"A Natural History of Empathy"
In the mid 1930s, Bronisław Malinowski—our anthropologist from the first chapter—was traveling Europe when he met a woman named Valetta Swann. Her maiden name was Anna Valetta Hayman-Joyce, and she had retained the surname Swann from a previous marriage. Swann was an English artist—not quite a prominent one, but the famous painter Diego Rivera wrote positively of her first exhibit in Mexico, "The use of divided color that she brings about with insight and sensitivity is one of the qualities in her work that she should strive to retain." Her work was insightful and sensitive, and Malinowski was smitten. They soon married.
They went to America together in 1939 for one of Malinowski’s speaking tours, making the rounds at major universities. By this time, almost twenty years after the publication of Argonauts, Malinowski was world-famous. He was widely heralded as one of the central figures of anthropology. While Malinowski and Swann were on this trip World War II broke out. They decided not to go back to Europe. Malinowski took a post at Yale, where he began a new line of anthropological work. He was interested in Mexico. The next year, in 1940, he went there to study Oaxacan peasant markets, and Swann came with him. They collaborated on drawings and photographs which accompanied Malinowski's ethnographic work. They were planning a larger scale project together when, in May of 1942, Malinowski died suddenly from heart complications. He was fifty-eight.
After Malinowski's death Swann moved to Mexico City and lived there permanently. She had her first individual exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1945 and went on to have over fifty individual exhibitions in her career. She was inducted as a member of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, the Hall of Mexican Fine Art.
When Malinowski died, his friend and former student Feliks Gross offered to help Swann organize the books and papers in Malinowski's office. Gross was a Polish-American sociologist and had spent time at Jagiellonian University, Malinowski's alma mater. One day Swann received a call from Gross. He wanted to know if she knew anything about "a smallish thick black notebook,” which contained Malinowski’s diary, “written almost entirely in Polish in his handwriting.”
It was a diary covering a period of about nineteen months. It started in early September 1914 and went through the beginning of August 1915, then picked up again in late October 1917 and ended in mid-July 1918. These periods covered two of Malinowski's first trips to the South Pacific—his initial trip to Melanesia and the trip during which he collected his material for Argonauts. It was clearly a private document, not intended for publication. It wasn't an addendum to his anthropological work—its contents were concerned with his personal life during those expeditions.
Swann kept the diary locked away in a draw until 1960 when, while on a trip to New York, she met with Malinowski's publisher. She informed him about the diary. It was clear that Malinowski didn't intend the diary to be published. It was full of the kind of personal accounts that you would only record in a private diary. And the diary wasn't going to slip by unnoticed by the public. Malinowski's influence on anthropology was fully realized by then. Everyone based their fieldwork on his methods. Swann and the publisher discussed it. Would it be a betrayal of Malinowski to publish something that was intended for his eyes only?
Swann says of the diary, "I have always felt a desire—even a need—to know something of the life and personality of any painter, writer, musician, or scientist whose work has profoundly interested or moved me. I feel that the psychological and emotional light shed by diaries, letters, and autobiographies not only give one a fresh insight into the personality of the man who wrote certain books, developed a certain theory, or composed certain symphonies, but that through this knowledge of that man as he lived and felt, one is often brought into a closer contact and a greater comprehension of his work. When there exists, therefore, the diary or autobiography of an outstanding personality, I feel that these data regarding his daily and inner life and his thoughts should be published, with the deliberate aim of revealing that personality, and linking up this knowledge with the work left behind." They decided to publish the diary.
It caused an immediate uproar in the anthropological community.
Malinowski’s diary revealed that he was not only anthropology’s most celebrated fieldworker, but also, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz put it, “a crabbed, self-preoccupied, hypochrondriacal narcissist, whose fellow feeling for the people he lived with was limited in the extreme.” The diary held his private feelings about the natives he studied. And what Malinowski had said about the natives was completely at odds with the picture of him as the man who could understand the perspective of even the most exotic native.
For starters, Malinowski's diary suggests that he spent his time in the Triobrands wanting desperately to be somewhere else: “I thought about my present attitude toward ethnographic work and the natives. My dislike of them, my longing for civilization.” He talks about his “Moments of frightful longing to get out of this rotten hole.” His work seems to be nothing but a burden to him. “Ethnographical problems, “ he wrote, “don't preoccupy me at all.” But worst of all is how he talks about the natives: "At bottom I am living outside of Kiriwina, although strongly hating the niggers."
He refers to them as niggers.
And it's not just that he's occasionally annoyed with them. His only references to the natives are to describe his disdain for them. He speaks of his "general aversion for niggers, for the monotony—feel imprisoned." Here is a typical entry in the diary:
"In the evening I went to the hospital. Teddy told stories about 'holding court.'... All through this I was subconsciously waiting to be introduced to the nurse. At 9, I left with some fellow. I sat around until 10:30 making up to Mrs. [name undecipherable], Who is not stupid, though quite uncultured. I fondled her and undressed her in my mind, and I calculated how long it would take me to get her to bed. Before then I had lecherous thoughts about [another name]. In short, I betrayed [Elsie] in my mind. The moral aspect: I give myself a plus for not reading novels, and for concentrating better; a minus for mentally making love to the matron and for return of lecherous thoughts about [the second woman]. Also a disastrous tendency to 'preach' and to argue in my mind with all the rascals who keep pestering me here, especially Murray."
In addition to his disdain for the natives, Malinowski's diary is preoccupied with two themes. At the time he was in love with a woman named Elsie Rosalind Masson. They had met in Melbourne during Malinowski's first trip there. They were to be married. He spends much of the diary writhing in guilt over his "lecherous thoughts" about other women. The enthusiasm with which he attempts to suppress his sexual desires can get extreme. He writes in one entry, "Moral tenets: I must never let myself become aware of the fact that other women have bodies, that they copulate."
He was also concerned about occupying his time reading trashy material, particularly magazines and novels. These were his only mental escape from his surroundings, and he would often binge on them like one might binge on a television series today. Invariably, he would get down on himself afterwards. Another entry captures the same pattern: "Moral: Reading of magazine was a disastrous lapse. I am strong enough physically to overcome my lack of concentration and control states of mind I don't approve of. Also, high time for me to get rid of my inertia, my taking the line of least resistance. Yesterday I did three most unfortunate things: I read stupid trash; I was listless sitting with the fellows; and I drank with them. Also overly sensual attitude toward Mrs. Gofton and Baldie. I shower them with compliments and behave in a way that hints at the crudest desire on my part."
In another passage he writes, "As for ethnography: I see the life of the natives as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog. During the walk, I made it a point of honor to think about what I am here to do. About the need to collect many documents. I have a general idea about their life and some acquaintance with their language, and if I can only somehow document all this, I'll have valuable material.—Must concentrate on my ambitions and work to some purpose."
In the first chapter, we held Malinowski up as a champion of what it looks like to understand someone from another faction. But his diary tells a completely different story. It’s full of hate and loathing and deprecation—directed both at himself and the population he was studying. Is it possible to reconcile these two images of Malinowski? Does the revelation of this intrapersonal tumult invalidate the methodology he developed, supposedly, to understand others? These two images certain seem at odds with one another. And Malinowski’s venomous attitude towards the natives seems, if not antithetical, then at least in opposition to his ability to understand them.
But is it really?
On December 29, 2016, the New York Times featured a debate between two psychologists. The topic of the debate was, “Does empathy guide or hinder moral action?” The participants were Jamil Zaki, the director of the social neuroscience lab at Stanford, who argued that empathy guides us in doing the right thing, and Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, who argues that it hinders us from doing the right thing. Bloom had published a book earlier that month called Against Empathy, and the debate was arranged as a part of Bloom’s publicity tour for the book. The prospect of this debate was quite exciting. These are two superstars in psychology: Zaki, who has spent his entire career studying the benefits of empathy, and Bloom, who has just completed a massive project outlining all the ways in which empathy falls short. You would expect it to be a prizefight of epic proportions.
Man, what a let down.
The first thing that’s strange is they seem to be talking over one another. Bloom argues that what we really should want is compassion, not empathy. Empathy, he argues, is like a spotlight, and you can only direct it at one person at a time. Compassion, on the other hand, can be applied more broadly, illuminating a wider population. Zaki disagrees. Empathy can be broadened, too. He mentions Uncle Tom’s Cabin and notes how empathy played a crucial role in how it worked to combat slavery. Bloom replies by saying Uncle Tom was, again, really about compassion, not empathy. You’re left with the feeling that both men agree that there are positives in the vicinity of what they’re talking about, but Zaki calls those positives ‘empathy’ and Bloom calls them ‘compassion.’ What really do we mean by either of these terms?
The second thing is that the framing of the debate feels off. The prompt is about whether or not empathy has positive or negative moral value: is empathy a good thing? But that doesn’t seem like the right question. Zaki acknowledges as much. “No piece of human psychology,” he says, “is always good or bad, and arguing for or against empathy makes no more sense than arguing for memory or against attention.” The question, then, isn’t one of morality but efficacy. We can all agree that we want to understand others better, and to leverage that understanding to engender as many humanitarian victories as possible. The real question is whether empathy is the most effective means to accomplish that.
Situating this question in the terminology of the previous chapter: Is empathy—and perspective-taking more generally—the best mechanism for reconstructing someone else’s psychological map, their perspective, and the way they see the world?
This is the same issue the anthropological community had to grapple with when Malinowski’s diary was first published. Malinowski was their poster child for excellence in anthropological fieldwork. Then they find out he spent the whole time secretly fuming at the natives and calling them niggers behind their back. Some anthropologists responded by disavowing Malinowski. He was not, they said, actually all that representative of the field, at least not to the extent that everyone gave him credit. Real anthropologists don’t hate their subjects. Other anthropologists, Malinowski’s students among them, defended him, essentially saying, “yes, he wasn’t perfect—but, hey, what innovator is?”
Clifford Geertz weighed in on the matter in an essay published shortly after the diary was released. "The significance,” writes Geertz, “of [Malinowski’s diary] for anthropology’s image of itself is shattering, especially since that image has been so self-congratulatory.” Geertz, despite his vicious description of Malinowski as a hypochrondriacal narcissist, claimed that the discussion surrounding Malinowski's character missed the point. There was a bigger issue at play. "For the truth is that Malinowski was a great ethnographer," writes Geertz, "and, when one considers his place in time, one of the most accomplished that has yet appeared. That he was also apparently a disagreeable man thus poses something of a problem." As Geertz frames it, "The myth of the chameleon fieldworker, perfectly self-tuned to her exotic surroundings, a walking miracle of empathy, tact, patience, and cosmopolitanism, was demolished by the man who had perhaps done most to create it."
"The issue is not moral,” continues Geertz,“the issue is epistemological. If we are going to cling—as, in my opinion, we must—to the injunction to see things from the native's point of view, where are we when we can no longer claim some unique form of psychological closeness, a sort of transcultural identification, with our subjects?"
The problem, as Geertz sees it, is not about coming to a verdict on the moral condemnation of Malinowski. It isn’t about whether empathy is good or bad and whether one should strive to be empathetic. Rather, it is about the role of empathy in understanding those in different factions. Clearly, whatever was going on in Malinowski’s head, whatever methodology by which he came to the insights in Argonauts, it was not empathy. Yet that is often that thing that we most closely associate with understanding others. The same assumption was held by anthropologists in the middle of the twentieth century when Malinowski’s diary became public. It seemed like a paradox. Everyone agreed that understanding others was something Malinowski was good at. Yet the way they assumed he went about it—empathy—was clearly not the strategy he was using. It resurfaced the questioned, posed by Malinowski himself in Argonauts: “What is then this ethnographer's magic, by which she is able to evoke the real spirit of the natives, the true picture of tribal life?"
This question about empathy is an important one. Empathy is a classic example of perspective-taking, the canonical instance of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. But to be in a position to evaluate its efficacy, we need to be more specific about what exactly we mean by empathy. And to do that, we need to go back and start at the beginning.
Humans and chimpanzees broke off genetically from one another about six million years ago. This is, evolutionarily speaking, not a very long time. Accordingly, humans and chimps retain a similar genetic make up—99% of their genetic material is identical, on par with that shared between lions and tigers, rats and mice, and horses and zebras. "Our problem,” writes cognitive scientist Michael Tomasello, “is thus one of time. The fact is, there simply has not been enough time for normal processes of biological evolution involving genetic variation and natural selection to have created, one by one, each of the cognitive skills necessary for modern humans to invent and maintain complex tool-use industries and technologies, complex forms of symbolic communication and representation, and complex social organizations and institutions." If their genetic makeups are so similar, why did humans go on to develop complex society while chimps didn’t?
Tomasello is renown for his work in several fields. There is developmental psychology, where he has studied the behavior of infants. He has also done important research in the fields of language acquisition and morality. But perhaps his most influential work is The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. In this monograph, only a little over one hundred pages long, he considers this question about the relationship between human cognition and development. He distinguishes between three different kinds of development. The first is phylogenetic, which is concerned with the lifetime of a species, on the scale hundreds of millions or billions of years. The second is historical, which is concerned with the lifetime of a society, on the scale of hundreds or thousands of years. The third is ontogenetic, which is concerned with the lifetime of an individual, on the scale of months and years. How can we explain the advent of human cognition, as well as the society that arose from it, in each of these development processes?
Tomasello argues that the explanation cannot be evolutionary in the sense that it was caused by an onslaught of genetic modifications leading directly to the faculties we associate with human cognition. There were just too many innovations in cognitive machinery for them to have evolved one by one, and it all simply happened too fast for that to be the case. What he proposes instead is that there was one major evolutionary step, and everything else followed from that by a process other than biological evolution. In Tomasello’s view, the most likely candidate for that major evolutionary step is what he calls cultural transmission.
The idea of cultural transmission is that an organism can save time and effort by copying the actions of other organisms of the same species when they are doing something that works well for them. This is a relatively common phenomenon in the animal world. For example, baby birds copy the song that their parents sing, not because the tune is genetically programmed into them, but because mimicking their mother is. A similar pattern is true with rat pups, who eat only the same kinds of food they observe their mother eating. Another example is human children, who learn to speak the same language as those around them. It’s not that the specific language they learn was embedded into their DNA, so much as the ability to pick it up from the adults around them. Human cognition, according to Tomasello, must have come from some species-unique mode of cultural transmission. He calls this “the ratchet effect.”
The ratchet effect, simply put, consists in incremental improvements to human society made over time. It is a form of cultural evolution. No product of human society was conceived in its ultimate form. It is always the case that there are successive improvements on the original idea. As Tomasello notes, “many nonhuman primate individuals regularly produce intelligent behavioral innovations and novelties, but then their groupmates do not engage in the kinds of social learning that would enable, over time, the cultural ratchet to do its work… The basic fact is thus that human beings are able to pool their cognitive resources in ways that other animal species are not." The question is, what allows the cultural rachet to do its work?
Tomasello has a very simple answer to this. He calls it the revelation of symmetry. Cultural learning, in his account, is made possible by "a single very special form of social cognition, namely, the ability of individual organisms to understand conspecifics [organisms of the same species] as beings like themselves who have intentional and mental lives like their own… This understanding enables individuals to imagine themselves 'in the mental shoes' of some other person, so that they can learn not just from the other but through the other." The idea Tomasello puts forth here is that our ability to understand the perspectives of others, particularly by assuming they are mirror images of our own, is the single cognitive innovation that allowed the rest of human mental and social life to flourish. Perspective-taking, according to Tomasello, is not only the foundation of human cognition, but the whole of human society.
“The outcome,” writes Tomasello, “is that each child who understands her conspecifics as intentional/mental beings like herself—that is, each child who possesses the social-cognitive key to the historically constituted cognitive products of her social group—can now participate in the collectivity known as human cognition, and so say (following Isaac Newton) that she sees as far as she does because she 'stands on the shoulders of giants.'"
His argument, looking at the three varieties of development, is laid out like this. Phylogenetically, humans evolved the capability to understand that other humans are intentional agents with a mental life similar to their own. That’s the single evolutionary event Tomasello claims to have taken place when humans broke off from chimps six million years ago. In Tomasello’s jargon, these protohumans “evolved the ability to ‘identify’ with conspecifics.” Historically, then, this enabled cultural learning to accumulate over time. Suppose that a long time ago, a single human discovered that a cup-like object can carry water. That person’s compatriots would be able to pick up on that discovery and leverage it for their own purposes. And when that original person died, the knowledge did not die with them but rather was passed on even in the absence of the innovator. This is the cultural ratchet at work. From the ontogenetic perspective, children develop by absorbing the products developed by the cultural ratchet as they acquire language and participate in social life. All of this allows humans to innovate in historical time instead of evolutionary time.
When Tomasello describes the assumptions that we make about other people as “intentional” he is invoking a long-standing term from philosophy. Perhaps the most famous use of this term is an account by Daniel Dennett called the Intentional Stance. It is with the idea of Intentional Stance that cognitive scientists began to describe the processes by which we come to know what is in someone else’s mind.
The Intentional Stance is an idea that explains why we are able to make accurate predictions about the behavior of other humans. As an example, imagine that you are at work. You eavesdrop on a colleague’s phone conversation. He says, “Alright, honey. I’m about to head home for anniversary dinner,” and hangs up. What happens next?
Well, let’s say you know his address. You can predict that in an hour’s time a two-ton metal object will pull into a particular driveway and out of it will emerge a human, the same one who had just held the phone conversation you overheard. That person will be carrying one dozen red flowers of the genus Rosa and a 750ml bottle of chilled, white liquid. During that same hour, there will be have been another human preparing a meal, set on a table at which the red flowers will be placed and the white liquid consumed. If you’re familiar with the route, you could even predict which roads and intersections the two-ton metal object will traverse. You could predict which supermarket the human will stop at to acquire the roses and the wine. You could even predict that approximately the same series of events will happen again a year from now. That is quite a lot of information that you’ve predicted. What’s happening here is very complicated, in a physical sense. And you wouldn’t be able to predict what’s going to happen in other kinds of similarly complicated events, such as the behavior of a stock price. But you can predict what’s going to happen in this situation involving the actions of this particular human being.
Of course, this is the kind of trivial inference we make everyday. It’s obvious to us. But there’s nothing that says it has to be. The problem of understanding humans is a general one. In an abstract sense, what we want to do is to predict the behavior of a system. We make some assumptions about what the system is like. Then, given those assumptions and whatever other information we have, we predict what the system is going to do next. These predictions make up the fabric of our interaction with the world. According to many psychologists, the mind is one big prediction machine, designed expressly to figure out what’s going to happen next. Humans, then, are just one very complicated kind of system about which we make predictions. Predicting the behavior of humans calls for one kind strategy. But predicting the behavior of another kind of systems may require a completely different strategy.
Here’s an example.
Imagine a billiards table, with only two balls on it—the white cue ball and the black eight ball. Suppose I am holding the white ball in my hand, and I roll it onto the table on a collision course with the black ball. What’s going to happen next? Make a prediction. What do you need to know to make that prediction? Basically, what you need is an intuitive knowledge of physics. You need to know that the billiard balls are about the same weight, and that they weigh enough that if one crashes into the other it will disturb whatever the other ball is doing (this wouldn’t necessarily be true if they were balloons). You need to know that the billiards table is not going to apply enough friction to stop the balls dead in their tracks, as if the table were covered in a sheet of snow. You need to have an idea of how the angle at which the balls collide will affect their trajectory. All of this considered, you are doing two things here. First, you’re making assumptions about the physical constitution of what you’re looking at. Then you’re predicting the outcome, based on your intuitive understanding of how physical objects interact. Dennett calls this mode of understanding “assuming the Physical Stance.”
"This strategy is not always practically available,” says Dennett, “but that it will always work in principle is a dogma of the physical sciences.” Assuming the physical stance, in other words, is what physicists and chemists do professionally. That’s what Dennett means when he says that the physical stance will always work, according to the physical sciences. But he also notes that it’s not always practically available. Some phenomena are just too complicated to understand by assuming the Physical Stance. What it means, then, the be another kind of scientist—a biologist, a psychologist, even a sociologist—is to solve the kinds of problems that are not adequately addressed from the Physical Stance. They require a different strategy.
An example of another common strategy is the Design Stance. Dennett gives the example of a computer. ”For instance, most users of computers have not the foggiest idea what physical principles are responsible for the computer's highly reliable, and hence predictable, behavior. But if they have a good idea of what the computer is designed to do (a description of its operation at any one of the many possible levels of abstraction), they can predict its behavior with great accuracy and reliability, subject to disconfirmation only in cases of physical malfunction.” The Design Stance “predicts that it [the system] will behave as it is designed to behave under various circumstances.”
Dennett is saying that if you know a word processing application is designed to allow you to create documents, then you can interact with it successfully without having any idea of what is happening under the hood. You can predict what the system will do without any appeal to the Physical Stance. Of course, this breaks down when we don’t quite understand what a program is designed to do (“What exactly does this button do again?”) or when the program malfunctions. But even with these caveats assuming the Design Stance to understand the behavior of a computer is going to be a hell of a lot easier than assuming the Physical Stance.
"Less dramatically,” writes Dennett, “almost anyone can predict when an alarm clock will sound on the basis of the most casual inspection of its exterior. One does not know or care to know whether it is spring wound, battery driven, sunlight powered, made of brass wheels and jewel bearings or silicon chips—one just assumes that it is designed so that the alarm will sound when it is set to sound, and it is set to sound where it appears to be set to sound, and the clock will keep on running until that time and beyond, and is designed to run more or less accurately, and so forth.” This is the Design Stance in action.
So what strategy works for understanding how humans will behave? They are, of course, much too complicated for the Physical Stance. And, even if there were a manual for how humans ought to behave according to their design plans, it surely wouldn’t be of much use in making sense of human actions. Instead, the way that we make sense of how human behave is, first, to assume they have desires. Humans do things because they want to. So, to understand humans, you first figure out what they want. Then the next step is to figure out what they know. You then assume that they will use what they know to get what they want.
For example, if you see someone going through a coughing fit, you’ll assume they want a glass of water. If this person lives in the same house as you, you’ll also assume that they know that glasses are in the cupboard above the sink. They’ll leverage this insight (that they can get a glass from the cupboard and fill it with water from the sink) to attain their intended goal (to drink a glass of water) and—voila—you can predict how the system is going to behave. This is the Intentional Stance.
Here is how Dennett summarizes the Intentional Stance. ”First you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in many—but not all—instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.“
Dennett says, ”our use of the intentional strategy is so habitual and effortless that the role it plays in shaping our expectations about people is easily overlooked. The strategy also works on most other mammals most of the time. For instance, you can use it to design better traps to catch those mammals, by reasoning about what the creature knows or believes about various things, what it prefers, what it wants to avoid.”
Circling back to Tomasello’s argument, he contends that the crucial junction in the phylogenetic development of human cognition was to support our ability to assume the Intentional Stance. It's not that primates don't have complex cognitive capacities. "It is just,” as Tomasello writes, “that they do not view the world in terms of the kinds of intermediate and often hidden 'forces,' the underlying causes and intentional/mental states, that are so important to human thinking." The Intentional Stance applies to non-human primates but is not applied by them.
Tomasello includes a list of behaviors that are diagnostic of the ability to understand the intentional states of others. They are, “ point or gesture to outside objects for others,  hold objects up to show them to others,  try to bring others to locations so that they can observe things there,  actively offer objects to other individuals by holding them out, [and 5] intentionally teach other individuals new behaviors." The upshot is that humans do these things, and other animals, non-human primates among them, do not. Tomasello contends that “the simple act of pointing to an object for someone else for the sole purpose of sharing attention to it is a uniquely human communicative behavior, the lack of which is also a major diagnostic for the syndrome of childhood autism."
The Intentional Stance raises a question. Who gets to decide what’s the “right” thing for a person to do in a situation given their beliefs and desires? That is, whose intentions inform the Intentional Stance? It’s easy to write off how one gets from beliefs and desires to actions as obvious. After all, how could it be any other way? "In the most straightforward case,” writes Tomasello, “the child simply sees or imagines the goal-state the other person is intending to achieve in much the same way she would imagine it for herself, and she then just sees the other person's behavior as directed toward that goal in much the same way that she sees her own." The easier answer to the question of “whose intentions” is our own. Assuming the Intentional Stance is an acting of simulating what you would do in someone else’s shoes. This is, in some sense, the core of empathy. And having characterized the Intentional Stance, we are in a better position to address what exactly we mean when we talk about empathy.
One thing that Zaki and Bloom did agree on in their empathy debate was the first modern account of the subject. Adam Smith is best known for work The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, which provided the foundation for free market economics. This foundation is built on the idea that each of us work for our own gain and are good at doing so. Psychologists derisively refer to this picture of human nature as homo economicus, since, they say, there is no way the humans that economists have in mind could possible be of the same species as homo sapiens. But what is less known is Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759. Smith’s Moral Sentiments is considered by psychologists like Zaki and Bloom to be the first modern theory of empathy.
Our word empathy is actually quite a new one. It first came into use in the beginning of the 20th century and only became commonplace by the 1930s and 1940s. The word empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung, which was first used in the last decades of the 1800s. It means literally feeling into. The notion of Einfühlung became popular in philosophy, in both English and German. It was originally used to discuss how we come to understand the emotional content of a piece of art, by entering into fellow feeling with the artist who rendered it. Before that, the closest word we had was sympathy, which is the term used by Smith.
What any of us really mean when we use the term empathy is at once both obvious and quite complex. What we mean, approximately, is that we acknowledge the emotions of another person and to some extent take them on for ourselves—we feel their pain. In the original sense of Einfühlung that would mean looking at a piece of art and taking on the same feelings that inspired the artist felt to paint it. It’s an emotional kinship. Today one of the canonical experiences of empathy is probably passing a homeless person on the street and being overcome with a resonant sensation of suffering and pain and unfairness. For a moment, we take on the distress of what it feels like to be on the streets. Empathy is an act of perspective-taking, perhaps even the most canonical version of it. But to what extent does empathy actually grant you access to someone’s perspective? Let’s start with Smith’s account.
Here’s the most famous line from Moral Sentiments: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” He’s saying that our happiness as an individual is inextricably tied up with those around us. We want them to be happy, too, even though their well-being has no direct consequence for our own material interests. Smith is essentially outlining the character foil for his self-interested homo economicus on which Wealth of Nations is based.
The key claim in Smith’s account of empathy is mechanistic. He’s interested in how it works. What inspires us to be empathic? What Smith argues is that empathy works by us imagining ourselves in someone else’s place and then seeing what emotions we come to feel. Smith writes, “Sympathy [by which he means empathy], therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it.” We don’t look at a homeless person and become sad because we see them frowning. We look at them and become sad because we see the situation that caused them to frown.
The consequence of this is that we can’t, in a sense, learn anything new by engaging in empathy. We can’t come to experience something we haven’t already experienced before. Empathy works by imagining the emotional consequences of finding ourselves in a particular situation. And if you don’t know the specific feelings that homelessness engenders, then you can’t discover the appropriate mapping of situations to emotions just from empathy alone. Smith writes, “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.”
Smith describes this process of simulation in detail:
“It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.”
This sort of simulation makes sense in the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Why didn’t empathy work for northerners before they read the story? Because “being a slave” was not a situation they had experienced. Therefore it was not something they could bring themselves to understand in any sort of emotional depth. The idea of being a slave in their mind was too abstract. But Uncle Tom isn’t about slavery in the abstract. It’s about slavery in the concrete. If you have never been a slave, then you don’t know what it’s like. But when you begin to break it into its components—the threat of having your child ripped away, jumping from ice flow to ice flow and triumphantly landing safely on the other side of the river—then it becomes something that you can put yourself into. Empathy doesn’t work in the abstract.
Smith makes many points about empathy throughout Moral Sentiments. But besides an I-know-it-when-I-see-it sort of grasping, he never successfully defines empathy. This, it turns out, is a trademark of research in the field. Though we all can agree on what approximately it means, there are at least as many definitions of empathy—what exactly it means—as there are people who try to define it. Even today in social psychology there is no agreed upon working definition. In a recent review of the field one researcher identified eight distinct mental phenomena that are commonly referred to as ‘empathy’ by psychologists.
I can empathize with these psychologists—I surely understand the emotional consequences of not liking anyone else’s definition of empathy enough to use it—so I’m going to cast the subject in my own terminological mold. There are, in my view, two main parts of empathy. At its core, empathy is an acknowledgment of another’s psychological state. So an appropriate definition characterizes both what kind of acknlowedgment and what kind of psychological state. I think there are two useful distinction to draw in each of these dimensions. The psychological states break down into thoughts and feelings. Thoughts are propositional. They have meaning that can be communicated with words and assessed as to whether or not it is true. Emotions are not propositional. Happiness isn’t something that can be true or false or fully conveyed by verbally describing it. Rather emotions are attitudes toward propositions, they are tones, colorings, reactions to something perceived. When you understand what is in someone else’s mind, you can either understand their thoughts or their emotions. And they are two separate, though interrelated, psychological states.
The other dimension worth drawing a distinction between—how exactly we acknowledge these states—is recognition versus adoption. When you empathize with the homeless person on the street, are you actually feeling the same emotion she’s feeling? Or are you merely categorizing it? And if you are actually feeling the emotion for yourself, is it because you’re taking his psychological state on as your own, or does the act of categorizing someone else’s emotional position as so downtrodden bring you an emotional discomfort of your own?
What we mean when we say empathy is that we are adopting the feelings of others. What is, more often than not, actually happening is a recognition of someone else’s emotion. And any emotion we feel in turn is a response to our having categorized the valence of that emotion, be it positive or negative. Recognition versus adoption is a distinction between identifying and identifying with.
These dimensions can easily be mixed and matched, as shown in Figure 1.
X. Figure 1.
The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen distinguishes between what he calls empathizing and systemizing, in a hypothesis he calls “the extreme male brain theory of autism.” In autism, he says, features that are normally associated with male brains are accentuated. People on the autism spectrum are high on systemizing, low on empathizing. “Systemizing,” as Baron-Cohen describes it, “is an inductive process. You watch what happens each time, gathering data about an event from repeated sampling, often quantifying differences in some variables within the event and their correlation with variation in outcome. After confirming a reliable pattern of association—generating predictable results—you form a rule about how this aspect of the system works. When an exception occurs, the rule is refined or revised; otherwise, the rule is retained.” This distinction between empathizing and systemizing is perhaps easier to draw than making granular distinctions between subtle forms of empathy.
Baron-Cohen argues that systemizing is how our brain tends to understand certain things. He lists:
-Technical systems: e.g., a computer, a musical instrument, a hammer
-Natural systems: e.g., a tide, a weather front, a plant
-Abstract systems: e.g., mathematics, a computer program, syntax
-Social systems: e.g., a political election, a legal system, a business
-Organizable systems: e.g., a taxonomy, a collection, a library
-Motoric systems: e.g., a sports technique, a performance, a technique for playing a musical instrument.
Systemizing is also a process that we can apply to other humans. In fact, systemizing is what anthropologists do. They treat the people they study as part of a cultural system. This is not a deterministic system in the sense that every action and outcome is predictable from their current arrangement. Rather the laws that define a cultural system are probabilistic, giving you an idea of how to deal with most situations but not precisely answering every possible question.
At first, systemizing does not seem like a good strategy by which to understand other humans. It sounds too objective, thinking of a person as an object instead of a human. After all, Baron-Cohen’s theory is about autism, a disorder characterized by inappropriate social behavior. But it makes more sense than it would initially seem. The problem with empathy is that it starts with the assumption that you will best understand a person by assume they are just like you. By acting out in your imagination what you would do or think in their position, you cast them in your own mold. And if they’re part of the same faction, that might be a successful strategy. But if they’re not, then this assumption might not hold. Systemizing has no such ego-centric baggage. It frees you up to take their experience fully on their own account, without reference to your own experience.
In 2009, two researchers at the University of Manitoba, Jacquie Vorauer and Stacey Saski, published a paper which they entitled, “When trying to understand detracts from trying to behave: Effects of perspective-taking in intergroup interaction.” The basic insight of the paper is that perspective-taking, and empathy in particular, can have unintuitively negative effects. We assume that emotional resonance with another person is always a force for good, that it always leads to a better understanding of what that person is experiencing. "The general hypothesis,” they write, “guiding the present research was that perspective taking has ironic, undesirable consequences in intergroup interaction because here efforts to appreciate an outgroup member’s point of view quickly lead individuals to contemplate how the outgroup member sees them. In the context of an actual interaction situation, one of the very first things that individuals may see when they try to look through an outgroup member’s eyes is themselves."
Nick Epley, the progenitor of the perspective-getting terminology, once published a paper called Perspective-taking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. The reason why perspective-taking doesn’t work on members of other factions is that it is fundamentally an egocentric process, by which we assume that others are like ourselves. Perspective-getting, on the other hand, is an act of systemizing. We take other people’s accounts on their own terms, putting our own simulation of their feelings out of the picture.
Ultimately the tradeoff between systemizing and empathizing is perhaps a little like Virginia Woolf’s androgynous mind, in which she says both male and female mental qualities are necessary for creativity. You need both systemizing and empathizing to understand others.
In an essay responding to Malinowski’s diary, Clifford Geertz draws a distinction between two modes of understanding others: experience-near and experience-distant. Experience-near is a concept that someone who actually has the experience would use to describe it. ‘Love’ is an experience-near concept. Experience-distant is a concept that a specialist—such as a scientist or a therapist—might use to describe something they’ve observed. Any sort of jargon typically falls into this category. Experience-near and experience-distant are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they form a continuum, such that any term can have elements of both. Neither are these concepts normative, such that one is better than the other. Geertz argues that they are both necessary for an anthropologist to make sense of the people they are studying. He writes, "Confinement to experience-near concepts leaves an ethnographer awash in immediacies, as well as entangled in vernacular. Confinement to experience-distant ones leave her stranded in abstractions and smothered in jargon."
You need both experience-near and experience-distant to understand another person’s perspective. Geertz continues by saying that anthropologists ought "to deploy them so as to produce an interpretation of the way a people lives which is neither imprisoned within their mental horizons, an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a witch, nor systematically deaf to the distinctive tonalities of their existence, an ethnography of witchcraft as written by a geometer."
This is his answer to the question he raised about Malinowski’s diary—what does it say about how anthropologists conduct their research and acquire their knowledge? What he’s saying is that understanding others is about using the right strategy, not having the proper “psychic constitution” as he calls it. In other words, it isn’t a static trait—something which you either have or you don’t—but a skill set to be developed.
Another anthropologist, Anthony Forge gives his perspective on the diary. The diaries, he writes, “are a partial record of the struggle that affects every anthropologist in the field: a struggle ot retain a sense of her own identity as an individual and as a member of a culture." Being an anthropologists requires you to sacrifice your allegiance to your own cultural identity in order to immerse fully in another. This is in practice not quite possible. We cannot just shed our cultural identity as if it were a coat. “Fieldworker’s diaries,” in Forge’s words, “are the product of a sort of suspended state between two cultures, belonging to one and active in the other; they cannot give a rounded picture of either the culture or the anthropologist, being a repository of odd bits of the personality that have nowhere else to go."
I don’t think we need to exculpate Malinowski, because the fact of the matter is that he may have been an unsavory character and perhaps may have acted on some of the inclinations to which he alludes in his diary. He also may not have, and merely confined his intrapersonal struggles to his journal. Like Geertz, I don’t think it’s necessary to take a stance on the moral condemnation of Malinowski. His diary does, however, raise important epistemological questions, as Geertz notes. Geertz’s experience-near and experience-distant is a somewhat satisfying answer to the epistemological question—or at the very least a starting point to begin making sense of it. But the diary also raises another important point, that I think it’s easy to miss: Understanding people from other factions is difficult.
Trying to understand the Kiriwinians was taxing on Malinowski, emotionally and intellectually. It’s not the case that we have to categorize Malinowski’s feelings towards the natives as always hateful or always compassionate. It’s a bit of both, like having a child. There are times when you look them with all the love that a mother can muster. Then there are times when you wish you could toss them out the window. This is important because we often use negative emotions as an excuse not to engage with the perspectives of those who are dramatically different than our own. But it might not be that anger is antithetical to understanding. It might in some instances even be necessary.
Really, what helps us make sense of Malinowski’s diary is acknowledging the context in which he wrote it. This is essentially what Forge argues. If you think about the context of what he was experiencing with his fieldwork, his behavior comes to make more sense. This is the theme that I want to explore in the second half of the book: the impact of context on behavior. Understanding a person’s individual perspective is important. But separating the individual from their context and considering their disembodied “perspective” doesn’t give you a broad enough understanding of the reasons for their behavior. Understanding someone in a different faction, as we’ll see in the rest of the book, is often more about understanding their larger context than it is about understanding their individual mental experience.