Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Is Empathy?

I've thought for a while now that the concept of "empathy" most commonly used when talking about autism is excessively narrow.

Autistics --- especially Asperger's autistics --- are often said to lack empathy, which usually means two things: we can't infer a person's emotional state from their facial expression, body language, tone of voice or whatever other indirect cues they may be sending out, and we don't respond emotionally to other people's emotions, even when they are clear to us.

Here's Simon Baron-Cohen's definition of empathy, taken from the first chapter of his book The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism*:
Empathizing is the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing does not entail just the cold calculation of what someone else thinks and feels (or what is sometimes called mind reading). Psychopaths can do that much. Empathizing occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person's emotion, and it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.
In a later chapter, Baron-Cohen breaks the act of empathizing into two parts: a "cognitive component," in which you infer another person's likely mental state, and an "affective component," in which you feel something in response to what you either perceive or infer another person to be feeling. (Baron-Cohen gives an example of a homeless person standing in the street on a cold day, and people who see him being moved to feel a range of emotions: pity, guilt, or even anger at a political and economic system that allows such poverty to exist within a wealthy nation).

This two-fold conception of empathy grows out of an earlier idea, which Baron-Cohen has also written about: Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind seems to be more or less equivalent to the cognitive component of empathy described above:
A full-fledged theory of mind ... requires a representational system. This permits the representational mapping of others' emotional states in a manner that is different from picking up their emotions directly. For instance, an intention can be mapped onto a representational emotional topology, going from "the fox is chasing the chicken" (goal-directed) through "the fox is trying to catch the chicken" (intentionality) through "the fox wants to eat the chicken" (motivational) to "the fox is chasing the chicken and trying to catch it because it is hungry and wants to eat it" (emotional). Similarly, for the chicken: it is running (goal-directed) away from the fox (intentionality) because it is afraid (emotional) of being eaten (motivational).
As you can see here, there's a lot of different things feeding into a Theory of Mind. It's not just answering the question "What are they thinking/feeling?" --- that question can be further broken down into a whole string of smaller questions, as with the fox and chicken example above.

I also think that, for each step in that modeling process, there are two very different tasks involved in attributing a motive to another sentient being: first, you have to use your imagination to come up with a range of possible explanations for their action, and then you have to judge which explanation seems most likely. To do that, you draw both on what you actually know about the person and hir circumstances, but also on a general idea of what most people are like, and what most people would do in that person's shoes. (Or, if it's an animal whose behavior you hope to explain, you draw on whatever general knowledge you might have about that kind of animal).

It's in this stage that an alternative explanation for differences in empathizing begins to suggest itself: people from radically differing circumstances are going to have radically differing ideas of what most people would do in a given situation. Class and race are some obvious potential confounds here: middle-class white people are often at a loss to explain the actions of poor people of color, so they fall back on explanations that don't tax their imaginations too much --- i.e., those people are just stupid, lazy, criminal etc.

Gender also enters into it --- feminists have addressed this in their calls for a "reasonable woman" standard in law.

Given this, it shouldn't be too big a leap to suggest that some autistics might have trouble predicting how non-autistic people will react because they've figured out that their own responses to things are vastly different from most non-autistic people's responses. Thus, most of the time just putting oneself in another's shoes is not enough; one also has to imagine one's self greatly altered. This is hard to do, and without a whole lot of knowledge of a range of NT personalities and temperaments, you still won't have anything to put into your mental simulation where you used to be.

Several other autistic bloggers have made this point: that the empathy barrier goes both ways, and arises not from autistic insensitivity to emotion in general, but from the wildly divergent ways in which autistics --- and other neurological minorities --- and NTs experience emotion in the first place.

Like Bev says,
Autistic empathy is different from what the typical person experiences. It is no less real, no less deep or emotional. And I would argue that it's no less useful to society. Some people give hugs; others get the tissue.
Conversely, autistics are often perfectly adept at reading the emotional or intentional content of other autistics' "meaningless" behavior, because the mental state of the other autistic is likelier to be one they've experienced themselves.

*I've already posted about the problems I have with this theory of autism, so I won't revisit them here. I use his conception of empathy because I think it's the one


Alderson Warm-Fork said...

I think this is completely right, and I also think running the different components of empathy together sounds like a recipe for confusion: someone who's often unsure of others is quite a different proposition than someone who just doesn't care.

Sadderbutwisergirl said...

I went to this HI-STEP camp back in the days when it was Stepping Stone. At one point when I got a plantar wart on my foot, which made it painful for me to walk, I was told by counselors that I couldn't be in that much pain because "if you were in that much pain, you'd be in the hospital." It is a fact that autistics have sensory differences from non-autistics. If two people (autistic and non-autistic) suffer from a common injury, chances are that the autistic person will be in more pain due to heightened perceptions of pain. For this reason, the abuses going on at the Judge Rotenberg Center and other institutions is especially cruel. For some reason, non-autistic authority figures think that actions that would be considered abuse if performed on a non-autistic person are necessary for an autistic person to modify their behavior. In addition, some people seem to think that somehow, being autistic lessens the autistic person's ability to feel any pain and that therefore, it doesn't matter how much harm is done to an autistic person. But neither one is true. As I have said about human rights, there has never been a person who didn't believe in human rights at all. Every time someone was deprived of their human rights, it was because they belonged to a despised underclass, most often one that was seen as a group to be eradicated. And it is not true that autism lessens ability to feel pain. In fact, in many cases, it increases it. Bright sunlight may be an annoyance to most non-autistic people, but for me when I was in elementary school, it was so painful that I often tried to stay inside for recess to avoid it. In that same way, electrical shocks are often worse for autistics than non-autistics because of heightened senses. In truth, no one can assume that they know more about what is the more appropriate way to deal with a situation sensorarily than another person in that situation.

Unknown said...

I'd take Simon Baron-Cohen's theories with a grain of sand. If autism is about extreme male brains then how can a transsexual woman be autistic? Meh.

Anyway, I remember analysing people when I was a kid. No feelings involved, just logic. People were like machines to me. Nowadays, I'm a bit more connected to people emotionally, but I still don't quite understand them on an emotional level.

By the way, I haven't been diagnosed, but I definitely fall somewhere on the spectrum.

Lindsay said...

SBWG, you're absolutely right. Non-autistic people, especially authority figures, do habitually deny or minimize our physical pain. Or they deliberately cause us pain, in the name of controlling our behavior.

Your point about human rights is also a very good one. And, sure enough, denial of a particular class of people's ability to feel pain does come up repeatedly as a rationale for cruel treatment of that class of people throughout history.

Alderson Warm-Fork said...

Brilliant example of denial of the ability to feel pain: Nietzsche:

"Perhaps, and let me say this as a consolation for the delicate, at that time (prehistory) pain did not yet hurt as much as it does nowadays. That at least could be the conclusion of a doctor who had treated a Negro (taking the latter as a representative of prehistorical man) for a bad case of inner inflammation, which drives the European, even one with the best constitution, almost to despair, but which does not have the same effect on the Negro. (The graph of the human sensitivity to pain seems in fact to sink down remarkably and almost immediately after one has moved beyond the first ten thousand or ten million of the top members of the higher culture. And I personally have no doubt that, in comparison with one painful night of a single hysterical well-educated female, the total suffering of all animals which up to now have been interrogated by the knife in search of scientific answers is simply not worth considering)."

Lindsay said...


Heh. I was just debating whether to cite Nietzsche as one of a few people who really don't believe in human rights at all.

While SBWG is dead-on that *MOST* people seeking to justify oppressing another group of people do so by arguing that said group of people aren't quite human, and therefore aren't entitled to human rights, there are also a tiny minority of theorists who don't think anyone has inherent rights. (Nietzsche and Rand are the two I can think of. There's probably a few more. But Nietzsche and Rand seem to reject any idea that people might be entitled to anything they didn't rush out and take for themselves, like proper Supermen.)

Lindsay said...

Oh! And this is also very interesting:
"(The graph of the human sensitivity to pain seems in fact to sink down ... after one has moved beyond the first ten thousand or ten million of the top members of the higher culture. And I personally have no doubt that, in comparison with one painful night of a single hysterical well-educated female, the total suffering of all animals which up to now have been interrogated by the knife in search of scientific answers is simply not worth considering.)"

I like that you quoted this, because it had just occurred to me that, while oppression of lots of groups (say, enslavement of Africans in Europe and the Americas, exploitation of low-wage and migrant workers, genocide of indigenous peoples, abuse of disabled people in institutions, etc.) have been justified by saying that those groups of people are so brutish and insensitive that a) they don't feel it as acutely as a real person would, and b) compassion would be wasted on them, I think much of women's oppression was justified on the opposite pretext. Women shouldn't have self-determination; they're too delicate and fragile to deal directly with the world!

TheWiredOne said...

@Lindsay: That stuff about different racial nonwhite groups being regarded as brutish and not feeling as acutely as a "real (white) person" would and women being regarded as having to be protected from dealing with the world was the basis of Sojourner Truth's speech "Ain't I a Woman?" It was about how she belonged to both minority groups (black and female) and yet she was given contradictory expectations based on which group she belonged to.

Butters said...

Great post. I've had this thought on my mind too.

Lindsay said...


Yeah, I know.

That speech was amazing.

I was starting to write a paragraph about how poor women and women of color didn't have the seclusion within the home that well-off white women did --- they've always had to work, always had to deal with the mean, ugly world --- but they were still barred from voting, from owning property (whatever meager property they might have owned), and all sorts of other things because they were the "feebler sex," even if the conditions of the lives did not actually allow them to be feeble.

Unknown said...

I think that -- to a much larger extent than most people are willing to acknowledge -- the supposed deficits of autistic people in theory-of-mind are actually a privilege-of-the-majority issue.

Theory-of-mind skills supposedly entail "reading" others' minds: on the face of it, quite a tall order. But if you are part of a large majority of people who share a common intuition about social behavior and a common set of emotional responses, you can be judged as "competent" in theory-of-mind skills by solving a much simpler problem: "What would *I* do in the other person's shoes?" Odds are that what you would do is what the other person would do -- and you get "credit" for "reading" their mind.

If, on the other hand, you are *not* part of any such large majority sharing common intuition and emotional response patterns, you have to solve a *much harder* problem to be deemed "competent" in theory-of-mind skills: not "What would *I* do in the other person's shoes?", but rather "What would Joe Normal do in the other person's shoes?", where Joe Normal is an abstraction of the majority's shared intuition and emotional response patterns. That is *way* harder to do: it requires developing (and continually *refining*) an exquisite cognitive familiarity with a mindset quite alien to one's own. In the general population, people *train* to be able to do that: as mental health professionals, salespeople, politicians (and con artists).

So the playing field on which theory-of-mind competence is judged is far from level.

It is a classic privilege-of-the-majority situation.

(I first wrote about this here, back in 2005 (in the second appendix).)

edwin rutsch said...

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

also, here's more on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen

Ettina said...

This study shows that when a person's emotional reactions are atypical, autistic kids are as good at figuring out why they feel that way as NTs are.