The blurriness of empathy

Could the truism be wrong: the psychopath lacks empathy?

In order that we can understand the ‘callous/lack of empathy’ criterion of the Psychopath Checklist (PCL–R), I ask What, is this thing called ‘empathy’?

Readers of this blog – those who have commented thus far, that is – range in expertise from therapeutic, to philosophical, to those whose experience has been forged through life with a psychopath. Responses have been striking in that they have highlighted each of the main ways the term is understood.

Extra-; Intra-; Inter
The first thing to say is that when one accepts the existence of the phenomenon empathy one is choosing sides in a deep philosophical divide. One has chosen the third of three stances (over-simplified here to make the point):

    1. Radical objectivism. The world exists outside ourselves but using the correct methods one can access that world. The task is to keep oneself, one’s values, etc. out. Just the facts, ma’am. All else is nonsense. The positivist tradition is the highest form of this approach: unless one can objectively measure something there is no way of truly knowing anything about it.

    2. Radical subjectivism. There is no way to keep one’s values, etc. out of even the most scientific study. The postmodern theories exemplify this approach. On what basis does one choose what is worth studying?; perception is in the eye of the beholder; it depends… When one purports to look at another one looks into a mirror.

    3. Subject/object. There is a real world ‘out there’ which interpenetrates with our selves. While we’ll never know with the kind of certainty sought by the positivist, we do have greater access to the essence of the other than a postmodernist would say. We are able to know something of the world via the area of overlap between us and the other.

Let’s come down from these abstract heights.

What might each position might mean with regards interpersonal relations?

    1. Do I see you as angry? It is because I and see the clenched fists and quickened breathing; I can hear the proportion of particular ‘angry’ words, etc.

    2. Do I assume that you’re angry? It is because I project my anger or fear of anger onto you. I have no way of knowing anything about you (after all, clenched fists, etc. can mean other things). The anger I attribute to you says something about me.

    3. Do I experience you as angry? It is because – whether or not you show it – in your company I feel fear, or anger which is an affective resonance with what I take to be your feeling.

There is, according to this view, an overlap, an intersection between two people where things get blurred. The question ‘Is it you or is it me?’ cannot easily be answered.

The earliest instance of this is between mother and infant . Baby cries and at first mother knows no more than that something is wrong.

    1. Were she to read the objective signs (the compliant mother) they would only takes her so far. It is likely the baby will feel unmet and ignored.

    2. Were she to rely on her own subjectivity (the narcissitic or autistic spectrum mother, say) she would be led astray. Perhaps she’d project that upset onto the baby and wrongly assume that crying = upset. Perhaps she’d be overwhelemed by all the possible meanings of crying and try to address all or none (the anxious mother). It is likely the baby will feel unmet and impinged upon.

    3. The good-enough mother, to use Winnicott’s wonderful phrase, is preoccupied with her baby and through imaginative identification, trial and error, etc. she gradually learns how to responds to the baby. And baby feels met.

This ‘knowing’ does not have to be perfectly accurate or perfectly constant – it must be good enough for the developing child’s needs. Knowing, here, is as much intuitive as it is cognitive: conscious, unconscious, physical, and emotional; mirror neurons, effort, love.

The beginnings of empathy
If empathy is the ability to get into the booties of another, then it is subject/object blurring which makes empathy possible (not inevitable). It implies that we can know something of what it’s like to be the other.

Let’s leave it here for now: Empathy is an intuitive and cognitive knowing something of what is going on for another.

Over a series of posts I intend to carve out a theory of empathy.

Readers comments on each leg of the trip will aid my steering of this cumbersome vehicle. What are your thoughts?

Next time: Is empathy necessarily accurate?

Photo: Abstract blurred lights, originally uploaded by Gaetan Lee

18 thoughts on “The blurriness of empathy

  1. I was watching a documentary, and they had this scene which illustrated that children under 4 are unable to put themselves in another’s position, and think from that perspective.

    The documentary had an adult sitting at a table with a small child, maybe 3 yrs old.
    On the table was a box with a lid, and a basket with some kind of cover, as well as some kind of a marble or something.
    The adult had a doll, (I think named Sally) in his hand, and he said that the marble belongs to Sally the doll.
    Then he took Sally away out of sight, and said while Sally’s away, to hide the marble on her. So the child agrees to hide the marble inside the box with the lid.
    When the adult brings Sally the doll back, he says, “Where is Sally going to look for her marble?”
    The child immediately points to the box with the lid.
    The adult asks why.
    The child replies, “Because that’s where it is.”

    In the next scene, it’s the same set-up, but with a child a bit older, perhaps 4 or 5.
    The scene plays out exactly the same with the marble hidden in the box, only this time, when Sally the doll is brought back, the adult says, “Where’s Sally going to look for her marble?”
    The child has Sally looking in the basket first. Even though the child knows the marble’s in the box.
    The adult asks why.
    The child explains that Sally wasn’t there & doesn’t know where the marble is, so she looks in the basket first.

    The scientist said that this development in children has been studied for several years, I expect in a variety of ways. And though it varies slightly by child, the ability to see from another perspective seems to develop somewhere between the ages of 3 & 4 years old.

    To me this sounds like a form of empathy.

    I’ve also read, a few times, that it’s normal for a 4 year old to have some narcissistic traits, but most children grow out of it.
    And of course… You wouldn’t a 6 month old baby “self-centered” in a negative way. Of course they’re self-centered. It’s normal.
    But if a 27 year old is acting like an infant… that’s another story.

    The thing is, I’m pretty sure a full grown sociopath would be able to reason that Sally the doll wouldn’t have been able to know where the marble was hidden.
    Or maybe not! How would I know, I suppose.

    But yeah, I think when it’s said that sociopaths lack empathy, it’s in an emotional sense. They don’t have those higher emotions, so naturally they’d be unable to imagine themselves in the position of someone who does have them.
    But I think they probably do have an empathy based on their own perspective… but the clever ones probably mostly abandon that at some point, once they figure out they’re so different that their empathy is pretty severely flawed, and it won’t help them much.

    Not that ‘the rest of us’ are too accurate with ours when dealing with one of them.

    But most of the time it makes sense, and even, I think, explains, historically, the human propensity for community organization, social cohesion, & cooperative efforts, dating back to the ancient times of human history.

  2. Oh yeah, and about those aspects of determining another person’s feelings… I think for the developed adult, it’s a combination of all 3, in terms of functionally relating to another person.

    But when we’re talking about sociopaths, we’re not just talking about functionally relating. We’re talking about the sociopaths having the inability to actually feel for another person. Not just put themselves in our shoes and reason out what we’re thinking & feeling.
    I think when we talk about that, we’re saying they lack sympathy.
    That not only don’t they understand how we feel, but they don’t really care how we feel.
    Both issues are likely caused by their own inability to feel those emotions. Seems a logical conclusion.
    But they’re 2, related, but separate, things I think.

  3. ian – A lot of people would agree with you.

    The one thing that doesn’t quiet fit for me with this explanation is how the psychopath can con people so well. High-functioning psychopath’s make excellent salespeople.

    Now, in order to do these things do they not need to be able to have a very good understanding for what’s going on for us? To now what tack to take, when to back off, when to press hard, etc. And knowing what’s going on for a another is being in the other’s shoes – which is the definition of empathy, isn’t it?

  4. chloe – your distinction between knowing what the others knows and knowing what the other feels is interesting.

    I’ve often read that psychopaths don’t have “higher emotions” and been unsure what these refer to. What’s your understanding of higher and lower emotions?

  5. chloe – Re you second comment. Psychopaths are good con men. This presumably means being able to read people pretty well. If this is the case it can’t only mean, can it, that they understand what the other is thinking, but also what they’re feeling. (Whoops, let me back off for now she seems worried. Right, time to press my advantage home, she’s feeling hopeless.)

    If that’s right then they are able to put themselves in anothers’ shoes – i.e. to feel empathy.

    Your comment about sympathy might be the key. Perhaps they can know pretty well what the other feels but not care – not have sympathy. (Swivelchair uses the word ‘comapssion’.)

    Might it fit, do you think, to say that the psychopath feels empathy but not sympathy.

  6. I have some experience dealing with sales people. I know the scene from both sides of the salesperson. I’ve never been in sales, but I’ve seen them in action from behind them, and I’ve experienced them as the target market.

    And I have to emphatically say NO, they don’t make “excellent salespeople”, they make the ANNOYING salespeople that succeed on NUMBERS alone, that everyone hates so much.

    Which IMHO is the same as “brute force”. You shove yourself at enough people, a certain percentage will say yes.
    To me that doesn’t take much human social aptitude.

    And I’ve known LOADS of annoying salespeople that operate that way.
    Everyone hates them.

    Glengarry Glen Ross comes to mind. Pushing the numbers.

    An adept salesperson is the salesperson you actually like, so you buy off them again & again, because they’re pleasant, don’t drive you nuts. (Known plenty of them too.)

    Not the one you say yes to just because they happen to hit you right at the time you need what they’re selling, just out of sheer persistence.

  7. In Robert Hare’s book, “higher emotions” refer to things like affection, shame, sadness, anxiety, and that sort of thing.
    Everything i’ve read seems to suggest that they may be able to feel fear of some type, but don’t find it at all unpleasant. It’s just an instinctual thing for them that doesn’t effect them emotionally.
    And that they can feel frustration (which can look like anger to outsiders).
    But not like the more complex emotions.

    I’m not coming up with this, of course, this is the stuff I’ve read from several sources, including the Hare book.

  8. To be a con man, you don’t have to experience the emotions. All you have to do is study the behaviour, signs, and signals of people who do have those emotions. And without any of those higher emotions and deep connections with family & friends – what else do they have to focus on to keep themselves busy (that’s why they’re always bored and seeking simulation, according to Hare).
    What better thing than to be people watchers.
    Learn the signs that someone is not happy with them.

    However, unfortunately, I don’t think they do that too often anyway. Even the more functional ones, I think struggle with that.

    Everything I’ve read about sociopaths suggest that they’re not the sort of people who do know enough to back off when someone’s worried, or whatever. They just fight it. Either with lies or brute force, or flattery. Like tools in their arsenal.
    I think it’s really that simple for them.

    To win someone, they’ll just flower someone with so many compliments, flatter them profusely, and throw attention at the person, so aggressively, that it takes attention away from their social ineptitudes, and the fact that they lack empathy & sympathy, or the functioning of those in their relationships.

    They know the right words to say to attempt to cover it up.

    That’s all the need to con.
    They don’t have to functionally relate at all.

    That’s why I truly believe someone with excellent boundaries is pretty much immune from their cons.
    That said, I think many people don’t have excellent boundaries all the time. And even people with excellent boundaries can have something happen in their lives to cause a weak moment.
    But also, I think some people really have kind of poor boundaries, for whatever reason (likely not their fault – something that happened in childhood or the like)… And that makes them more susceptible.

    Mind you, I’m not pointing fingers of blame, or criticizing people with poor boundaries who have been victimized.

    I say it because I firmly believe that anyone who wants to can learn to exercise better boundaries, and thus protect themselves better. Whether they’ve got poor boundaries, so-so boundaries, okay ones, or even with boundaries that are quite good, there’s likely always room for improvement.
    I know that’s been the case for me. And I’ve talked to a lot of other people who have found this also.

  9. Blurriness? Hmm

    Actually I think there is more clarity. Being ‘too subjective’ blurs our perception of ‘the object’ and being ‘too objective’ blurs self-awareness.

    I’m really looking forward to what you have to say about empathy. I think there are few more important topics. I also think it means re-doing psychology (it is the only ‘science’ still clinging to 19th century objectivism). Philosophically I think it is about the difference between early and late Husserl – the role of intention. Put another way life comes value-laden.

    Very much looking forward to the next few weeks. Evan

  10. chloe – Re salespeople. I certainly recognise the types you describe. I don’t dismiss the likeable type from being psychopaths too, though.

    I went to a talk by Nancy McWilliams – one of the few psychoanalysts who discusses psychopathy – where she actually named a very famous tycoon as a high functioning psychopath. This guy knows how to persuade, he’s not just a bully (though that’s his bottom-line position).

    For her a high functioning psychopath can be a valuable member of society. Perhaps the super-competitive are that way inclined.

  11. evan – Nicely put. I was having a bit of fun with the word ‘blurry’. It seems to fit in several ways, though the main blurriness I want to indicate is the blurred overlap between subjectivities.

    Re-doing psychology, hey? Maybe next year.

  12. chloe – “To be a con man, you don’t have to experience the emotions. All you have to do is study the behaviour, signs, and signals of people who do have those emotions.”

    You may well be right. Or it may be that this study does involve internally trying things on for size (i.e. not just objectively noting).

  13. Evan: Quite right about psychology and 19th century objectivism. I’m going to pause there. I’ve had trouble writing to this aspect of the empathy blog. I started on Dr. Steve’s three stances, saw Chloe’s post on egocentrism, and then your post and turned towards phenomenology and . . . in short, flung myself on the topic like Stephen Leacock’s young hero who flung himself on his horse and rode off in all directions.

  14. Yeah, the guy knows how to persuade… By the tools I mentioned – not because of any empathy! It doesn’t take empathy to have a set of manipulative speeches & tactics. You don’t have to understand how someone else feels to smooth talk them with tried & true methods that they teach in sales courses and men’s magazines on-line that tout instructions for seduction.
    You just need to know how to follow directions.
    I think sociopaths approach it the same way you would approach cooking something new for dinner out of a cookbook.

    I also believe that some of these so-called high-functioning sociopaths are probably not real sociopaths at all. Probably just have NPD. Which is bad enough, but they’re functional in society. People with NPD generally don’t wind up in prison & stuff like that.

    But I fully & adamantly disagree with anyone who says that style of working in society is beneficial. I don’t believe it is. I’m sure SOMEONE always pays for it in emotional pain. Their employees, their vendors — someone. I don’t think everyone around them would have all positive to say about them, if those people were honest.

    Many people suffer in silence, popping Prosac, dealing with covert workplace bullying & abuse.
    I worked at a place like that for a couple of months. I wound up with mysterious physical ailments that just as mysteriously went away after I left there. I was the ONLY one who spoke up and complained. Mainly because the perpetrators were actually harming the company, and interfering with other people’s ability to do their jobs. And I was asked to leave. The problem was systemic in the company, obviously. The business had a tax lien against it. A lot of angry customers with financial disputes. A lot of bill collectors calling. And a slough of complaints to the BBB. And all the normal, hard working, non crazy people were on psych meds for depression & anxiety. That’s no coincidence.

    Not all companies are like that. Certainly not the one I work at now. People are respectful. And it’s successful. No tax liens, no angry customers, no hounding bill collectors.

    You don’t have to be an asshole to succeed.
    Indeed, I really believe that’s just a long-term hinderance.

    The owner of the crazy company DID have a nicer car than the owner of this one. But is that really the measure of success? I think it’s just a sign that somebody’s willing to spend beyond their means, which hurts everyone in societ.

    And from what I read, like I said, the sociopaths may attempt to “try it on for size”, but fail, because the part of their brain for those emotions is simply NON-functional. It’s impossible for a true sociopath to feel those emotions. Physically impossible.

  15. chloe – Again, you may be right.

    But I’d like to push a bit harder to see what emerges. I plan a post comparing notorious conners (psychopaths) and incompetent conners (autistics).

    (Geez, if having no-one saying a bad thing about one is what it takes to be a beneficial member of society, I don’t fancy my chances.)

  16. I didn’t mean a bad thing like “he has bad breath” or “he’s sloppy”. I meant a bad thing like “He has ruined my spirit and enjoyment in work” or “he sabotaged me” or “he calls me names several times a week”.
    There’s plenty of people who would probably call me unattractive, or annoying, or sloppy, or whatever. It would be difficult if not impossible to find (honest) people accusing me of manipulation, deceit, sabotage, verbal abuse, or criminal activities.

    If you manipulate people, lie, sabotage, and verbally assault your fellows, I don’t fancy your chances either. 😉

  17. there is some research that shows that when people with psychopathy are shown certain stimuli that would normally show reactions in the amygdala and “emotional” parts of the brain is instead processed in “intellectual” parts of the brain. this would explain how a psychopath can come to conclusions and figure things out without attaching any emotion to it. it’s like a puzzle.

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