but it does seem to develop. In our daughter’s early years, we would notice that she didn’t seem to have any empathy. She didn’t feel sad when bad things happened to others, and this was particularly a problem when she was the cause of the bad things. Now she does have empathy. I’m not sure how it developed, but we’re glad it did.

  56. Excellent discussion here, especially I like what Daedalus2u has to say.

    The only criticism is that I think language has changed over the years, so that we now mean empathy for what was once known as sympathy.

    A good discussion of this was in “The Act of Creation” by Kurt Vonnegut – highly recommended reading to all skeptics.

    Sympathy>> Empathy >>x

    (I forget what x was right now, sorry, too pissed, too tired to search)

    Drawing on another source, the ultimate in sympathy was the wonderful word GROK, (from “Stranger in a Strange Land”, by Robert Heinlein)

    To Grok meant that one understood something to such a degree that one could become one with it, so that it could be cherished, loved, and only then, then if appropriate, then hated and utterly destroyed.

    A great concept. Read and enjoy.

    I learned empathy from my dear mother and to always try to see the others point of view. So could be genetic but definitely learned.

    Such a pity that the other can be such a fucktard. Eat shit and die, Sarah Palin.

  57. One thing I’ve learned recently is that my capacity to feel empathy grows, even to the point where I can feel empathy for people that I normally wouldn’t until recently. After reading about a certain Governor in the news and listening to his “speech,” I really feel for him in a way. :-( I hate his politics – but feel for him and his family as one human being to another. Pain has no political affiliation.

    If anyone followed my link under the Skepchick Confessional, you can see why.

    IMHO: I agree with the analogy between learning language and learning empathy. I think the capacity is there in all “normally wired” human beings. It has to be stimulated, exercised and encouraged to grow into what we call a ‘normal, healthy’ level of empathy. Otherwise, we end up with people that have stunted emotional growth and a greater risk of having a global lack of empathy for others (Not the same thing as a sociopath).

  58. If I remember my “Charmed” correctly, an empath literally feels the emotions of others, sometimes overwhelmingly. So, empathy is actually feeling the pain of others while sympathy is understanding and relating to the feelings of others. Right? Or have I got it backwards again?

  59. @Vengeful Harridan: backwards in traditional usage, but possibly correct in modern idiom.

    Everybody started using empathy cos it was a more unusual word and made them seem clever, while sympathy was what they meant (but everybody knew that word and it was a bit cliched).

    It’s a bit like how my generation turned “making love” into “fucking” instead of “flirting”, which is what it meant to my parent’s generation.

    Being a dick about literal meanings is usually not my bag, but as my old Math teacher used to say, you can’t have a proper, reasonable and useful argument unless you DEFINE YOUR TERMS.

    Vale “Chang” Lean, Maori and ex navigator with the Dambuster’s Squadron. Taught me lots about logic and reason.

  60. @Russell Sugden:

    “Interestingly, while I can’t think of a time a mainstream film has reduced me to tears, pornographic films have certain induced a “mirror neuron” response in the past.”

    COTW. Like a delayed action landmine, I’ve been giggling over this for the last hour. Dry English humour at its best.

  61. @Jack99: You know one of the Dambusters from WW2? Or was that the squadron’s name?

  62. @daedalus2u

    This is a lot of the problem that people have with autism. Autistic brains are wired differently, such that things like empathy don’t run as well “native”. People on the spectrum can emulate empathy, but it is slower and clunkier, and that shows up as looking “fake” to people who run empathy “native”.

    Excellent description. As an example, careful observation of my son would show that he begins to laugh just a second later than other children his age when being told a funny social story or watching a social comedy. A neurologist/psychologist observing would recognize that my son was “faking” empathy – that he was laughing, not because he was able to cognitively place himself in the story and react naturally, but because he had been trained through formal and/or informal social response that laughter was expected.

    Until my son had really gotten the hang of common social reactions with ABA therapy other children would instinctively recognize that there was “something wrong” with him – his lack of “native” empathy was their first and strongest indication.


    I don’t know whether empathy is learned or innate, but it does seem to develop. In our daughter’s early years, we would notice that she didn’t seem to have any empathy. She didn’t feel sad when bad things happened to others, and this was particularly a problem when she was the cause of the bad things. Now she does have empathy. I’m not sure how it developed, but we’re glad it did.

    I think this is a excellent demonstration of the difference between neurological empathy (the hardwired mechanism) and observed empathy (the actions we attribute to empathy). As evidenced here, and elsewhere in the thread, we tend socially to equate empathy with sympathy. To some degree we should – one can not experience sympathy without empathy, but there is a great deal more to empathy on a neurological level.

    Assuming your daughter is neurotypical she was displaying skills that rely on empathy within the first couple of months, it simply wasn’t recognized for what it was. Playing peek-a-boo isn’t generally seen as an empathetic exercise, but it is – it requires that the baby expect her peek-a-boo partner to react the same way she reacts when someone plays peek-a-boo with her. Smiling in response to a smile, laughing (or laughing harder) when you laughed, avoiding eye contact with adults who were upset, crying in the arms of a nervous stranger… all of those behaviors are empathetic in nature.


    Thinking about it more, the debate over empathetic nature vs. nurture probably comes down to an issue of semantics. What do you mean by “empathy”? Neurologically, empathy is nothing more than the ability to interpret the emotions and intent of another person based on visual and auditory cues. Socially, however, empathy includes the ability to react to interpreted emotions and intent in an acceptable and expected manner.

    Given the original example of watching a touching film – the person sitting quietly to your left may be empathetically processing the film in the exact same way as the person sobbing to your right. The one to your right will be seen as more empathetic than the one to your left, however, due to a social expectation.

  63. This question has a viral quality. My wife and I were discussing it last night at our local pizza joint. Our server overheard, went away for 20 minutes or so, and came back with her take on the question. Our local pizza place is way cool.

  64. @daedalus2u: “””empathy does not have a good or bad connotation; it is the ability to understand a person’s mindset and feelings the way that they understand them.”””
    COMMENT: Then again, religious people may lack empathy for non-religious people, but they still show a lot of empathy for other religious people, so you cannot simply conclude that they are less empathic overall; they’re simply empathic in a different way. Their behavior seems to me in no way different (empathy-wise) from a skeptic’s e.g. empathy for gay couples’ and its accordingly probable lack of empathy for homophobes. If Steve Novella can “emulate the thought processes” of Jenny McCarthy and think she’s an assassin, and at the same time she can have those same thought processes and think she’s saving her son’s life, then I really don’t know what Steven Novella is supposed to be emulating, when the same “thought processes” would be triggering too exactly OPPOSITE emotional responses.

    “””The conservatives are unable to conceive of any reason why someone would oppose Bush other than by having hatred for the US.”””
    COMMENT: I am reluctant to confuse whatever they may say with what they might actually believe. Politics is one thing, empathy another. Actually, politics is like poker, it’s bluffing, people pretend something when it’s exactly the opposite, so your example is probably more about fooling empathy than about actual empathy.

    “””The anti-vax zealots can’t conceive of any reason why anyone would be pro-vaccine, other than being a pharma shill.”””
    COMMENT: But from their point of view, they are as convinced that they’re “emulating” our thought processes as it gets: they have all the reason to believe that they know how we think (i.e. we are pharma pawns), why doesn’t that understanding mean empathy for us on their part? At least, I don’t see them buying shares from pharmaceutical companies as a result of their “understanding” that we are sold.

  65. @QuestionAuthority: 617 Squadron is still known as The Dambusters. Don’t know exactly when Chang (I think, GD Lean) served.
    Wish I did know one of the originals! However, talking to an old vet is one almost impossible exercise in empathy.

  66. skepthink, you are not grasping a fundamental concept. To “understand” something, your brain has to have the neurological hardware to support the capacity to think that thought. If you don’t have the “hardware” to think the idea, you can’t.

    If your brain doesn’t have the neurological structures to understand an idea, you can’t. That is why it takes so long to learn things, the structure of the brain has to change (on a very fine scale) so that the now modified brain does have the capacity to think those thoughts. Some things are easy to learn, what that means is that there are already existing neural structures that are easily modified to support thinking the new thoughts. Some things are hard to learn (like quantum mechanics), what that means is that the person trying to learn it doesn’t have neural structures that are “close enough” to be easily modified. The modification takes longer. Some people can never learn quantum mechanics.

    People may delude themselves that they understand something when they really don’t. This is the “ignorant and unaware of it” effect. A variant of that is projecting your own understanding of something onto someone else. That is how the anti-vax zealots “understand” how pro-vax people think, that is they actually don’t, they simply project their motives and their reasoning based on the “facts” they believe. The anti-vax zealots can’s imagine anyone being pro-vax unless large bribes were paid, so they assume that large bribes were paid.

    It is easy to have empathy for someone who thinks exactly the way that you do. It is trivial for monozygous twins to have empathy for each other. Each of them will have greater capacity for empathy for their twin, than for anyone else. The reason for this is because there is great consilience between the neuroanatomy of their two respective brains. As two empathizing individuals become more and more different, the ability to “map” the thoughts of one onto the neurological structures of the other becomes more difficult and at some point it becomes impossible. That is the point where a person cannot feel empathy for the other.

    Normal thinking is done non-algorithmically. We know this because ideas can be arrived at via multiple ways, and the time difference between arriving at those ideas via different paths is not that different. Algorithms cannot be reversed (in general), for example squaring a number is very easy but taking the square root is much more difficult.

    Non-algorithmic computations can not be subjected to analysis the way that algorithmic computations are. To analyze a thinking process, the process has to be put in the form of an algorithm and then the algorithm can be analyzed. It is difficult to emulate a non-algorithmic process with an algorithm. Usually it can only be done with limited fidelity, and there may be non-algorithmic components to the emulation.

    You can copy the output of a non-algorithmic process (i.e. you can adopt a belief system) but analyzing that belief system is much more difficult, and impossible if you can’t break it down into an algorithm to analyze it. If you don’t have the capacity to understand your belief system as an algorithm, you can’t analyze it to see if it is flawed or not.

  67. This is pretty much what my Masters thesis will be on, although I’m framing it more in terms of counsellor training.

    There are a bunch of personality correlates to empathy (NOT including emotional stability, btw), but it also appears from my (very) preliminary lit review that it’s possible to “teach” empathy in various ways. What this leaves open is whether teaching empathic behaviour to people who are already relatively empathic personality-wise differs from teaching empathic behaviour to non-empathic people.

    I would also suggest that empathy as a basic concept be thought of as separate from political/religious/otherwise ideology. But I understand the difficulties that raises.

    Truly empathic people can (and do) empathize with people who do and believe things extremely differently from themselves. An example would be a therapist who can empathize with a sex offender in treatment who thinks there’s nothing wrong with that behaviour. The key idea here is that empathizing doesn’t equate to condoning or even accepting whatever it is you’re empathizing with.

    I realize I’m a latecomer to the discussion. I apologize if this has already been addressed or anything like that. Good topic!

  68. “””skepthink, you are not grasping a fundamental concept. To “understand” something, your brain has to have the neurological hardware to support the capacity to think that thought. If you don’t have the “hardware” to think the idea, you can’t.”””

    COMMENT: I’ll tell you, I’m grasping everything there’s to it, it’s only that you don’t realize what you’re saying makes no sense. According to you, the resulting state of the process of understanding/empathy will be “””the ability to understand a person’s mindset and feelings the way that they understand them”””. Then you said that Steve Novella was able to feel “empathy” for Jenny McCarthy, which would imply that “he is able to understand Jenny McCarthy’s mindset and feelings the way that she understands them”. This, however, is false, since Dr. Novella clearly does not “understand” anti-vaxs (critically) the way Jenny McCarthy understands them (faithfully).

    Please, stop confusing the sound concept of empathy as felt by two people experiencing the same feelings when presented the same stimulus with this other and absolutely unrelated concept of “empathy” of yours in which, given two people feeling and understanding exactly the opposite, one is empathizing with the other but not the contrary. It just makes no sense, no matter how many words you use to auto-convince yourself.

  69. I will try to explain it another way. These are quite complex concepts and cannot be simply described. All of these exist on a continuum of severity.

    There are two ways to “understand” a thought process sufficiently to be considered to have empathy for the person having it. The first is by having that thought process yourself via non-algorithmic thinking. This is the usual way that people think. When they think that way, the details are transparent to the user that is they don’t understand the details of how the belief was arrived at. This is how Jenny McCarthy arrived at her anti-vax ideas. She listened to other people’s made-up lies, believed them and then added some of her own. She believed that vaccines were bad, and then tried to generate “facts” to support that belief. She didn’t conclude that vaccines were bad after finding out there was “antifreeze” in them because there is no antifreeze in vaccines. This is how all the anti-vax zealots have empathy for each other. This is how any group has empathy for others in the group, via the thought processes they share. This is called groupthink when the thought process is orthogonal to reality.

    This is the source of the belief by the villagers about the Emperor’s new clothes. They were told by the guards that only competent individuals could see the clothes, so they pretended to see them. Some pretended so strongly that they actually believed they could see them. This is also called peer pressure; where people adopt the shared beliefs of the group so as to get along. They adopt the shared belief because there is active coercion by the group to enforce conformance. In essence, those without the shared belief invoke xenophobia in those of the group with the shared belief. Either you adopt the shared belief or you invoke xenophobia and are an outcast.

    One can empathize with the villagers by adopting the groupthink yourself, or you can empathize by having a “meta-understanding” of their thought processes. A villager may assert an observation of the Emperor’s clothes so as to avoid a beating by the guards or to avoid losing status among the other villagers. The villager doesn’t need to explicitly reason this way, implicit reasoning is sufficient. That implicit reasoning is what I term the non-algorithmic reasoning process. That process is much more concerned (is only concerned with) conclusions, not with the process by which the conclusion is reached. A “meta-reasoning” process has to look at the reasoning process as well as the conclusions.

    The “reasoning problem” the villager is trying to solve is “how do I fit in with the rest of the village”? The answer is adopt the groupthink of the village no matter how crazy or delusional it is. If adopting the groupthink of the village is what it takes to be able to survive in the village, to have friends, to have a mate, to have your children accepted, to be able to trade with others, to be able to buy and sell goods, to have your house protected against fire or robbers when you are away, to not be beaten by the guards or stoned to death by the other villagers as a witch, there are very powerful and compelling reasons to adopt the groupthink of the village. I think this is why peer pressure is so strong, humans are hard-wired to respond to peer pressure this way. This type of response is necessary for a group to adopt a common language.

    A person unfamiliar with the mystique surrounding the Emperor’s clothing and the dynamics of village politics would find the villagers to be delusional and/or hallucinating about the Emperor’s clothing. That individual would be unable to empathize with the villagers because the observer does not understand the thought processes that the villagers have gone through.

    If the individual then started interviewing villagers to try and understand their thinking process he might get answers such as the “courtier’s reply”.

    The individual wouldn’t be able to empathize with the villagers until he/she had either adopted their world view, or had gone “meta” and understood the situation at a different level.

    If talking to your neighbors about the beauty of the Emperor’s clothing is necessary to be able to trade with those neighbors, people would do it.

    In the case of Jenny McCarthy, I understand her thinking, she believes vaccines have toxins in them (they do not), and that those “toxins” cause autism (toxins do not cause autism), and that big pharma pays people to inject toxins into children (big pharma pays no one to do this). I understand the different “facts” that JM has tied together using her “logic” and I appreciate that her “facts” are not true, and she is using invalid logical arguments. I can meta-analyze her thinking process and understand where it goes wrong, where she has applied a truth value of true to something that is false.

    If she had correct facts, and valid logic, then her conclusion would be correct. She doesn’t, so her conclusion is false. I can still empathize with her because I understand her thinking process even as I understand it to be fatally flawed.

    In contrast, JM can’t understand my thinking process because she can’t conceive of her “facts” being wrong. She can’t conceive of autism not being caused by “toxins”, she can’t conceive of people thinking that vaccines are a good thing because she is incapable of thinking of any chain of facts and logic that leads to that conclusion. Because she can’t imagine any chain of facts and logic leading to the conclusion that vaccines are beneficial, she generates a rationale out of whole-cloth, that big pharma pays people to be pro-vax. The implications of that rationale, that big pharma doesn’t have enough money to buy off the millions that must be in on the conspiracy, that the children of those big pharma shills somehow get vaccinated simply leads to even more wacky rationalizations, that the pro-vax people are so evil that big pharma only needs to pay them pennies to be vaccine shills, and so evil they would give vaccines to their own children for a few pennies.

    The reason that JM can make all of these completely wacky and preposterous suppositions is that she sees pro-vax individuals as “the other”, as essentially non-human, so her human feelings don’t apply to them. This is the essence of xenophobia. The entity that has invoked xenophobia is sufficiently non-human that human-like qualities don’t apply. Non-humans don’t love their children, so pro-vax parents give their children vaccines because they don’t love them. Non-humans are non-human, so they can be treated as non-humans, lied to, cheated, killed, bullied. This is the essence of xenophobia. This is why homophobes are so against gay marriage. They can’t conceive of gay people as being human, as loving their partner, or even loving their children.

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