How the social brain experiences empathy, Part 3

More from the Empathy and the Brain conference.

The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis: Issues and Implications
Daniel Batson (University of Kansas)

“I came to empathy by the back door.” Interest in motivation for helping: whether, when we help others, it’s because we care about their welfare, or is it always in some way about ourselves? The old egoism/altrusim debate.

Depends what you mean by “altruism.” Helping? Costly helping? Self-sacrificial helping? Obviously humans do these things (on occasion).

  • Altruism: A motivational state with the ultimate coal of increasing another’s welfare.
  • Egosim: A motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s own welfare.

Question is whether our motivation is ever, in any degree, altruistic? If you want to know when and where helping can be expected, and how effective it is likely to be, “helping” isn’t enough–we need to get at motives.

When we help the other, we benefit the other, but we also receive self-benefits (feeling good, avoiding feeling guilty, avoiding censure from others). In that sense, helping the other is an instrumental goal to the ultimate goal of helping oneself. Alternatively, helping oneself can be unintended consequences of the ultimate goal of helping others.

We rarely trust self-reports. We infer goals from observing behavior. But if we observe behavior with two or more possible ultimate goals, we can’t determine the true ultimate goal.

One likely source of altruism: empathic concern. What Decety & Carter have called sympathy. An other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. Includes feeling sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like (i.e., feeling for the other, not like the other.

Seven other uses of “empathy”:

  1. Knowing another’s thoughts and feelings (theory of mind)
  2. Adopting the posture or matching the neural response of an observed other (the bogus “mirror neuron” idea)
  3. Coming to feel as another feels (emotional contagion, or affective resonance, or emotional resonance–you have to “catch” this from another persion. Noticing the same tiger in the bush they saw isn’t “emotional contagion.” Also, it could simply be upsetting to me to see another upset.)
  4. Feeling distress at witnessing another’s suffering (personal distress). (Distinct from feeling distress for another person.)
  5. Imagining how one would think and feel in another’s place (“imagined self” perspective).
  6. Imagining how another thinks and feels.
  7. General disposition (trait) to feel for others.

Over 35 experiments have been conducted, testing the empathy-altruism hypothesis against plausible egoistic alternatives. Results have been strongly supportive. Question: How could empathy-induced altruism have evolved? Most plausible answer is not reciprocal altruism, but generalized parental nurturance.

Three assumptions of a nurturance explanation:

  1. Humans have a need-oriented, emotion-based, and goal-directed parental instinct.
  2. This human parental instinct can be generalized beyond progeny.  (Supported by our cognitive capacity for symbolic thought. Also, may be evolutionarily adaptive to have a broad sense of kinship–more individuals to care for offspring.) (Is oxytocin involved in care for pets? Both dog & human get oxytocin released in their interaction.)
  3. Intensity of tender, empathic feeling varies with perceived relation…


  • Good news: Empathy-induced altruism can increase cooperation and care in conflict situations.
  • Bad news: Empathy-induced altruism can lead people to act immorally. (If I care about another person, I may show partiality to them.)

The Strange (Recent) History of Empathic Cruelty
Allan Young (McGill University)

[An earlier version of this paper is available here.  It’s hard to take notes when someone is reading a paper, so I’ll just link to the online version rather than take detailed notes.]

Challenges to Clinical Empathy
Jodi Halpern (University of California at Berkeley)

How to neither overly identify nor overly distance yourself from patients.

Doctors self-report a long tradition of extreme emotional detachment. “Detachment” not in the Buddhist sense, but maybe we should be teaching doctors Buddhist meditation?  More on this later.

Taking Gross Anatomy (dissecting cadavers) traditionally teaches doctors to turn off their emotional reactions. Instead they develop “clinical empathy” to enable them to treat patients. But when doctors self-report using clinical empathy, patients uniformly report experiencing a lack of empathy.

Experience with a patient with Guillain-Barre Syndrome: robust older man suddenly disabled. He doesn’t want comforting; her empathy tells her he wants to be talked with in a businesslike tone. Doesn’t want to be infantilized.

Reading patients’ faces is not an effective type of clinical empathy. Patients want doctors to actually listen to what’s bothering them. [Query: how different is law practice from medical practice with respect to interactions with clients/patients?]

Non-verbal attunement: Patients test their doctors, sending out non-verbal signals to sense whether doctors are trustworthy and whether to open up to them. Detached, cognitive approach to empathy is ill-suited for clinical practice.

How are emotions informative about specific aspects of reality? This has been Halpern’s study. Cognitive view of emotions: emotions are always about something. How I see the world in any particular emotion gives rise to a web of associational thinking.

Audience question: does entrance into medical school, or how students are selected, self-select for lack of empathy?


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