Saturday, July 11, 2015

The empathy gene

"The biggest divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between people who care and people who don’t care.” — Rachel Maddow

I HAVE a friend who for five years has been single-handedly taking care of his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Theirs is not the usual scenario, however, because they are both just in their 50's. 

Janet's is a case of early onset. She was 54 when she was diagnosed, five years after she and Mark were married. A second marriage for both, Janet is as Mark says, "the love of my life." Whenever I've praised him for his patient, devoted care, his reply is always, "It's my privilege to be the one who takes care of her."

Mark and I became friends through Facebook, and while he was struggling to cope during a recent particularly rough patch, I called him to visit for a little bit — an offering of a mental margarita, if you will. He was much more grateful than my small gesture warranted. It's these little gifts of friendship and concern that he gets almost entirely from his virtual village, he said, that help keep him going.

When Janet was first diagnosed, he fielded a flood of calls, notes and emails from family and friends, but that has long since all fallen away. He doesn't hear from relatives and IRL friends. Neighbors don't call or stop by. No one pops in with a casserole or an offer to spell Mark for an hour or two.

At Easter there was a neighborhood potluck to which Mark and Janet were invited at the last minute and only then because a "friend" accidentally let the news of the get-together slip when he bumped into Mark in town. 

Although disappointed to receive an awkward, obligatory invitation, Mark was looking forward to the possibility of going and hoped Janet would be doing well enough that they could. When the day came, however, Janet was having hallucinations, and Mark called with his regrets. 

What really hurt Mark was that neither the hosts nor any of the guests who all know Mark and Janet's situation thought to take the simple step of packaging up leftovers for them. Mark and Janet used to attend this neighborhood event year after year before she became too ill, and there is always a copious amount of food left over, he said. It would have meant so much to him to have a meal he didn't have to prepare.

No one considered what Easter would be like at Mark's house where there would be no special meal. As exhausted as Mark was, he was hard pressed to cook any meal at all for the two of them.

Mark's theory is that it makes those who knew Janet as she used to be — vibrant, witty, full of life — too embarrassed and uncomfortable to come 'round or even talk about what's happening. There will be, after all, no happy ending to this story. Or maybe it reminds them in too vivid a way that nobody, as the saying goes, gets out of here alive — and of just how brutal and protracted our departure can be. Whatever the psychology is behind their desertion, his relatives and former friends have fled, and Mark's source of empathy and kindness has become his collection of online friends, people who for the most part he's never met. 

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Mark and Janet and, more particularly, their thoughtless neighbors who didn't see fit to extend the small kindness of sharing leftovers with two of their own. So I went to Trader Joe's and picked out a little selection of items for lunch to send them and called Mark to tell him that despite the fact that he and Janet live 1300 miles away, we would be neighbors. It was a lucky guess on my part. It turns out that before Mark and Janet moved to Montana, they lived in California, and they frequented Trade Joe's on a regular basis. It was a favorite.

I told him, "It's just lunch," but he said, "You have no idea how much it means to me just to be thought of," and said that I must have the "empathy gene." 

It's true that I can't seem to stop myself from caring about those who suffer, but according to new research, empathy is not something we're either hard-wired for — or not. It can be a choice. 

Below is an article from The New York Times exploring human empathy, and for my Iowa readers, you may be interested to know that one of the investigators is from the University of Iowa.

(BTW, in case you ever had the gut sense that powerful people are less empathetic, you're right! They actually are.)

Empathy Is Actually a Choice

By Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William Cunningham

July 10, 2015

ONE death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.

You’ve probably heard this saying before. It is thought to capture an unfortunate truth about empathy: While a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because, as recent research has demonstrated, many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously share others’ experiences) and do more to help.

Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favorites. Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

What, then, is the relationship between empathy and morality? Traditionally, empathy has been seen as a force for moral good, motivating virtuous deeds. Yet a growing chorus of critics, inspired by findings like those above, depict empathy as a source of moral failure. In the words of the psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy is a “parochial, narrow-minded” emotion — one that “will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.”

We disagree.

While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself. Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

Two decades ago, the psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues conducted a study that showed that if people expected their empathy to cost them significant money or time, they would avoid situations that they believed would trigger it. More recently, one of us, Daryl Cameron, along with the psychologist Keith Payne, conducted an experiment to see if similar motivational factors could explain why we seem more empathetic to single victims than to large numbers of them.

Participants in this study read about either one or eight child refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Half of the participants were led to expect that they would be asked to make a donation to the refugee or refugees, whereas the other half were not. When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. If insensitivity to mass suffering stemmed from an intrinsic limit to empathy, such financial factors shouldn’t have made a difference.

Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others — for instance, powerful people. An experiment conducted by one of us, Michael Inzlicht, along with the researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and Sukhvinder Obhi, found that even people temporarily assigned to high-power roles showed brain activity consistent with lower empathy.

But such experimental manipulations surely cannot change a person’s underlying empathic capacity; something else must be to blame. And other research suggests that the blame lies with a simple change in motivation: People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.

Even those suffering from so-called empathy deficit disorders like psychopathy and narcissism appear to be capable of empathy when they want to feel it. Research conducted by one of us, William A. Cunningham, along with the psychologist Nathan Arbuckle, found that when dividing money between themselves and others, people with psychopathic tendencies were more charitable when they believed that the others were part of their in-group. Psychopaths and narcissists are able to feel empathy; it’s just that they don’t typically want to.

Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.


  1. Thank you friend. You seem to remember every little detail of our story as accurately as I live it day after day.

  2. This feels really familiar. Just as I was about to ask if you had written about it before, I recognized that the date is one I would have read but for some reason failed to comment. I wish Mark and Janet some friends who at least see fit to send a card now and then or pop in with a casserole or take out. Unfortunately, it's a fact of our generation that most of us will be in his shoes if we aren't already. Tonight some friends got out for a couple of hours to listen to music in the park with us. They have her mom and a cousin to care for, so her retirement turned into full time care giving before she even had a chance to enjoy it. I get that empathy is the point and that we can develop it - increasing it. I'm just saying we all NEED to because there are folks whose lives could be improved by the application of it. Thanks for this Kelly - another beautiful article.