Empathy (The Science Of, A Model For)

An examination of climate inaction under this paradigm

Though our brother is upon the rack . . . by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure, the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. — Adam Smith, p. 9 [1]

Adam Smith in 1759 was encircling a proto-theory of ‘empathy,’ though the word is only a bit older than a century. Before we discuss the budding science of empathy, we must define the term in some quasi-determinate way. Empathy is often thought of as being tantamount to altruism. However, this only touches upon its meaning. To be clear, there are numerous definitions of the empathy construct (i.e., empathy as emotional contagion, as the projection of one’s own thoughts and feelings, and as a fundamental aspect of social development). But most clinical and counseling psychologists have identified a core set of three distinct skills required in the truly empathic person:

  1. the ability to share experience,
  2. the cognitive ability to intuit, or mentalize (and perhaps understand) what another person is feeling, and
  3. a “socially beneficial” intention to respond compassionately to that person’s distress [2].

Scholars from various disciplines, including sociology, biology, neuroscience, social psychology, and life-span psychology, argue that primitive empathic harmony— a basic building block of human interaction that allows people to understand and to share the feelings of others — can shed light on human cognition, emotion, and behavior [3]. In fact, it is an increasingly popular opinion among psychologists, that empathy allowed our species in its hunter-gatherer times to out-compete larger, more physically dominating animals [4]. Interdisciplinary research on empathy aims at answering one or both of the following questions:

  1. How do we know another’s thoughts and feelings? and,
  2. What leads to prosocial behavior? [5]

Preston and de Waal (2002) proposed a unified theory of empathy that focuses on mimicked neural representations rather than mimicked motor activity [6]. The theory relies on the matching of another’s neural state due to the fact that perception and action rely in part on the same neural circuits. However, the claim that neural response matching or motor mimicry is the unifying mechanism of all empathic phenomena is an overestimation of its role, especially in humans. Perceived neural representations do not necessarily lead to shared feelings. Neither, at a motor level, do humans mimic all actions they see. To find oneself cringing and tensing when watching an escape artist mid-stunt is no stretch, yet one might not be inclined to mimic the action of a dairy farmer milking a cow. Something deeper and more complex than automatic mimicry is at play.

Empathy as emotional contagion | It has been robustly shown that mere observation leads to facial, postural and vocal mimicry of the observed ‘signalers.’ In social creatures, this means that the best way to beget an emotional response is to signal it outward.

He who gives way to violent gestures will increase rage; he who does not control the signs of fear will experience fear in greater degree. — Charles Darwin, p. 365 [7]

Empathy as Theory of Mind | postulates that being able to infer or simply understand that others might have a different perspective from us is empathy. And it is increasingly clear that this theory of mind conveyed an evolutionary advantage in humans.

Empathy may be uniquely well suited for
bridging the gap between egoism and altruism,
since it has the property of transforming
another person’s misfortune into one’s own
feeling of distress. — Hoffman (1981a, p. 133) [8]

Eye tracking studies | suggest that humans evolved visible sclera (white part of the eye) because our much more developed Theory of Mind makes reading another’s gaze direction and emotional expressions much more important for our social intelligence. Studies further suggest that other animals rely on tracking the movement of the entire head, instead of just the eyes. The anatomy of the human eye is evidence in itself: colored irises encircling black pupils against a backdrop of pure white. This provides the stark contrast needed to signal and be signaled to. This color contrast is not found in the eyes of most apes, and certainly not in the animal kingdom to the degree that it is found in humans.

Darwinian Empathy | Examining empathy under evolutionary dogma, one postulates that altruistic behavior evolved if not but for the return-benefits incurred by the empathetic. In order to play a motivational role, this must be true of empathy, and this mechanism for empathy agrees well with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory [9].

The biological instantiation of empathy emerged during the evolutionary transition from reptiles to mammals. The neurochemical building blocks of empathy are conserved, and continuity observed, across mammalian species, differing starkly from our reptilian ancestors. Empathy is now associated with the higher brain structures, including the cortex [10], and increasing evidence mounts in favor of the notion that selection could act at the level of the group as well as the individual [11,12], making social behavior central to evolution [13, 14].

The Mirror Neuron | system (MNS) was first described in the brain of the macaque, where mirror neurons were found to fire either when the monkey executes goal-related hand actions or when it merely observes others doing the same [15,16]. Both mimicking and observing emotional expressions are associated with increased activity in the pars opercularis and the adjacent ventral premotor cortex, as well as in the insula and amygdala [17, 18]. The activity of the MNS during the observation of actions performed by another individual may encode the basis for equivalence between oneself and others. Once a full mapping is achieved, an understanding of one’s own emotions and intentions can be used to inform the understanding of another’s behavior. The MNS may thus play an important role in the ability to empathize with others by having a highly embodied map of social cognition [19].

My empathy model:

An example model of empathy as a multi-layered and multifaceted system extending outwards from the self. In this example, the self is nested within the family, followed by friends, religion, country, and finally humanity.

The sphere-of-empathy model is not perfect, that’s not the goal of a model. I believe, however, it is a useful paradigm to have in one’s toolbox. As I’ve explained in my first ever Medium post, this model can help explain us-versus-them mentality — the general term for the proclivity of humans to restrict their sphere of empathy to that of the self, immediate family, friends, extending hierarchically thereafter, along lines of affiliation (party lines, institutional lines, country lines, religious lines, etc). In this model, empathy extends outwards from the self, which is typically nested within a multifaceted network of spheres. What I purport there is that empathy is not a construct between two individuals which is either present or absent. It is present to a degree in most (except the socio/psychopath) but does not extend as far out for some as it does for others. I postulate the following condensed thesis:

  1. Our empathic load is finite.
  2. Affective valence, or value, is placed in different, hierarchical categories, entirely dependent on one’s system of valuation.
  3. It is largely unknown why the plight or cause of some cuts deeper than the plight or cause of others.

Empathy as a finite resource | portrays empathy as a non-renewable resource. The inability to attain fundamental wants and basic needs, following (generally) Maslow’s hierarchy, can often preclude models of empathy which extend to whole of humanity. A starving child in Africa does not (cannot) care too much about climate change if he is to invest in his own preservation.

Maslow’s hierarchy:

  1. Biological and Physiological needs — air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep
  2. Safety needs — protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, freedom from fear.
  3. Social needs — belongingness, affection and love, — from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
  4. Esteem needs — achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs — realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

This evidence suggests that the higher along in the Maslowian progression a society is, the more capable it will be of true (altruistic) empathy. As evidence, I propose the case study of Bill Gates, one of the richest humans on earth, as well the most philanthropic. Gates has reached his need of self-actualization by helping others.

It is past due that we begin to see empathy as more than just a phenomenon between conspecifics. I believe that us-versus-them mentality can help explain many social structures like party affiliations (“group-think”), racism, homophobism, and other inabilities of a person to extend their sphere of empathy beyond that of the self or the immediate family. This mentality can be engendered by circumstances of hardship. Likewise, due the fact that empathy is a finite resource pool. At every point during the evolution of anatomically modern humans, be it our hunter-gatherer days or our subsistence farming days, we have conferred an evolutionary advantage from our social bonding, as a human alone was a lot less likely to survive to reproductive age than one in a group. As such, it has been reinforced in us strongly that whoever the “us” is, they are good and worth moral consideration and whomever “they” are, they are bad and not worth moral consideration. This is solid evidence for the genesis of empathy.

Empathy, with motor and neural imitation as its bridge, is a stepping-stone towards intersubjectivity — the sharing of subjective states — between conspecifics. In social creatures, imitation has been found to be the normal condition and nonmimicry is the anomalous condition [20]. Thus, cases in which behavioral mimcry is expected but goes unreciprocated really stand out. Lastly, in the cases that we must impute knowledge into another’s head, empathy has been regarded as relying on creative ability. One’s natural ability for empathy is not, thus, the be-all and end-all.

Empathy can be trained (to an extent) | The Learning to Care Curriculum [21], designed for elementary-school-age children, involves story-telling, problem-solving, making video recordings, and group discussion, as a systematic approach to increase empathy. It was implemented with positive results, children became less aggressive and displayed more positive social behaviors. Similar classroom curricula have been implemented for middle-school-age children, and even teachers, with similar results.

Climate inaction under the sphere-of-empathy model

It is not unreasonable to view climate inaction in the U.S. under the paradigm of empathy precluded by stunted Maslowian progression. Climate change is a partisan issue in the U.S., and cross-partisan plight tends not to garner much empathy. One’s perception of the social risk of climate change differs along party lines. It is clear from studying the “behavior” of U.S. government spending, defense is a top priority for the country, at least for Republicans.

A pie chart of the government defense spending of the 15 countries with the highest military spending. The U.S. (35%) and China (13%) nearly comprise half the total global defense budget.

Thus, we are still trying in many ways to preserve our safety — level 2 progression. Some countries, such as Sweden (not in top-15), are able to foster more liberal policies concerning climate change. However, they do not have to expend as many resources on defense. Hence, Swedish environmental policy can afford to be more altruistic in nature.

The phenomenon of individuals denying the statistically rigorous findings of climate science can often boil down to a simple human trait: our proclivity to overproject.

We tend to overproject what others know based on what we know. This is how a climate scientist (left) and climate denier (right) view climate change:

Climate scientist…………………….|…………….Climate denier

✅ Knows a lot (about subject) . . . . . | . . . ✅ Knows next-to-nothing

✅ Assumes everyone else does too .. | . . .✅ Assumes everyone else does too

A climate denier and a climate scientist suffer from the same fundamental problem: their proclivity to overproject what others know based on what they know. Thus, particularly if they are uncreative and unable to imaginatively scenario-intuit, this could lead to barriers that cannot be overcome, lest they be trained or naturally gifted, in empathy.


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  • [4] Tomasello, M. The Cultural Origin of Human Cognition (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 2000).
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Christopher D. Horruitiner

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Science, philosophy, & fiction. Expect all three. My formula for quality: 5 hour(s) researching : 1 hour(s) writing : 1 hour(s) editing. Articles forthcoming.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.

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