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21: NOV 9. Unit Five: Empathy


  • Robert Sapolsky, from Behave, Chapter 14, "Feeling Someone's Pain, Understanding Someone's Pain, Alleviating Someone's Pain." 521-535.
  • Hidden Brain, "You 2.0: Empathy gym" listen to at least 1/2 of the podcast for today and the other half for Thursday.


  • More advice for PP1 and Small Group Discussion

PP1 Prep: More advice and Small Group Discussion

  • Advice:
  • Get right to work.
  • Make sure you are answering "what" and "why" questions. What is your position (overall and in details)? Why do you hold it? Peer reviewers and I will be looking for this!
  • It is a good thing to prioritize your obligations by some kind of principle, value, or other consideration. But avoid this equivocation: "It is reasonable to put my community/nation first. Until we solve the problems in my community/nation, we should not be obligated to help global strangers." "First" can mean "priority" or "ordinally" (before the next thing you do). Fine to write this, but don’t leave the equivocation there. Resolve it.
  • Try to notice jumps in reasoning and "gaps" between principles or concepts and their application. Sometimes these occur when we make a hard problem "easier" by oversimplifying it.
  • Don't be reluctant or afraid acknowledge limits, uncertainties, or problems with your view.
  • You may bring other knowledge and ideas into your paper, of course. Just don’t let them take you away from the prompt.

Hidden Brain, Empathy

  • Segment 1: Artist's performance art installation. Internet connected paint ball gun. Iraqi artist, lost his brother in air strike. Thinking about drone warfare, thinking about consequences of actions... ends at 5:22.
  • Jamil Zaki, The War for Kindness. Early 70s program for faculty, mom from Peru to WSU, married/divorced while Jamil was young, felt difference in parents' rules/values. Credits that to empathy. Parent's divorce was an "empathy gym".
  • Benefits of empathy -- benefits both parties. empathic doctor-patient relationships, empathic partners. Giving empathy less depression, less stress, adolescents with emotional skill better adjusted in middle school.
  • clip from Sesame street -- phone call from friend. Three components:
  • 1. emotional empathy
  • 2. cognitive empathy
  • 3. empathy concern and compassion. 13:00
  • autism spectrum disorders. often still have 1 but not 2
  • psychopathy often have 2 but not 1
  • Segment 2: Cultural instantiation of empathy. Sarah Conrath - survey research using validated instrument. Trend toward less empathy. Alot since 2000.
  • Other variables: living alone. hard to know about link there. pretty speculative. We are more urban, solitary, and transactional. These interactions don't favor empathy. Internet? Might be a source of empathy, early idealism of internet. But we might be using the Internet in negative empathy ways -- no faces (!), avatars, text. Research on dehumanizing opinions from text vs. voice. (Tapping into a long line of theory about urban life and dehumanization.) segment ends at 21:30
  • We'll stop here for today's class. The rest on Thursday.
  • Segment 3: Costs and benefits of Empathy
  • Trauma and empathy. Could go in different directions. Hurt people hurt people. But also "altruism born of suffering". Addicts become addiction counselors...etc. Research showing that showing American harsh video from 911 attacks increases willingness to torture. Other research: more wary of outsiders.
  • But 911 was also unifying, eliciting empathy.
  • Paul Bloom, Against Empathy - tribal empathy is bad, but Zaki -- oxcitociin studies do turn up parochialism. Zaki draws different conclusion. Believes that empathy is trainable.
  • Sometimes we need to be less empathetic. Research on police officers showing strong empathy even to officers in trouble. In group empathy (parochial empathy) might interfere with perception. High in-group empaths, even if empathic to outsiders, are not likely to allow threat to tribe. 29:23: Advice. What if we are over empathic to our group?
  • Professionals who need to use empathy (caring professions) might suffer from its expression. Defensive dehumanization -- blocking empathy for self-preservation. Study table in busy student union, happy child/ suffering child. unmanned/wheelchair. But it backfired! Maybe we (especially high empaths) avoid triggering our own empathetic response. Study on whites reading about native Americans. Led to negative judgement to dismiss guilt (cog. dissonance). In obedience to authority studies, death row officers, more likely to lead avoidance or dehumanizing judgements. ends at 36:00
  • Back to art installation. Lamp destroyed by aggressive person. Person arrives with new lamp! Takes action (similar issue in Sapolsky). Zaki interprets both events. Others show up! Muffins, socks, online helpers. Virtual human shields. 36 people keep the button down to prevent panning the gun.
  • Project using virtual reality to have inside experience of homelessness. Scenes of typical events in homeless experience. Simulation increased empathy even 30 days later and more supportive of housing policies.
  • Acting and empathy. Might pump empathy. Reading fiction. (Moth stories, story core, human interest stories on news.)
  • Manchester U fans study: Levine: study involving rabid fans, Write about why they love Man U. Taken to another building, jogger confederate sometimes Man U, Liverpool, blank jersey. More likely to pass over Liverpool jogger. Second version: Why you love soccer. Equal help. Blank jersey left behind!
  • back to Zaki's childhood experience. lesson to learn that very different people could have deep and authentic experience. also, we can have different values because of our experiences, equally determinative in opposite directions. "naive realism" false.

Sapolsky, Behave, C 14, 521-535

  • starts with "exposure to an aversive state" -- we call it empathy, but what is that?
q1: When does empathy lead us to actually do something helpful?
q2: When we do act, whose benefit is it for?
  • sympathy -- feeling sorry for someone's pain. But could also convey distance or power diff. pity.
  • empathy -- includes a cognitive step of understanding the cause of someone's pain and "taking perspective"
  • compassion -- S. suggests this involves empathy plus taking action.
  • Emotionally contagious, compassionate animals.
  • we are 'overimitative' - chimp / kids study524
  • mouse studies -524- alterations of sensitivity to pain on seeing pain; fear association seeing another mouse exp fear conditioning. Mouse depression ensues! research suggesting mice respond proportionally and to social group (cagemates).
  • Consolation: lots of species engage in consolation, chimps show third party consolation behavior, no consolation behavior in monkeys (another reason not to trust monkeys) -- prairie voles!
  • 526: rats, amazing rats -- US/them behaviors, some flexibility. review the details.
  • Emotionally contagious, compassionate children
  • 527: describes mechanism of empathy: early emo contagion in kids may not be linked to cognitive judgement as later, when Theory of Mind emerges. Neural activity follows this progression. “As the capacity for moral indignation matures, couple among the vmPFC, the insula, and amygdala emerges.” Perspective taking add other connections.
  • Affect and /or Cognition?
  • Affective side of things.
  • Some neurobiology: the ACC - anterior cingulate cortex - processes interoceptive info, conflict monitoring, (presumably cog. dissonance). susceptible to placebo effect. Importantly, ACC activates on social exclusion (Cyberball game), anxiety, disgust, embarrassment, but also pleasure, mutual pleasure. (ACC activation is maybe a good proxy for the state that empathy and compassion address: We help each other settle our ACCs down.). Empathic responses involve our ACC activated by your pain.
  • ACC also involved in action circuits. Oxytocin, hormone related to bonding. Block it in voles and they don't console. Awwww!
  • How does self-interested "alarm" system of the ACC get involved in empathy? Sapolsky's hypothesis 530: Feeling someone's pain can be more effective for learning than just knowing that they're in pain. Empathy may also be a self-interested learning system, separately from helping action. Maybe not a “moral emotion” until we use it that way.
  • Cognitive side of things: How do we bring judgements about desert and character to bear on empathic responses? Chimps do. They only console victims.
  • One of Sapolsky’s weirder analogies at 532 re: the militia leader.
  • Cognition comes in with emotional pain, judgement abstractly represented pain (a sign), unfamiliar pain. (Takes more cog resources to process others' emo pain.) Also with Thems. 533.
  • socioeconomics of empathy 534: wealth predicts lower empathy. Less likely to stop for pads. the wealthy take more candy! (This can be primed.)
  • especially hard, cognitively, to empathize with people we don't like, because their pain actually stimulates a dopamine response! Empathy is part of our preference network behaviors!