As Aristotle said, we are by nature “social animals”. Our thoughts, feeling, emotions and behaviours are influenced by the presence of others. Since we are into a context that is mainly social, to be able to adapt better, it’s essential to communicate and interact with others in an effective and pleasant way and provide their actions, intentions and feelings. To do this, you need to be able to understand the mental and emotional states of our fellow humans. But how we can do it?
We can empathize. Empathy is a very complex construct, to which various psychological states are associated (e.g. sympathy, emotional contagion, perspective taking, etc.) and of which there are many definitions, which are studied in different areas of psychology. The ordinary nature of empathy is clear when things go wrong, for example when we are misunderstood by someone and, therefore, we feel hurt. Sharing the other’s feelings allows us to better understand their emotional states, their present and future intentions and can encourage prosocial behaviours. So, it plays a fundamental role in social interactions. The English word “Empathy” is a direct translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling inside”), a term used by the philosopher Vischer (1873) with the aesthetic meaning of “projecting oneself into what is observed”.
Some theorists and researches have viewed empathy as social insight. Others have defined empathy as the ability to comprehend the affective (and sometimes cognitive) status of another. According to Baron-Cohen (2012), we can have “single-minded” attention, focused only on our thoughts, or have a “double-minded” attention, focused also on the mind of others. The author identifies two essential components of this construct:
- the affective one refers to the ability to react in an emotionally appropriate way to the feeling and thoughts of others.
- the cognitive one consists in the ability to attribute to oneself or to other mental states (e.g. knowledge, beliefs, etc.). This is known as “Theory of Mind”
But where is empathy in the brain? The modern neuroscience confirmed that’s not one region involved in empathy, but many regions that are all highly connected, so we can talk about an “empathy circuit”. When we empathize with another person this network of regions is activated.
Among people with a low level of empathy, there are some psychiatric conditions, especially three different personality disorders. Baron-Cohen calls them “Zero Negative” because this condition isn’t favourable for them or for people who surrounded them.
- Borderline Personality Disorder: they have very unstable relationships and an extreme mood swings; they tend to switch from one moment expressing affection to within seconds expressing anger and they can lash out on people that are close to them. They often threaten suicide with no intention of carrying it out but with no real consideration of the impact that this threat has on the other person.
- Psychopathic Personality Disorder: it is also known as an antisocial personality disorder. They are diagnosed based on being superficially charming, they lull you into trusting them but soon turns out that almost everything they say is a lie. They have no anxiety, guilt, remorse and insight.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: As the Greek mythological figure of Narcissus, who was only in love with himself and his own reflection, also these individuals don’t really think about others all around them.
When individuals who have personality disorders or very low empathy have brain scans, we can see that different parts of the cerebral network are under active or haven’t developed in the usual way. But zero degrees of empathy is necessarily always bad? There is a psychiatric condition in which there is no empathy, but it does not lead to cruelty. These are people with Autistic syndrome. They have difficulties in social relationships, in communication and in adapting to change. Their low empathy tends to induce them to avoid other people because they find people who are confused about withdrawing the social world rather than committing acts of cruelty. People with autism process information very differently from others; they have strengths in certain ways of seeing the world, for example, can notice small patterns and details that others missing. They are the “Positive Zero” because alongside difficulties their unusual attention to detail often leads them to talent.
IS THERE EMPATHY IN OTHER SPECIES?
Can empathy be the result of evolution? An experiment by Jules Masserman (1964) attempted to systematically test empathy in monkeys. Researchers trained some rhesus monkeys to pull a chain every time they wanted food, so the monkeys soon learned that if they did that, they got the reward. So, changing the contingencies, when they pulled the chain, they got the reward but also saw another monkey receive an electric shock. What was observed is that the monkeys soon stopped pulling the chain as soon as they learned that in getting a reward for themselves was also causing pain to another conspecific. Unbelievably, one monkey refused food for 12 days. This suggests that a simpler form of empathy may precede humans, but obviously in the human case empathy is a more flexible and complex ability.
So, we can say that empathy is a very precious resource for Humanity, probably the most valuable human resource. It has the power to resolve the conflict between two individuals in a domestic situation and even between the two nations, why not? Empathy can allow each party to take the perspective of the other person or leader and understand their point of view, as a successful conflict resolution strategy.