Is one necessarily conscious of one’s empathy?


The story thus far. There is a blurring of subjectivities. Empathy refers to a meeting of something of me and something of you. I have argued that empathy is neccesarily accurate in the sense of an actual meeting having taken place (and not been imagined, say). However, one’s interpretation of the content of what one has met may not be factually accurate.

Now the question emerges, is one necessarily conscious of empathy?

I’ll start with an example where consciousness is apparent. Joe and I are talking about nothing in particular when I begin to feel enormously sad. I can’t think of anything in my life that may be causing this, nor is there anything sad in what we’re talking about. I say, “Are you OK?” He sighs and says, “I miss Jane”.

Let’s take this as an unambiguous case of empathy. I am conscious of what’s going on.

(Incidentally, the empathy is the meeting of my feeling with his, not my comment – that’s empathic behaviour, something I wish to keep distinct because in reality there is no necessary connection between them.)

Now, could it be the case that empathy could be at work but there be no consciousness of this at all? Let’s go back to the example.

Say Joe and I talking about nothing in particular when I begin to feel enormously sad. But this time I have an urge to have a beer, or to do some exercise, or tell a joke.

Or perhaps I have no urge but for a while after our talk I feel a little down. If I think about it at all I wonder whether I need something to eat. Perhaps I don’t notice it at all.

In this case, I sit with Joe and my body responds to something in him (perhaps he’s as unaware of his feeling as I am of mine). No cognition, no rationality, no awareness. Nothing registers, nothing is done – the moment passes.

Is this empathy?

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Photo: You know, originally uploaded by Ingorrr

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28 Responses

  1. Conscious and consciousness are tricky.

    Empathy was probably pre-reflective but certainly involves consciousness in the sense of being awake and in touch. The consciousness, in the sense of reflective awareness, of it comes later (though perhaps only a fraction of a second).

    If you think and feel nothing then I don’t think there can be empathy. Feeling different desires is certainly possible and empathy could surely be one of those things.

  2. evan – Coincidentally, straight after publishing this post i came across something which seems very promising in a post by Eric Schwitzgebel at ‘Splintered mind’. He quotes a colleague who insists that my of our thinking is ‘unsymbolised thinking’ – neither inner talk, nor images. If consciousness is like this then my leaning is to say, yes, the last example is empathy. The only difference between the two versions is a kind of after-symbolization. What are the difficulties in regarding that as distinct from empathy, do you think?
    See:
    schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2008/01/inner-speech-imageless-thought-and.html

  3. Surely empathy is not a conscious act of will: I don’t remember ever thinking “I will be empathetic.” I think it is involuntary and mindless–see my post on intentionality. I think empathy is available to conscious scrutiny and modification to bring it into better accord with the feedback one gets from the other, but does not depend upon consciousness for its existence.

    I rank Vygotsky’s and other notions of “inner speech” as thought along with the behaviorist who proclaimed that the mind is what the body is doing, or the one who declared thought was sub-vocal laryngeal movements. Materialist bullshit.

  4. dm-smith – I want to say something about the involuntariness of empathy in the post after next.

  5. I’m with DMS. Empathy, again, being an emotional experience, is involuntary, and at least mostly unconsciously happening.

    You can consciously attempt to see something from someone else’s perspective. But that’s a separate act of thinking.
    Empathy is the feelings you experience as a result of relating, identifying, or putting yourself in their shoes. You experience the emotions just as you experience the emotions when you’re in ‘the driver’s seat’ of the situation, when it’s happening to you, personally.

    For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, and you get ticked, you haven’t consciously decided to be annoyed or angry. You just feel it.
    With empathy, you hear about me getting cut off in traffic. You don’t consciously decide to be angry, you just get ticked because you’re experiencing an empathetic emotional response.

    I’ve had many situations where I’ve gotten angry as empathetic emotional response. In fact, that is pretty much the catalyst for my interest in sociopaths. Knowing people over the years who’ve been hard done by them. Some might say it’s not my problem, or why am I so riled about something that happened to someone else. Empathy. Involuntary empathy. Not to say I would choose not to feel for friends & family, I wouldn’t choose to be heartless instead. But I certainly didn’t make a conscious choice to be so moved emotionally to read book upon book.
    As for consciously knowing about it… In this case, until this very time, I never realized that it was empathy that led to my interest in sociopaths. I mean, I realized that my interest was because I’ve seen other people be victimized. But I never before consciously thought about it as an empathic experience, never labeled it that until now. But that’s exactly what’s happened.

    Now I’m conscious of it. Yet it changes nothing. I still can’t control it (the empathetic emotional response).

    Other than avoiding people who cavort with sociopaths.

    Which these days I do avoid people who insist on continuing destructive business & social relationships with sociopaths. For exactly that reason. Because it effects my life. And the biggest way it effects me, is the empathetic response I can’t control.
    Though, again, until now I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    It’s the same reason I myself avoid the actual problem people (like sociopaths). Because if someone punches me in the face, I’m going to feel physical pain, and anger – it’s involuntary, like the emotional pain if someone lies to or cheats me, verbally assaults me or steals from me.

    This is proof positive to me that empathy is neither choice, nor actively conscious.

  6. Good question! Is it instinct?

    I vote empathy — feeling what the other is feeling– is about 85% instinct. (And we know 74.5% of all statistics are made up on the spot 😉

    I do think there is neural hardwiring in this one. When people have eye-gaze — they are connecting at some emotional level. There may be scent or some other chemical detection involved (oxytocin comes to mind). Or, the input may be abstract — a romance novel.

    People who lack the organic ability to feel empathy seem to not use eye gaze to have that “human” connection. They look at people objectively, like an object.

    Autistic folks perhaps do not have the eye gaze. (Which is interesting – do they have the sensors in their brain for “bonding”, like oxytocin and vasopressin? Can you have affiliative behavior without empathy? )

    Or, when I’m distrustful of someone — like, my new internet date with tan line on the wedding ring finger — I have no empathy (or at least, I don’t think I do). (That was a hypothetical).

    Perhaps “empathy” is the default condition, which can only be overridden when there is “threat”.

    But the point is, in human contact, I think empathy is pretty much an organic response — instinctual — that we may not be aware of.

  7. swivelchair – I’m heading more and more in this direction – empathy as something that happens.

    Are trust and empathy related? Or rather are lack of trust and lack of empathy related. Such an interesting issue. How about this: could it be that empathy is (an aspect of) a sixth sense – a biologically-based intuition – on the findings of which we trust or don’t trust. So, while no-trust and no-empathy go together, empathy predates trust. After all, I can pick up a vibe from someone which frightens me into not trusting him. The ‘picking up’ is empathy, though my experience isn’t identical to his: he feels dominant and I feel a matching (complementary) fear.

  8. DrS,

    Yes, that’s it, I think.
    Empathy is a sixth sense — a great way to phrase it.

    People with negative attributional bias — the ones who don’t trust — have a tough time with empathy, imo. Maybe it’s the other way around — they are incapable (biologically) of empathy, so they have a negative attributional bias.

  9. Empathy is not supernatural. It’s just like a 1st person emotional experience/reaction, except it’s about something that’s happening to someone else. It doesn’t involve, certainly doesn’t require, any 6th sense or intuition. All it takes is to imagine yourself in the same or similar situation and experience the feelings YOU would feel if it were YOU in that situation. Doesn’t have anything to do with what you think the other person feels in that situation, or observe the other person feeling in that situation. You may note that they seem to feel something different than you would, but that’s thought. Empathy is your feelings. If you note someone else’s feelings in a particular situation, and feel for them, that’s sympathy. Empathy is when you experience feelings of your own, when it’s someone else in the situation.

  10. Chloe,

    Perhaps it is semantics —

    By “sixth sense” I meant that we have 5 senses — ways we detect sensory input, that have direct neural correlates. When we detect oxytocin or other neurotransmitters that perhaps we are not *consciously* aware of, in the traditional way we *sense* things, maybe we can call this a 6th sense. No magical thinking here. Just organic detection of our internal responses to someone else.

    And I like the way you describe empathy — empathy is a term describing your own “feelings” — whether or not those are sympathetic with the other person.

  11. In the second example it seems to me it’s intuition rather than empathy. Maybe you’ve shared sadness, but maybe one has felt sadness and the other picks up worry or anger instead. Maybe one even picks up happiness while another picks up dread. But without exchange you can’t be sure, so what is the difference between factually inaccurate empathy and mere intuition when nothing is stated and the facts are not accurate?

    And I don’t see that empathy is necessarily related to trust. Empathy may be a sixth sense, but that sixth sense comes from the personal computer in our head and that “connection” is based upon information that is both inherited and learned (how can you separate the two). To make the generality that if you don’t trust you don’t empathize as well, just doesn’t hold up for me.

    As an example, three people attend a wedding together and the three are introduced for the first time to the groom. Generally, one of the people moves from mistrust to trust, another is more neutral without verification, and the third trusts everyone. All three can come to an exchange of something with the groom through the conversation. Say the facts are we all know this is his second marriage and he has 2 children and he’s marrying someone never before married and she has no children. The conversation did not involve a discussion of his children, but more about his concept of moving forward into he and his wife’s new life.

    He gets up and walks away from the table. The issue of the children was “felt” by all but not discussed. The one who generally trusts everyone says, what a wonderful man but I don’t see how this is ever going to work with all of his work-necessitated absenses leaving his new wife to cope alone. This person was never divorced and raised the children with both biological parents in the home. The one who generally trusts no one said, the groom earns a high salary, he maintains his lifestyle and his wife is worst case a very highly paid babysitter. Why wouldn’t it work? This person was divorced and had a small child, custody was with the ex-spouse. The third person generally neutral sided more with the first person because of the high divorce rate, the new wife’s inexperience with children, and because of the difficulty in blending families once they have children of their own. This person was divorced twice and had tried to blend families.

    Sorry about all the details but that’s as factually accurate as I can come. They all felt empathy, not necessarily factually accurate nor was it discussed with the groom. So was it empathy, intuition, or both? And are you certain the one who can’t trust didn’t show the most factually accurate empathy?

  12. Swivel, I didn’t even read your post until now. I was referring to the way DrSteve was talking about a 6th sense in relation to predicting whether you can trust someone based on empathy. Which I don’t think the 2 have anything to do with each other as a general rule.
    As far as I see, empathy is a quite unrelated experience.
    Though perhaps tied for some people, I don’t know. But I don’t see a causal effect there, or any scientific basis for any.
    And, after all, I have had empathy regarding someone who I don’t trust at all, or don’t even know at all. And there are people I believe I trust quite a bit, but with whom I don’t find myself empathizing too often, for whatever reason.

    And I wouldn’t say what DrSteve said sounds like “magical thinking” in the psychiatric sense. Or half the world’s population that belongs to a religion, or is the least bit superstitious, is psychiatric & belongs in the booby hatch. ha ha.
    But I definitely think he’s drawing lines between different senses & emotional experiences without any scientific kind of lines drawn between, or any real observational examples of these connections. That disconnect almost requires something of the supernatural.

    Though, I have to admit, DrSteve, I got a bit of a suspicion at one point that you’re going in that direction so you can eventually have a way to tear down empathy & its significance. ha ha. I say this because you’ve been such a staunch advocate for Rational Thought in other threads, and I swear I’ve observed a hint of skepticism regarding emotions.
    And then on this empathy kick, you’ve gone in the polar opposite direction, to the point of attributing a spirituality of sorts to rather simple scientifically testable emotional responses.
    I’ve watched the dichotomy unfold with great interest.
    I’d offer a penny for your true thoughts, but I’ve never gotten my money’s worth from a devil’s advocate. 😉 hee hee.

  13. […] have been discussing empathy over at “The Top Two Inches” — and I wonder if empathy can be projected onto 3-D images of yourself (or who you […]

  14. benzthere – I’m not sure that I want to distinguish between empathy and intuition. In both cases, though, I’m sure that accuracy of apperception is present by definition. It doesn’t make sense to me to say that one intuits X if that turns out to be completely off the mark. Isn’t that precisely when one tells oneself, “Mm, I shouldn’t pay so much heed to my so-called ‘intuition’.”? I.e. one realises that particular guess wasn’t intuitive – it was a wish or something.

    “he generality that if you don’t trust you don’t empathize as well, just doesn’t hold up for me.” Apparently there is a neurological similarity with these two in that people who are bad at the one are also bad at the other. To me that makes sense – how can I ever trust someone if I never feel that I know what’s going on for them – if he or she’s like closed book to me?

    In the wedding case I’d say there was far more projection than empathy at work. “The issue of the children was ‘felt’ by all but not discussed.” It’s possible, isn’t it, that you’re absolutely right that each party had the issue of children on their minds but because of their own situations, not because they were picking up anything from the groom. Just because two people have a similar feeling/thought doesn’t mean that they owe any of that to the other.

    You have clarified something for me re trust. It’s not that one has to be trusting to feel empathy or vice versa, it’s rather that those who are incapable of trust also can’t empathise.

  15. Benz (first)

    B- Well, best wishes to the new couple. ;D

    I catch myself being egocentric all the time — assuming other people think the same way I do. To me, that is natural, my “default” position. I need to go to the part of my brain that does trigonometry to consider, “Hey, maybe these people don’t think like me” So to me, that is a cognitive thing — a “thought” — not really an emotion.

    Anyway, which comes first, the emotion or the “thought”?

    I think probably the emotion. Basic emotion from deep in side the brain, maybe for a nanosecond, is a first response.

    Then a “thought” from the frontal cortex about “theory of mind” — accurate or inaccurate — about what the other person is thinking.

    This “thought” then bounces back to modify the emotion. I think this integration of “emotion –> thought —> modified emotion” = empathy.

    If you’re missing the connections from the front (the thought process centers) to the back (the raw emotion centers), you’re sort of left with the first “instinctive” emotion. No later complex “thought” to tone it down. “Primary colors” type of thing.

    And is trust something totally unrelated?

    Perhaps “trust” is a proxy for “fear or no fear.” When you’re afraid, it’s tough to feel empathy.

    So you can distrust someone and understand how they feel. But perhaps that understanding will be more of a “thought” — a cognitive understanding — rather than a sympathetic (or compassionate) emotion.

    Is this just a problem with defining our terms? I wonder.

  16. Chloe – thanks for the clarification —

    Then DrS posted re: trust and empathy from another point of view (to paraphrase): If someone is a closed emotional book, how can I trust them?

    I suppose that the unclarity resides in where the line is between “feeling” — the emotional — and “thought” — the cognitive understanding.

    Did you ever notice how narcissists (and I’m using that term without fully knowing what it means, I realize, and I am uncomfortable throwing around psychiatric terms, so big grain of salt here) — anyway, narcissists rely on “feelings”?

    I mean, say there has been the narcissistic wound. Their response is rage. I find that whole thing really interesting from a wiring point of view.

    There is no intermediate frontal-cortex, “theory of mind” step of “hey, maybe that person wasn’t disrespecting me” to revisit the premise of the narcissistic wound.

    And why is “rage” the response to “disrespect” (or wound)?. I mean, why “rage” — why not “run away and hide under the bed”? Fight or flight?

    Having witnessed narcissistic rages it’s astonishing — it takes a lot out of the narcissist to have a rage. It must be exhausting. (This was by an adult, who otherwise is fully socially super high functioning.)

    It reminded me of Fragile X tantrums. Low frustrational tolerance and narcissistic wounds seem related in that the reaction to both is rage/tantrum. I wonder whether defective wiring to/from the frontal cortex (the part which would inhibit those primal urges by cognitive thought) has something to do with it.

    DrS, perhaps you could post the unified field theory of narcissism at some point, I would be interested. (Sorry if this derails the thread). I think that this is the opposite of empathy.

  17. Dr. S, I can understand not wanting to open the intuition can of worms (which I consider its acuracy or inaccuracy similar to that of empathy and does it matter) but the distinction or clarification I was trying to get at was when/how does the empathy occur if there has to be something of me and something of you, factual accuracy or inaccuracy not relevant. In your 2nd example you “pick up” on something. I think Swivel (thank you BTW for your clarifications) explains it as a combination of emotion, then thought, then into modified emotion that equals empathy, right? But what if it’s a miscue and the other person is feeling nothing? Is there no empathy perhaps it’s something else like intuition (because there’s some of me but not some of you), or is it still empathy based on what you alone picked up?

    In my wedding example, empathy would be every bit as possible as in the above example if each “picked up” something with the grooms’ plans concerning the children, as from the comments I believe they did. And my further point is each one was capable of empathy, from Swivel’s definition of a combination of emotion, then thought into empathy, regardless of trust ability. Regardless of “primary colors.” Trust was not a factor, neither was fear in this instance. Everyone was on neutral ground, nothing to be gained or lost, just a meeting of minds. So saying those who are incapable of trust can’t empathize is too broad. That would be like saying someone who is incapable of trust though a parent can’t empathize with another parent about say logistics of weekend visitations. I don’t believe that. Perhaps it’s because it’s a “non-emotional” subject, logistics, but still empathy would not be impossible.

  18. I think Benzthere and I agree on the sticky point of accuracy and empathy. I’ve raised the point before, and it has to do with the empathy construct. If you are looking for the psychological mechanism of empathy, and locate it in the individual, then empathy has that locus. But if you are going to define empathy as necessarily accurate relative to another person, then you no longer have a psychological construct, but a social construct which will put empathy out there in a never-never-land. Which party gets to say whether the other’s feelings were the correct ones?

    Benz asks: But what if it’s a miscue and the other person is feeling nothing? Is there no empathy perhaps it’s something else like intuition (because there’s some of me but not some of you), or is it still empathy based on what you alone picked up?

    That’s exactly the problem raised by imposing an accuracy criterion; empathy is no longer the property of an individual response, but the function of a social transaction. It also becomes a rather impossible test. Why should we trust either person’s word regarding the match of feelings?

    How many times have you asked an incommunicative and distanced partner, “Is there something wrong?” to receive a “No,” when you both know something IS wrong. (A tangent: I think this goes to the balance or symmetry of intensity I mentioned earlier. You’re very upset. I make a casual inquiry. You can’t be casual, so you issue a denial. When I start getting upset because I know there’s something wrong and you won’t tell me, I’ll finally reach an approximation of your level of upset so you can tell me, “If you don’t know, it’s no good telling you!” That’s the point where I figure my sin is great and I apologize for being a twerp, being born, etc. Now you can begin to tell me.)

    I don’t think we can trust either person to give an accurate report of their inner states, especially in an area of likely emotional conflict such an empathy or its lack. I think the only realistic criterion for social transactions is mutuality–when both parties feel mutually understanding and understood–regardless of the actuality. How can we go any further? And if the actuality is different from the mutuality, it will soon turn up.

    In any case, and I think I’m agreeing with what Benz wrote, I don’t think empathy was necessarily absent simply because it didn’t work for another person.

  19. I think that I am aware that I feel deeply and am overly-empathic to the pain (mental & physical) of others but I don’t think I consciously put the word “Empathy” on it…

    …until a sociopath came into my life.

  20. swivelchair – Great. I’m interested to know what you make of my depiction in the next post.

  21. swivelchair – “DrS, perhaps you could post the unified field theory of narcissism at some point, I would be interested. (Sorry if this derails the thread). I think that this is the opposite of empathy.” I’m not sure about publishing a unified theory of narcissism! But it would certainly be interesting to walk very slowly through the concept in the way I’m doing with empathy.

    Can you clarify – why is empathy opposite of narcissism?

  22. benzthere – Thanks for these challenging thoughts. You’re right that weeding example could all have been instances of empathy.

    (I hope you’re not going to be put out when you see quite how low level a function I believe empathy to be!)

  23. dm-smith – I can’t see the problem here. Who’s to say when a person is really experiencing remorse, or love, or anything else. That’s a completely different business. Just as one might try to understand what love is (not like, etc.) I am trying to understand what empathy is, nothing more.

    How does the fact that something is social 1. make it therefore not social, and 2. a problem for us?

    Later, several steps down the line, I’m going to talk about ’empathic behaviour’ (clue: it doesn’t mean 1. that the behaviour is based on empathy, or 2. that it will be experienced as empathy.)

  24. Dr. S,
    Not to worry, I’m more interested in understanding what empathy is rather than its level of functioning (but seems there’s more to come). DM-Smith restates my confusion well, based on your definition of empathy.

    Do you think empathy is necessarily absent simply because it didn’t work for another person? According to your definition, this then cannot be empathy? (Just trying to slow some of the scholarly thinking so I can keep up!)

    Swivel, thnx for your best wishes. No further comment is necessary, but I was the fourth person at the table. There were many issues at play there, but none the less I found it interesting that the (at best) narcissist at the table knowing neither bride or groom, IMO came the closest to empathizing with the groom. I think the bride married a narcissist. Hence my disagreement about those who are incapable of trust also can’t empathise.

  25. benzthere – “Do you think empathy is necessarily absent simply because it didn’t work for another person?”

    No, you might accurately detect something which the other is unable or refuses to acknowledge. Your empathy was accurate but your comment was not experienced that way.

    (DM-Smith asks how one can know who’s right. I say, perhaps we can’t. My task isn’t like that. It’s to find out what it is we mean when we use the term.)

  26. I guess I don’t see the value of accuracy as a component of empathy if there’s no way of knowing whether or not it’s there. And if you’re not going to worry about operationalizing a construct, why not just take the dictionary definition?

  27. I was confusing the something from me, something from you. You’re saying your definition works because the something from you doesn’t mean the “you” has to participate. OK, gotcha.

  28. dm-smith – Because the dictionary definition(s) only confuse things. It matters because we get criteria on the PCL-R which are ambiguous, and we get people saying the most irrational things – like the psychopath lacks empathy AND is a master con man.

    I do want to get into the operationalising side of things – once I know what I’m talking about. (Otherwise fuzzy statements like – a therapist must empathise, you can’t make empathy happen, X’s empathetic statement failed, I feel empathic but don’t know what to say…abound and do no-one any good. Empathy becomes a good-thing-that-people-like-me-do and that bad people like them don’t.)

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