I’ve been gathering knowledge on empathy for a while now, prompted by the two facts that there is someone with the borderline personality disorder in my life and also because that sharpened my realization to my own empathy, its limits and the areas where I find it lacking.
Now an interview with Simon Baron-Cohen prompts me to write some of this down. Simon argues that what we commonly call “evil” is often a state of “zero empathy” and that it is shared by psychopaths, various personality disorders and autism. He also makes the interesting point that children have a low point of empathy in their development, during their teen years. Psychopaths and kids meet at the point where they both consider behaviour acceptable that normal adults do not. For kids this is probably a necessary phase in their development, and without such a phase of experimentation and violation of social rules, these rules would tend to converge ever more until society crumbles under too-strict rules.
There is also another aspect to this, and that comes from what I know about borderline. People with this disorder have a broken concept of self. And broken or incomplete concepts of self lead to all kinds of mis-evaluations. The Smarties Experiment is one of many ways in which we can demonstrate that young children do, in fact, lack the ability to understand that there is a difference between them and others, that their subjective truth can be different from the subjective truth of others.
All of this fits so completely into one of my notes where I don’t know the title of the book anymore, but it has everything that has made ma astonished recently. I have a note that says page 203 says that the mind is capable of tracking about 150 individuals, not more – exactly the result of a study about Twitter that is currently making the news. A few pages prior to that it talks about being “blind to blindness”. If you don’t believe someone can be blind and not know it, watch this TED talk. Seriously – if you follow but one link in this post, this should be it.
But the important note is for pages 199/200. It says
maybe being self-aware is or requires being aware of other minds? (after all, there is no I without not-I – but: autists)
It appears that after many years, I can finally put that “but” to rest. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the development of the self is strongly linked to empathy – to the understanding of and seperating between other minds. As the quote in the movie Unbreakable goes:
Now that we know who you are, I know who I am.
Self is not really what we feel it to be. All the scientific evidence we have so far indicates that, as Stapp writes in Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics:
The person’s experienced “self” is part of this stream of consciousness: It is not an extra thing that is outside or apart from the stream.
The self we experience is more of a by-product than a core of our being. And yet nobody can doubt the extraordinary power it has, imaginary or not. Much of history is driven by the self of those involved.
And then we realize that the self does not exist without the other. That understanding others appears to be a key ingredient in understanding yourself. That empathy is the external sign of an internal harmony. Not because it is good or ethical, but because it indicates a well-formed self. A self that is capable of accepting that truth is subjective and that my feelings are not identical to your feelings, not even in the same circumstances.
That revalation alone can change your life.
How much relationship trouble is caused by a mis-evaluation? What if that look, or that touch or that night of lust (depending on your level of tolerance) does not mean the same to your lover as it does to you? Maybe if you had done the same with someone else, it would mean you don’t love him anymore – but that does not mean the same is true for him.
How much intolerance, racism and hatred is caused by similar mis-judgements? We know from extensive research (some examples in “Out of Character“, p. 213ff) that we all tend to create two categories in our minds: “us” and “them” and our judgment is impaired by these categories. These shortcuts serve a purpose, but a better understanding of the actual similarities and differences would eliminate the injustice that they also bring.
This and other behaviours that we consider evil can, indeed, be explained by a lack of empathy. But we would have to be more precise than just that to do it justice. We would have to talk about a lack of empathy in specific contexts, towards specific people or about specific topics. Few of us are psychopaths and lack empathy in general. But most of us have more empathy in some settings than in others, or with one set of person, or regarding some things, but not others.