The Erosion of empathy
Examples of human cruelty raise the question: How is it possible to treat a person as a mere object?
Concept of Evil versus Empathy
The traditional explanation for human cruelty is in terms of evil. The concept of evil is not scientific. It implies that the person is possessed by some supernatural force. Even worse, it is dangerously circular. If the definition of evil is the absence of good then all we can say is he did something bad so he is not good. In contrast, the concept of empathy is scientifically helpful because you can measure it and study it.
Empathies Two Distinct Components
Empathy has two distinct components: Cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else's thoughts and feelings, putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It is the recognition part. Affective empathy is the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to what another person is thinking or feeling. Low affective empathy is a necessary factor towards explaining human cruelty.
Empathy is not all or none. It is a matter of degree. Most people have an average level of empathy and there are a few people at each one of the scale that have either low or high empathy.
Low Empathy Factors
The below social factors can lower ones empathy:
Obedience to Authority – An experiment by Stanley Milgram at Yale University showed that people are far more willing to induce electronic shocks to another person when instructed by an authority figure. This suggest that following orders is one factor that can erode our empathy.
Ideology – The 911 hijackers ideology overrode their empathy when they carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center.
In/Out Group Relations – In Rwanda, one ethnic group used propaganda to stereotype the out group. When we dehumanize another group as the enemy, we have the potential to lose our empathy.
Affective Empathatic Dysfunction - Psychopathy
In a landmark study, James Blair showed psychopaths three types of pictures:
- Neutral Images
- Threatening Images
- Images of People in distress
What he found was that psychopaths only showed reduced physiological responses when they saw images of peoples in distress. This shows that psychopaths lack affective empathy.
Cognitive Empathetic Dysfunction - Autism
People with autism have difficulty with cognitive empathy. They struggle to understand others thoughts , motives, intentions and feelings but people with autism do not tend to hurt other people. Instead, they are confused by other people and tend to withdraw socially preferring the more predictable world of objects. People with autism have intact affective empathy because when they hear that someone is suffering it upsets them.
Nurture – Early Childhood Emotional Neglect and Psychopathy
John Bowlby at the Tavistock Clinic in London was on of the first to study the relationship between early childhood emotional neglect and psychopathy. He argued that the absence of parental love in early childhood was another factor that can erode ones empathy.
Nature – MAOA Gene
Nature – Testosterone
The higher the level of fetal testosterone the more difficulty one has with cognitive empathy.
The Empathy Circuit
Left Ventral Medial Frontal Pre-cortex