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The US election was defined as much by candidates’ perceived ability to empathise as economic policy, argues Mark Honigsbaum.

When Mitt Romney was caught on camera writing-off 47 per cent of Americans as tax avoiders, Democrats were quick to jump on his remarks as an example of the Republicans’ ‘empathy deficit’. Since Barack Obama identified a lack of empathy as the cause of America’s bitter partisan divides, a series of studies have shown that politcally engaged conservatives score lower on empathy than their liberal equivalents.

As one would expect, Republicans contest these findings, arguing that such studies tend to favour Democratic principles of compassion and care over Republican philosophies of autonomy and self-help. It is not that they have less empathy, they argue, it is just that there are times when other moral values such as justice and self-determination should take precedence.

This notion of empathy as an affective capacity that can be switched on and off at will was also invoked by the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik during his recent trial for the mass murder of 69 young Labour activists. In a bid to avoid being found criminally insane by a Norwegian court, Breivik had to convince the judges that he was capable of normal emotional responses but had managed to set his feelings to one side. In short, Breivik had to demonstrate how it was possible to be empathic and cruel at the same time. Breivik’s solution was novel: it wasn't that he lacked empathy, he explained; on the contrary, he had deliberately spared the youngest and most vulnerable children. Killing the others had not been easy either, but using a ‘meditation’ technique he had been able to bypass his feelings. “If you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years,” he explained.

In quoting Breivik in his own words, I do not wish to suggest that we should accept his account at face value or that Republicans are somehow like mass murderers. Instead, I wish to suggest that when Obama chided Romney for his lack of empathy he was privileging a particular model of empathy. This notion – let’s call it empathy 2.0 – holds that when we empathise we both mirror the distress of the ‘other’ and are also moved to respond in a way that is culturally appropriate. In other words, unless our brains are damaged or we are developmentally abnormal, we are saddened by the suffering of others and that sadness becomes the seed of compassion.

Implicit in this model is the notion of empathy as a pro-social affective capacity that is enabled by perspective-enhancing technologies such as social networks. But what if this notion reflects nothing more than the current vogue for connectedness that permeates social neuroscience and our internet-obsessed times? What if instead of empathy 2.0 being the basis of modern social life it is merely a product of current scientific fashions and a morally wishful reading of evolutionary psychology?

Derived from the German word Einfühlung, meaning ‘feeling into’, empathy first appeared in English misspelled as 'enpathy' in a 1909 lecture by the Cornell psychologist Edward B. Tichener. For Tichener, Einfühlung denoted an enlivening process whereby an art object evoked actual or incipient bodily movements and accompanying emotions in the viewer. This made it very different from Victorian notions of the 'sympathetic imagination', which novelists like George Eliot had conceived as a cognitive act in which readers learned to extend themselves into the experiences of fictional characters.

For empathy to become more like sympathy it first had to transit interpersonal psychology and the new brain sciences. In retrospect, the key shift occurred in 1992 when a group of Italian researchers observed mirror neurons in macaque monkeys that fired both when they picked up a raisin and when they saw a person pick up a raisin. Soon mirror neurons were being as the source of everything from altruism to what Jeremy Rifkin, the high priest of ‘empathy neurons’, calls humanity’s desire for “intimate participation and companionship”. Today, popular psychology authors assure us empathy can be grown by striking up conversations with strangers or cultivating curiosity about our neighbours. One writer, inspired by Orwell's experiences as a down and out, even suggests spending the night in a homeless shelter.

But as Romney’s politically inept remark demonstrates, if empathy is reduced to a reflex then logic dictates that under certain circumstances it can also be switched off. And if Breivik is to be believed, it can also be inverted into its opposite: namely, counter-empathy, or feeling good when someone else feels bad. The problem with this type of empathy, of course, is that it is no basis for morality, which is why we frequently invoke other values and principles to balance such tendencies. This is precisely the argument made by Jonathan Haidt. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt maintains that empathy, or what he labels the ‘harm/care’ module, is just one of several emotional dispositions that undergird our moral outlook, the others being ‘fairness’, ‘liberty’, ‘loyalty’, ‘authority’ and ‘purity/sanctity’. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that while liberals focus almost entirely on care and fairness, conservatives tend to give equal weight to all six dispositions.

In theory, this should have been good news for Romney, especially as something like 42 per cent of the American electorate self-identify as conservative. That it wasn’t is a measure of the extent to which empathy 2.0 has become a measure of electability in America. Indeed, it is noticeable that rather than defending his comments about the 47 per cent on traditional conservative grounds, Romney spent the closing weeks of the campaign desperately trying to persuade voters that he was just as compassionate as Obama, even going so far as to cite his passage of health care reform when he was governor of Massachussetts. This was somewhat ironic given his promise to repeal Obamacare if he was elected.

Even before Hurricane Sandy upset the candidates’ campaign plans, however, that was not an argument that carried much weight with the undecideds, much less the 47 per cent, and following the pictures of Obama embracing the victims of the storm damage it was pretty much game, set and match to the incumbent. Indeed, if there is a lesson to be drawn from the 2012 presidential election it is that compassion is here to stay and that where candidates once talked about ‘the economy, stupid’, they would now be well-advised to use a different ‘e’-word.

Mark Honigsbaum is a Research Associate at the Institute and Musueum of the History of Medicine in Zurich.


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