In deepest empathy


  • Social brain

Look, this rubbish joke thing is going to go on until you tell me to stop. I will only desist if a majority of my readers say so, which means an e-petition comprising at least five names. Until then…….

I have a friend who suffers from a compulsion to purchase large white teddy bears. His doctor thinks he might have buy polar disorder.

Last night the Great Room was packed (as always) for a lecture by Simon Baron-Cohen on the subject of his new book ‘zero degrees of empathy’. This is what I took from Simon’s argument:

(a) we should see empathy as core to human nature and behaviour

(b) it is now possible to measure people’s empathy quotient quite accurately

(c) many types of psychiatric disorder and associated pathological behaviour can be traced to a lack of empathic capacity

(d) individual empathy levels are the consequence of a combination of genes and upbringing

(e) understanding and enhancing empathy is the key to tackling many psychiatric disorders and promoting a more humane and cooperative society.     

As chair of the event, I felt ambivalent. On the one hand I absolutely accept the importance of empathy as a core human capability and also one which we need to grow in the 21st century. On the other hand, I was concerned that the issue of zero empathy in those with mental illness and of the overall levels of empathy in society are very different.

As I said last night, there is no reason to believe that Germans in the 1930s or Rwandan Hutus in 1994 behaved as they did because of their genes or individual upbringings (although the critical theorist Adorno did, I think, arguethat Germans had a distinct personality type which predisposed them to Nazism).   Equally the sudden decline in hostility towards gay people in the 80s and 90s wasn’t down to individual factors.

While I think assessing and treating people with zero empathy is primarilly about understanding the individual factors which shape their personalities, the task of shifting the average empathy level of people in a society - and of widening the zone of empathy to include people different to ourselves - are much more matters of social and cultural change (and I’m not just saying this to defend myself from the allegation of neurological reductionism which Ray Tallis will be directing at me here at the RSA in a couple of weeks).

I asked one other slightly flippant question. Could it be that people with lower levels of empathy are more effective in relation to certain tasks and situations.  I couldn't resist recalling the episode of Star Trek (appropriately called 'the enmy within') in which, in a bizarre transporter accident, Captain Kirk gets divided into a gentle, empathic Kirk who is incapable of making decisions and providing leadership, and a brutal, sex-crazed Kirk who makes everyone follow his orders (I always remember this episode because it contains the immortal line, uttered by the Captain after the two Kirks are miraculously re-merged:   ‘I’ve seen a part of myself no man should ever see’).

Then, by sheer coincidence, I find this morning that RSA Chairman, Luke Johnson, has made the subject of his FT column a discussion of whether entrepreneurs are – on the whole – slightly deranged.  Luke doesn’t refer to empathy but some of the very successful people he describes were clearly pretty close to zero in their allocation.

Perhaps the answer is to create working groups of people with different amounts of empathy. The low empathy ones can make decisions and drive change and the high empathy ones can be in charge of communications and making sure that change processes don't neglect the human dimension.  What a great way to start a meeting: ‘welcome everyone, now before we all get down to business,l I wonder if you’d just fill in this empathy questionnaire …’

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