Am I really that cold hearted?
When I joke that I’m not very empathetic in the way where you actually don’t believe it and are expecting flattery in return; I rarely get dis-agreement. So now after too many ‘Yep, that’s true. Remember the time….’ it has hit home that I need to uncover the truth.
Empathy I would characterise as immersive kindness. More formally according to the Collin’s dictionary, it is ‘the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own’. If you cringe and turn away from scenes of people hurt in supposedly humorous ways — this could be empathy. For some the decision to be vegetarian is not due to morality, it is empathy. Both arising from that affinity for people or animals. Compassion is also kindness but unlike empathy, it is kindness at a distance. Maybe that divergence is too subtle. But if you are keen to be entangled in the complex lives of your loved and not so loved tribe it feels an important distinction for your own long term mental health.
I believe humanity places empathy in high esteem. But superficially it seems that more is written about being a psychopath (no conscience, no empathy) than those who deeply care. Why? It jars with the wheels of a smooth functioning society which is based on expectations of individual co-operation. A deviant is like a wrench in the works. So this personality disorder fascinates; de-stabilises our minds — inviting attention.
It’s curious that although we associate empathy with kindness and caring, it may have developed in humans for a more selfish reason. Survival. Psychology Today noted this : ‘From an evolutionary perspective, creating a mental model of another person’s intent is critical: the arrival of an interloper, for example, could be deadly, so developing sensitivity to the signals of others could be life-saving’.
But there are downsides to being empathetic. I listened to a story about a woman who married a bigamist who was also a psychopath. Through research she suggests that most psychopaths are not violent, but are unscrupulous in manipulating emotions without their feelings becoming entwined. At their most effective, psychopaths see empaths as quarry, as those with an ability to feel give them an in to exploit. Someone without that openness would be very difficult to manoeuvre.
You may feel it is only the unprincipled who would prey on our good heartedness but many people are wise as to how to orchestrate feelings. From the presentation of the news, the design of adverts to charity requests. It pays to be aware.
BBC future mention that empathy can operate more deeply when focussed on an individual which leads to the ‘identifiable victim effect’. This is where people with rapport respond to the suffering of a single victim but ignore the larger statistics. In practical terms It means we could be inured to the plight of the many which may distort directionally the flows and quantum of help as we cannot relate. It is exacerbated by social context. For example empathy allows us to hurt others during a war as we feel sensitivity for those close to us but not those who are distant.
I wrote about psychopathy a few years ago after attending an absorbing lecture about being evil. There was an idea that brain patterns worked differently in wicked people and I assume that must also be true of empaths (arm chair science). Scientists have proposed that it is at rest when we may be able to distinguish the brain activity that either trait drives. I’m not sure how it follows, but the suggestion is that further analysis will help in understanding autistic individuals and perhaps how to better support them in engaging with the world around them
So in order to prove the naysayers wrong, I finally took an empathy test. The results indicated that my score demonstrated a lack of empathy common in people with autism or asperger’s syndrome. It was also suggested that I may want to seek help from a licensed therapist. Nice.
But I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that this result barely bothered me. Funny that — perhaps that means I don’t have any empathy?