1 Jul 2011, 10:48pm

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– Understanding and entering into another’s feelings

I’ve finished what I think is an important book, The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen (see Resources). One person’s comment was “I’d run as fast as I can from that book.”

My loved ones have noticed that I’m a little preoccupied with anti-social, narcissistic, and/or sociopathic behavior. As a trauma survivor, the drive to understand such behavior never eases up in me.  Simon Baron-Cohen has a theory that such behaviors fall at the zero end of a continuum that has to do with one’s capacity for Empathy. Of course, this assumes that Empathy can be tested for and Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have devised such a self-test. It is interesting to note that the sociopath’s tendency to lie about their own behavior skews the data. However, they are not able to control their predispositions toward lack of empathy so they score very low anyway when asked questions about how someone else might feel.

It seems a worthy goal to attempt to understand man’s inhumanity to man with some construct other than calling some actions evil, end of discussion. The fabric of society indeed breaks down in the absence of empathic behavior. We have the permanent example of the Holocaust, sadly not the only lab school for extreme cruelty.

My intent in writing about Empathy is not to further either the philosophical or psychological arguments about it. My interest is in recovery from trauma, which to some degree depends upon understanding the actions of the perpetrator(s). At the very least, survivors need to be able to see the abuser’s behavior as their own, separate and distinct from their victims. This is the “you did not deserve what happened to you” territory.

“Why me?” is a common refrain among victims of emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence. The answer to this has everything to do with the pattern of how perpetrators chose their victims and very little to do with the victims themselves. This being said, we can be taught to empower ourselves against victimhood and to recognize the danger of un-empathic people in our lives. Those equipped with Empathy (those on the high end of that Empathy continuum), sometimes have trouble spotting a perpetrator precisely because the idea of zero Empathy is unimaginable to them.  People in law enforcement, the judicial system, and other areas where anti-social behavior is dealt with, end up with highly developed antenna for “perps.” In other words, they become accustomed to recognizing and even anticipating the unimaginable acts brought on by zero empathic individuals.

Much of the “everyday” crime in society is attributable to those merely low on the Empathy scale or rendered temporarily Empathy deprived by substance abuse or mental illness.

I did some people watching this week to detect failures of Empathy. I was a bit taken aback by how easy such lapses were to find -the person ahead of me in the coffee shop restroom who didn’t bother to flush, the concertgoer who cut into the middle of the line of us waiting to get in, the (cliché) example of the person with the full cart in the Express checkout line. These mildest of examples are the merely annoying, not the truly destructive. Yet, in order to get over them, I had to spend some time looking for everyday acts of grace and kindness, which were also (thankfully) easy to catalogue in my community.

I believe Baron-Cohen is onto something in his research. Framing the breakdown of society and community in terms of deficits in Empathy has wide-ranging implications. It gives us more to work with in the area of intervention that simply labeling behaviors as bad, or its darker cousin, evil. As a starting point, I want to have a tee shirt made with EMPATHIZE lettered across my chest. This will fit much better than the whole Golden Rule but means the same thing.

Some, maybe even most, people’s capacity or inclination toward empathic behavior can change with maturity. To a certain extent, Empathy can be taught. The further one is toward the zero Empathy end of the continuum, the less chance there is for improvement. Developing compassion for these sorry folks is the challenge of a lifetime. If they have victimized you, the task feels almost insurmountable (see Forgiveness).

Clearly this has to be an ongoing conversation. As we read or watch the news, we are inundated with examples of people treating each other badly. It helps me to counter this by paying attention to shifts in consciousness, whether large or small. This piece of the now dismantled Berlin wall on display in Missouri, USA, is a stellar example of an empathic shift on a grand scale. As a corollary to this, I recommended the film The Lives of Others by Florian von Donnersmarck (see Resources). It is a compelling and inspiring depiction of the evolution of Empathy in one individual.