Quickpost – Why empathic ‘accuracy’?

Many thanks to readers who keep me on my toes with their generous, challenging questions.

Among other things, I realise reading the comments that I have hopped over a couple of paving stones which may have made it less obvious to others how my thoughts were progressing. (On the other hand, it may be that my thoughts aren’t actually progressing at all!)

The last post raises the issues of empathic accuracy and suggests that empathy is accurate in one (psychological) sense, but not necessarily in another (factual).

But why raise the question of accuracy at all? I’ll try to briefly say through an example:

John: “I can see that you miss her a lot. You look sad.”
James: “That’s not it at all. I’ve just heard that the bank has screwed up my statements again and I’m feeling frustrated and at my wit’s end. Actually I haven’t had a chance to think about her at all.”

    A. Let’s say that somehow we know that James is feeling loss, but has fixed on the bank’s problem to distract himself from that pain. In this case we can say that John has empathised with James – even though James denies it – because he has accurately garnered something about James’ state.

    B. Even if James is not feeling loss, per se, but is at a loss because his partner is away, we might say that John has successfully picked up on something about James.

    C. Perhaps James doesn’t miss her. Rather he feels guilty. Even here it might be that John is empathising if he is picking up the complementary position of missing – his guilt for being the cause of her feelings of loss.

    D. Now let’s say that James has pretty good self-knowledge and is not denying or repressive feelings of loss. In this case we must say that John has mis-identified James’s state; despite his intentions to do so, he has not empathised with James; he has been unempathic.

The point here is that empathy is a kind of deep meeting; no meeting, no empathy. If it is wholly inaccurate then it has nothing to do with the other and is a one-person activity.

Now, why has John in D. got it so wrong? Possibly he has projected his own current state – or his state as he imagines it would be in James’ shoes – onto James.

Emapthy is an act of identification with, not projection onto. A post on these mechanisms follows.

"Photo: DAMN IT, another twin moment!", originally uploaded by Cosmic Kitty

27 thoughts on “Quickpost – Why empathic ‘accuracy’?

  1. I think you’re completely missing what empathy really is. It’s not about the other person, or what they’re thinking. It’s about YOUR feeling.
    It’s kind of like you’re saying that if you like a person, but they don’t like you, then your like is inaccurate.

    You’re trying to make empathy into some kind of social mechanics process.
    It’s not a process, it’s an emotional process within the person experiencing it. Pure & simple. There is no “factual” empathy, because empathy is not factual at all.

  2. To John he thinks he’s being empathetic, to James when John is incorrect, it’s sympathy possibly but not really empathy because without the shared understanding of the cause, empathy is not possible. John’s not really in his shoes though he is trying to be empathetic, but because there is no common understanding or meeting of the minds, empathy isn’t what’s happening.

    When we see twins we think likeness instead of similar but different. Just because it looks like empathy, doesn’t mean it is empathy. OK, got it I think. Thanks Steve.

  3. And yes, it is a one-person activity. But one, of course, that couldn’t happen without other people on the planet. It’s a social emotion.

    Which is why I think it’s one of the more evolved emotional processes humans have.

    The refined social emotions are the ones that have allowed humans social cooperation needed to motivate civilization’s most amazing marvels. Like the Great Pyramid or the Internet. (Two things that have absolutely no purpose in terms of basic survival of each person individually.)

  4. I think the sympathy & empathy & their differences are being misconstrued and tangled up here.

    Empathy is when someone else is experiencing something, and I have feelings almost as if I was experiencing the same thing as that other person. (Not that I’m surmising their emotions and then feeling the same thing as what I think they’re feeling. I mean feeling my own feelings, if I were experiencing what they are.)

    Sympathy is when someone else experiences something, and I feel for them, but I have a feeling about that person, not about the experience.


    Recently my mother told me of the death of an old friend of hers. I really was never close to this woman, but I knew her, and my mother was very good friends with this woman for 20 years during her youth. When she told me about the death of this friend, I felt grief, kind of as if I had lost a friend. I felt that grief. Even though it was my mother’s place to grieve, as if I was in my mother’s shoes and the friend that died was my friend. I shared in my mother’s grief in those moments. The level of my grief, or even if my mother wasn’t very upset (she was) but even if she wasn’t, has nothing to do with it. I experienced it, as if the experience happened to me. I was grieving right along with my mother. She didn’t even need to be grieving, or even there, by the way. Empathy was my experience, not hers. (Obviously, since she was the one in the position of grieving her own loss.)

    The other day I learned that the college age son of a woman I know, was killed in a car accident. This woman is an acquaintance, I really barely know her, I don’t interact with her much, I’ve never thought about getting to know her any better, and I didn’t know anything about her son at all, never met him.
    When I learned of this though, I felt bad for her. I don’t know exactly how she’s feeling, but again, that isn’t at issue here. The point is, I didn’t feel grief, loss, or any of the emotions one might expect with empathy, or actually experiencing what she is. What I felt was sympathy. For her. I felt bad about there being a tragic death in her family.

    Now, under the right circumstances, I would certainly be empathetic about her. If she was a big part of my life, or if I knew her son, or if I was at the scene of the accident, or if I was actually involved in the accident… any number of things could’ve sparked an empathetic response within me.
    But as it stands, sympathy is the natural reaction in this situation.

    Kind of like I might feel sympathy for an assault victim who is a stranger to me. Quite natural & appropriate. But if I think about assaulting someone (that would involve me persnoally), it sparks empathy.
    If it didn’t, I would certainly be callous.

    I think of how Jerry Seinfeld would often say, as almost a punch line,
    “That’s a shame.”
    An appropriate response in a situation of sympathy. But when Jerry said it, he usually said it in situations where he was either at fault, or personally involved with the people. In which case, he was callous to have sympathy, when he most people would’ve had some empathy at that point, in that particular situation.

    But of course that’s what made that show so funny. Inappropriate, ill-fitting, exaggerated, understated, or unexpected things are the underlying triggers of humour. Most people don’t think about that of course, they just find it funny.

    Jerry expressing sympathy when empathy would be expected, is out of place, something seems ridiculously off.

  5. The last couple of examples don’t work for me. First, the four year old who associates Pinter with a policeman is probably too egocentric to be able to feel empathy. Rather, he commits a common error of childhood: he identifies things which produce similar affective responses. A cartoon in the New Yorker (I think) celebrated the behavior: a child looking down at his plate saying, “I say it looks like spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

    In the example of this thread, James has no business looking sad if he’s frustrated and at this wits end at a bank error. Either there’s a disconnect beween his kinesis and affect state, or John is very poor at reading affective displays. I’m not sure it matters what the specific cause is, or if John makes a wrong guess, so long as John responds appropriately at the more general level and at the appropriate level of intensity. James is upset and John’s upset because his friend’s upset. If James is frantic and raving and John says “There, there, it’s all right,” one of them is crazy; the response has to be appropriate in intensity for the affective transaction to work.

    What (where?) exactly is the “deep meeting?” In accepting the constraint’s of another’s behavior in interpreting the affective displays (to avoid projection)? What if the displays are wrong? Aren’t you transforming common empathy by viewing it therapeutically?

    If I’m not mistaken, Evan has twice mentioned Husserl and suggested he sees application. Evan, will you please amplify? Empathy viewed from the perspective of Husserl’s intentionality intrigues me, but I can’t begin to fill in the blanks.

  6. I agree DuMS, the interactions would need to match in that scenario. But would the feelings have to match exactly in order to have a successful relating & connection between 2 humans? I don’t think so. The interactions are not the empathy. They can be “inaccurate”, inappropriate, or whatever… But the empathy is the intangible experience of feelings.

    And don’t even get me started about how screwed up I think it is to tell someone a feeling is wrong.

  7. Chloe, I think that the only test we have in the everyday world is interaction, and empathy is “good enough” when it satisfies the people in the interaction. And by “good enough” I mean essentially “functional.” I think I understand you, you agree, and we function in the interaction until something goes wrong, then we go back and negociate, whatever. I agree with you that empathy can be on one side, and the other person even be even unaware of any empathy at all. I don’t think Dr. Steve means that it can’t be, but rather that if the “empathic” person is so whacked out that their empathy is entirely based upon their own needs, wants, feelings (projection), it’s not empathy. One of my aunts was a very intrusive mothers who would never allow her child a feeling of its own–she knew better than the child how it felt. (Fortunately, the child had a better perspective on life with his mother than she did.)

    On the other hand, I don’t know how we ever experience another’s experience; it seems to me some projection must be involved. I think Dr. Steve may have a clinician’s suspicion of projection–but I may be shy on empathy. I rather like Jung’s explanation of his archetypal experience in its relevance for empathy: humans have such nearly identical brains and physiologies, it would be astounding if they didn’t have very similar experiences of the world. That is probably the enablement of empathy.

  8. And I think that’s the distinction Dr. Steve is making , that empathy doesn’t happen unless 2 have the same understanding. But it sounds like the answer to that lies somewhere in psychological theory so I’ll wait and read.

  9. dm-smith – I must disagree – or at least seek clarification – with this: “The four year old who associates Pinter with a policeman is probably too egocentric to be able to feel empathy.”

    Children are egocentric but they are also capable fellow feeling. Four years old is plenty old enough to be able to pick up, sense, detect things about another. How old does a child has to be to be able to detect when alcoholic parent is drunk? Even a very small baby won’t carry on playing happily if mother is just going through the motions in their game. Do these examples not mean that the child can tell things about the parent despite their efforts to hide them? Sounds like empathy to me.

    For me the New Yorker cartoon doesn’t apply to our conversation because we don’t use ’empathy’ in relation to inanimate objects.

  10. Dr. Steve, I guess we read different developmental psychologists. I wouldn’t consider the examples you give examples of empathy, but rather of reading cues or signs, which does not necessarily indicate empathy. My dog knows when I’m about to transition from inside to outside the house, but I don’t think he’s empathetic. And I suspect if a dog has a drunkard master, he will know when to keep out of the way based upon his experience. Certainly in terms of past history the infant or child responds with anticipated relevance. A small child may begin to cry when he catches sight of the doctor’s office, or sees the doctor in the lab coat. Pairing of stimulus with relevance is not dependent upon empathy, perspective taking, shared affect, or whatever we want to call empathy.

    The New Yorker cartoon is relevant to a child’s processing two different stimuli which produce similar responses as having the same identity–which, at age four, I find to be a better explanation for the Pinter-policeman confusion than empathy.

  11. dm-smith – Thanks for your queries about the John/James interchange. They certainly have got me pondering.

    “I’m not sure it matters what the specific cause is, or if John makes a wrong guess, so long as John responds appropriately at the more general level and at the appropriate level of intensity.” I can’t agree that the level of intensity is relevant – or rather, what’s the right level, one that helps the other person. OK, but it way outside what I’m interested in here. Even if John does manage to console James, even if guesses right – if Johns response comes purely from his own fantasy it’s not empathy.

    “What (where?) exactly is the ‘deep meeting?'” By ‘deep’ I don’t mean profoundly significant – though I can see why you think I mean this. I mean ‘below the surface’, ‘what’s really going on’, ‘beneath the bull’.

  12. dm-smith – If I might chip in to your reply to Chloe, I see where you’re coming from. You have a functional criterion. I don’t, not here. I’m interested in the mechanism of empathy itself, not whether or not it is well employed.

    (I’m pleased that’s a bit clearer for me.)

    I’m pleased you brought up projection – I’m going to tackle that in the next post. I’ll be interested to see whether I’m on the same track with it as you are.

  13. dm-smith – Our different ideas about empathy and the young really interests me. I find myself thinking, “But it’s obvious! There are 100 examples I could give!” And yet I can’t come up with one that I’m confident would be persuasive. Which does make me a bit suspicious of myself.

  14. “Even if John does manage to console James, even if guesses right – if Johns response comes purely from his own fantasy it’s not empathy.”

    There’s our point of departure. You approach this from the standpoint of a psychological construct, “the mechanism of empathy.” And you’re right. Mine is a social/functionalist perspective of communication phenomena, involving, minimally, a dyad. If John consoles James, and James and John feel empathetic, who can say they aren’t?

    When I let go of the social/functionlist perspective to think of the mechanism of empathy, I’m back to my participation model as the physiological mechanism–what Swivelchair earlier called “physical empathy”–which I like because that’s what it is. My next step is the overlay of social transactions onto the physical empathy. I simply leap over the psychological mechanism. I should probably just shut up and wait on your development of projection and identification.

    Here’s our point of departure: How do you know what the people in the transaction don’t know?

  15. dm-smith.

    But we do. Outside observers/commentators can and do observe process better on occasion than those involved.

    Perhaps they are different forms of knowledge?

  16. Dr. Steve,
    That last sentence with the “How do you know . . .” was originally my first sentence, and was supposed to be edited out when I decided it was poorly timed and I should save it until your paradigm is complete. I’m still confused by your modeling. When you say “That’s right. Unless there is some overlap of the two subjectivites I can’t see how that can be called empathy,” you’re invoking a social state to define a psychological mechanism.

  17. DMS: What you’re describing with that controlling aunt – the aunt in that scenario wasn’t experiencing empathy. Probably not at all. I don’t think that even came into it. She was just being controlling. She wasn’t imagining herself in her child’s situation, and experiencing emotions from that perspective. It sounds as if she saw her child as a person who should think & feel how she wanted that child to. That’s called control-freakism in my book. I highly recommend the book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Patricia Evans which really does a good job at describing, in non-pseudo-intellectual, everyday terms, the perspective involved when someone behaves that way. Not much to do with empathy as far as I can see. People operating from that perspective aren’t really concerning themselves in that way. It’s not like they try and then fail. In fact, that’s why most people fall for that bullshit, because they think that the person is just inept. When really, they’re not, they’re behaving like that because they’re not. It’s not “for your own good”, it’s for their own good. It’s for the aunt’s own good. I think in the moments that she did feel empathy, if she ever did, she probably stopped herself from behaving like that for the moment, or at least felt guilty & awkward about it.

    As for this:
    “And I think that’s the distinction Dr. Steve is making , that empathy doesn’t happen unless 2 have the same understanding.”

    And that, I most vehemently disagree with. By any historical meaning of empathy, that’s completely ridiculous.

    First, you can empathize with a perfect stranger or a fictional character in a movie or book. Second, the chances of 2 people having the same understanding of, and the same exact emotions about something are slim at best anyway.

    It’s like saying that in order to be in love, both people have to have the same feelings and understanding of the relationship. Well, what we know about the differences between men & women, makes that so impossible it’s not even funny. And what about the people who are in love unrequited? Do we say their emotions are “wrong”, “inaccurate”, that there’s some defect with them? That they’ve attempted an emotion and failed? Of course not.

    Empathy is an emotional process/state. Not a strategy to employ to connect with or manipulate other people. Not a target to hit.
    If you have the capacity to feel a full range of emotions, empathy just happens. There’s no trying involved.

    And identification, projection, meeting, understanding, learning… those terms describe other things. Things that might happen with empathy, but they are not intregal parts of empathy, and furthermore they can stand on their own.
    And empathy stands on its own as an emotional experience.

    I’m a little surprised that anyone even wonders about this. I mean it’s like saying that anger isn’t real unless it’s justifiable anger. Which is ridiculous. Who justifies the anger? Who can tell you you’re not really angry when you feel it quite acutely?

    And if you’re incapable of those emotions, and attempt empathy, it will be skewed into something else, because there’s no such thing as attempting an emotion you’re incapable of.
    This is what it means in Dr. Hare’s book about sociopaths, that they “know the words but not the music”.
    They can try to fit those emotions into some intellectual understanding of them… But it’s like someone blind from birth trying to understand & describe colour. It won’t happen.

    Oh, they can try identification. And maybe even identify with someone. That doesn’t really require much of any emotion at all. And yeah, how they identify with another person would probably seem bizarre to the rest of us.
    And yeah, they can sure try to predict someone else’s reactions, maybe even to great success. But that’s not empathy either. And someone without emotions could surely do projection as well. YOu don’t need any specific emotions to assume someone else is like you think they are. All that takes is some imagination & a motive. Not empathy.

  18. dm-smith – This is something I’ve been interested in for years now – whether/how one person can affect another (i.e. social change) via each person’s own psychology. Hard to put clearly. Your guidance would undoubtedly be useful.

    You’re concerned that I’m invoking “a social state to define a psychological mechanism”. I can’t quite get this.

  19. Starting with the last first. Your psychological mechanism is what is in the individual person enabling empathy. This presumably could operate independently of social context. One could empathize with a pet. Anthropomorphism is a mistaken empathy. One might, as I think you said, empathize with a character in a novel. However, you switch to a social state of empathy when you insist upon an overlap of subjectivity (intersubjectivity) and you introduce a functional criterion when you argue it must be accurate–which is why I initially thought you were modeling transactional–social–empathy.

    As for producing hand-to-hand change, I assume you have a clinical knowledge and know far more about that that I do, and in any case I think you are already in the best game in town.

    So far as I know, the research literature from persuasion and attitude change through group and mass processes–such as cults, propaganda and “brain-washing” all indicate that change happens in consequence of intersubjectivity–obviously through the gateway of empathy. We assimilate beliefs and values through empathic participation in a given social dynamic and and they are complete long before we know we even have them. I understand that in clinical literature there was a theorist who recommended the therapist participate with in the patient’s disorder so that the patient could objectively observe his disorder in another. I have in mind Robert Lindner’s “Jet Propelled Couch” in _The Fifty Minute Hour_. As Lindner so delightfully testifies, it works–his patient changed him.

  20. Chloe: Sorry, I must have been unclear. I didn’t mean to convey the aunt was empathetic; quite the contrary, she was meant to be an example of the kind of projection Dr. Steve dismisses as empathy although my aunt may have felt very empathetic.

  21. dm-smith – So the question is, if empathy is two invisible tentacles touching each other (as I suggest in the next post) can a pet, a fictional character send out tentacles? A nice question.

    A definition of empathy from Websters is useful: it speaks of empathy as a “vicarious experiencing” of another “without having the feeling, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

    Given that I insist that empathy is not a one-person activity, can it exist between a person and, say, Hamlet? I say yes, but no doubt this needs some justification.

  22. “Personal psychology affecting another”.

    This is the guts of it: what is personal? Persons are social-individuals. I respond to others and they respond to me. This IS psychology – and especially psychotherapy.

  23. DMSmith: Do you really think the aunt could have been feeling empathy to behave as she did? The reason I say this is because empathy would work socially with a “do unto others as you would want done unto you” kind of thing. And most control freaks I know hate the taste of their own medicine. They can so easily say, “It’s for your own good.” when they’re being overbearing, bullying, or manipulative. But god forbid you do the same thing to them “for their own good”. Well, that’s my experience at least. Logically, that would negate the possibility of empathy being the motivation for their actions.
    So yeah, you’re right, it’s more like projection. She’s not putting herself in the position of the child and imagining what she how she would feel if she were being treated that way. Or she would think it wrong and cut it out. She’s looking at the child saying “he/she should want X”, and then bullying the child into X. Yes, I suppose that’s projection. Which it’s almost necessary to not have empathy (at least at that moment), to carry that out.

    As for the tendrils or tentacles reaching out… Again, DrSteve, I think you’re trying to describe an emotional experience with actions, interactions, social mechanisms, concrete metaphors, etc. It just doesn’t work. It’s just something you experience emotionally.

    Considering that emotions are within each person, individually, and social interactions are the only way to communicate emotions and meet the way you’re talking about, what you’re suggesting with these tentacles is that mental telepathy is involved in empathy.
    And, as far as I know, there is no generally accepted scientific evidence in support that our brains, as they are, are even capable of such telepathy. Regardless, empathy doesn’t require it, because we use social interactions to have the kind of “meetings” you’re talking about. Those social interactions are labeled with different terms and do not refer to empathy.

    Though, funny story, the other day at the grocery store check out line, I could’ve sworn the guy behind me read my mind when I thought, “Whoa, that guy has bad breath”, because 2 seconds later he reached over the conveyor & grabbed SIX packages of those breath films. haha.
    I think the most rational explanation, though, is that he has some clue he has a breath issue, and when I smelt it, he must’ve seen & recognized some momentary facial expression which communicated my private thought without my knowledge or consent, and there just happened to be breath films in the check-out line. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the whole thing was unconscious on his part. OR, maybe it was just a big coincidence, and he was oblivious to me. Though he was very friendly and nice, even though I was holding up the line, which says to me that he’s probably the kind of person who is more accomodating to others than the average person. Most people in his position at that point would’ve been rolling their eyes, huffing, or just looking irate. Yet he was pleasant. So I’m leaning on a conscious, or unconscious, recognition that I smelled his breath.

    Now, in this story, one could say that his experiencing empathetic feelings about me (or anyone else) smelling his breath led to his purchase of the breath films. That he was able to put himself in the shoes, erm, I mean nose, of someone smelling his breath, realize that he himself would find it an unpleasant experience, and therefore decided to do something about it. His buying the breath films was not empathy. The feelings that motivated would be called empathetic feelings. And it didn’t even involve a resulting social interaction betwen him & I, because buying the breath films didn’t benefit me in any way – it’s not like he opened them up right there & started eating them immediately (he hadn’t checked them out yet). That doesn’t mean he didn’t have an empathetic experience about me.

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