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Review: The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle

The short review: the title, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Sherry Turkle New York: Penguin Press, 2021, 357 pp.) reveals that empathy lives, comes forth, in empathy’s breakdowns and failings. Empathy often emerges in clarifying a lack of empathy. This work might have been entitled, less elegantly, “The Lack of Empathy Diaries.” I found the book to be compellingly written, even a page-turner at times, highly recommended. But, caution, this is not a “soft ball” review.”

Do not misunderstand me. Sherry Turkle’s mom (Harriet), Aunt Mildred, grand parents, and the extended Jewish family, growing up between Brooklyn and Rockaway, NY, were empathic enough. They were generous in their genteel poverty. They gloried in flirting with communism and emphasizing, in the USA, it was a federal offense to open anyone else’s mail. Privacy is one of the foundations of empathy – and democracy. Sherry’s folks talked back to the black and white TV, and struggled economically in the lower middle class, getting dressed up for Sabbath on High Holidays and shaking hands with the neighbors on the steps of the synagogue as if they could afford the seats, which they could not, then discretely disappearing.

As Tolstoy famously noted, all happy families are alike. What Tolstoy did not note was that many happy families are also unhappy ones. Figure that one out! Sherry’s answer to Tolstoy is her memoir.

Families have secrets, and one was imposed on the young Sherry. Her mother married Charles Zimmerman, which was her last name as he was the biological father. Within a noticeably short time, mom discovered a compelling reason to divorce Charles. The revelation of his “experiments” on the young Sherry form a suspenseful core to the narrative, about which more shortly. 

Mom gets rid of Charles and within about another year marries Milton Turkle, which becomes Sherry’s name at home and the name preferred by her Mom for purposes of forming a family. There’s some weirdness with this guy, too, which eventually emerges; but he does have a penis and a younger brother and sister show up apace. 

In our own age of blended families, trial marriages, and common divorce, many readers are, like, “What’s the issue?” The issues is that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even as the sexual revolution and first feminist wave were exploding on the scene, in many communities, divorce was stigmatizing. Key term: stigma. Don’t talk about it. It is your dark secret. 

The rule for Sherry of tender age was “you are really a Turkle at home and at the local deli; but at school you are a Zimmerman.” Once again, while that may be a concern, what’s the big deal? The issue is: Sherry, you are not allowed to talk about it. It is a secret. Magical thinking thrives. To young Sherry’s mind, she is wondering if it comes out will she perhaps no longer be a part of the family – abandoned, expelled, exiled. Even the siblings do not find out about the “name of the father” (a Lacanian allusion) until adulthood. A well kept secret indeed. Your books from school, Sherry, which have “Zimmerman” written in them, must be kept in a special locked cupboard.  

How shall I put it delicately? Such grown up values and personal politics – and craziness – could get a kid of tender age off her game. This could get one confused or even a tad neurotic oneself. The details of how all these dynamics get worked out make for a page turner. 

Fast forward. Sherry finds a way to escape from this craziness through education. Sherry is smart. Very smart. Her traditionally inclined elders tell her, “Read!” They won’t let her do chores. “Read!” Reading is a practice that expands one’s empathy. This being the early 1960s, her folks make sure she does not learn how to type. No way she is going to the typing pool to become some professors typist. She is going to be the professor! This, too, is the kind of empathy on the part of her family unit, who recognized who she was, even amidst the impingements and perpetrations. 

Speaking personally, I felt a special kinship with this young person, because something similar happened to me. I escaped from a difficult family situation through education, though all the details are different – and I had to do a bunch of chores, too!

The path is winding and labyrinthine; but that’s what happened. Sherry gets a good scholarship to Radcliffe (women were not yet allowed to register at Harvard). She meets and is mentored by celebrity sociologist David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd) and other less famous but equally inspiring teachers. 

She gets a grant to undertake a social psychological inquiry into the community of French psychoanalysis, an ethnographic study not of an indigenous tribe in Borneo but a kind of tribe nonetheless in the vicinity of Paris, France. 

The notorious “bad boy” Jacque Lacan is disrupting all matters psychoanalytic. His innovations consist in fomenting rebellion in psychoanalytic thinking and in the community. “The name of the father” (Lacan’s idea about Oedipus) resonates with Turkle personally. 

Lacan speaks truth to [psychoanalytic] power, resulting in one schism after another in the structure of psychoanalytic institutes and societies. Turkle intellectually dances around the hypocrisy, hidden in plain view, but ultimately calls it out: challenging authority is encouraged as long as the challenge is not directed at the charismatic leader, Lacan, himself. This is happening shortly after the students and workers form alliance in Paris May 1968, disrupting the values and authority of traditional bourgeois society. A Rashomon story indeed. Turkle’s working knowledge of the French language makes rapid advances. 

Turkle, whose own psychoanalysis is performed by more conventional American analysts in the vicinity of Boston (see the book for further details), is befriended by Lacan. This is because Lacan wants her to write nice things about him. He is didactic, non enigmatic amid his enigmatic ciphers. Jaques is nice to her. I am telling you – you can’t make this stuff up. Turkle is perhaps the only – how shall I put it delicately – attractive woman academic that he does not try to seduce. Lacan “gets it” – even amid his own flawed empathy – you don’t mess with this one. Yet Lacan’s trip to Boston – Harvard and MIT – ends in disaster. This has nothing – okay, little – to do with Turkle – though her colleague are snarky. The reason? Simple: Lacan can’t stop being Lacan. 

Turkle’s long and deep history of having to live with the “Zimmerman / Turkle” name of the father lie, hidden in plain view, leaves Turkle vulnerable in matters of the heart. She meets and is swept off her feet by Seymour Papert, named-chair professor at MIT, an innovator in computing technology and child psychology, the collaborator with Marvin Minsky, and author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Seymour ends up being easy to dislike in spite of his authentic personal charm, near manic enthusiasm, interestingness, and cognitive pyrotechnics. Warning signs include the surprising ways Sherry have to find out about his grown up daughter and second wife, who is actually the first one. Sherry is vulnerable to being lied to. The final straw is Seymour’s cohabitating with a woman in Paris over the summer, by this time married to Sherry. Game over; likewise, the marriage. To everyones credit, they remain friends. 

Sherry’s academic career features penetrating and innovative inquiries into how smart phone, networked devices, and screens – especially screens – affect our attention and conversations. The research methods are powerful: she talks to people, notes what they say, and tries to understand their relationships with one another and with evocative objects, the latter not exactly Winnicott’s transitional objects, but perhaps close enough for purposes of a short review. 

The reader can imagine her technology mesmerized colleagues at MIT not being thrilled by her critique of the less than humanizing aspects of all these interruptions, eruptions, and corruptions of and to our attention and ability to be fully present with other human beings. 

After a struggle, finding a diplomatic way of speaking truth to power, Turkle gets her tenured professorship, reversing an initial denial (something that rarely happens). The denouement is complete. The finalè is at hand. 

Sherry hires a private detective and reestablishes contact with her biological father, Charles. His “experiments” on Sherry that caused her mother to end the marriage, indeed flee from it, turn out to be an extreme version of the “blank face” attachment exercises pioneered by Mary Main, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues, based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. The key word here is: extreme. I speculate that Charles was apparently also influenced by Harry Harlow’s “love studies” with rhesus monkeys, subjecting them to extreme maternal deprivation (and this is not in Turkle). It didn’t do the monkeys a lot of good, taking down their capacity to love, attachment, much less the ability to be empathic (a term noticeably missing from Harlow), leaving them, austic like emotional hulks, preferring clinging to surrogate cloth mothers to food. Not pretty. In short, Sherry’s mother comes home unexpectedly to find Sherry (of tender age) crying her eyes out in distress, all alone, with Charles in the next room. Charles offers mom co-authorship of the article to be published, confirming that he really doesn’t get it. Game over; likewise, the marriage. 

On a personal note, I was engaged by Turkle’s account of her time at the University of Chicago. Scene change. She is sitting there in lecture room Social Science 122, which I myself frequented. Bruno Bettelheim comes in, puts a straight back chair in the middle of the low stage, and delivers a stimulating lecture without notes, debating controversial questions with students who were practicing speaking truth to power. It is a tad like batting practice – the student throws a fast ball, the Professor gives it a good whack. Whether the reply was a home run or a foul ball continues to be debated. I was in the same lecture, same Professor B, about two years later. Likewise with Professors Victor Turner, David Grene, and Saul Bellow of the Committee on Social Thought. My own mentors were Paul Ricoeur (Philosophy and Divinity) and Stephen Toulmin, who joined the Committee and Philosophy shortly after Turkle returned to MIT. 

Full discourse: my dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation was in the philosophy department, but most of my friends were studying with the Committee, who organized the best parties. I never took Bellow’s class on the novel – my loss – because it was credibly reported that he said it rotted his mind to read student term papers; and I took that to mean he did not read them. But perhaps he actually read them, making the sacrifice. We will never know for certain. One thing we do know for sure is that empathy is no rumor in the work of Sherry Turkle. Empathy lives  in her contribution.  

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

The Evidence: Empathy is Teachable, Trainable, Learnable

This essay is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the book Empathy Lessons. This essay is motivated by the need to debunk the position that the practice of empathy is vague and fuzzy and cannot be taught, that you either have it or you don’t. Bunk. I am addressing scientists, researchers, health care professionals who dismiss empathy as not scientific of evidence-based.

Substantial evidence is available that if you practice empathy, you get better at it. A bold statement of the obvious? Indeed. Yet the requirement to marshal the evidence is a significant one, even if it is often a function of resistance to practicing a rigorous and critical empathy. Key term: resistance to empathy. Overcome the resistance to empathy and the practice of empathy spontaneously and naturally comes forth. [See Empathy Lessons and other books by Lou Agosta on empathy: https://amzn.to/2S0ISPr.%5D

Evidence-based empathy

Even if one understands “evidence” in the most narrow and rigorous sense, substantial evidence is available from peer-reviewed research and publictions that empathy training is effective. The implications for evidence-based empathy training are direct. Empathy works. Some of this material may seem difficult or complex; but it is important to engage with it, because it undercuts the subtle resistances to empathy that dismiss empathy in the misguided belief that there are no evidence-based peer reviewed publications.

The first example is an empathy intervention so short that it passed the Institutional Review Board (IRB) criteria for the use of human subjects. The study was complete before people had a chance to drop out. An advertisement went out for people to receive a complimentary, free screening and short intervention for “problem drinking.” In fact, only problem drinkers responded. 

The people were divided randomly into groups and given either an immediate check up with confrontational counseling that directed them to stop drinking; or the subjects were given a check up with motivational interviewing that used client-centered counseling and did not try counsel changing the client’s behavior, but in the manner of motivational interviewing explored the person’s motives with him or her. Motivational interviewing employs empathic methods of listening and questioning and, in this example, becomes a proxy for empathy.

Strictly speaking, the counselor facilitated a dicussion with the client of what might happen if the client either did or did not stop (reduce) drinking. A third group of clients was wait-listed, for control, without intervention. Motivational interviewing is a client-centered intervention that relies on empathic listening, questioning, and responding. 

Both groups that received intervention resulted in a 57% reduction in drinking within six weeks, and the result was sustained at 1 year. However, there was one dramatic finding. The lead researcher and author (William Miller) reports: “Therapist styles did not differ in overal impact on drinking, but a single therapist behavior was predictive (r = .65) of 1-year outcome such that the more the therapist confronted, the more the client drank.”[i]

This bears repeating: the more confrontational the counselor, the more the client drank. If one starts with a confrontational approach rather than empathy, one is headed for trouble. 

In another study, perspective taking was practiced in which the other person was imagined to be a neighbor or a member of one’s own community rather than a stranger.[ii] This examines empathic interpretation, though the study does not use that terminology. Practice perspective taking, it improves. 

Other practitioners have developed exercises that focus on specific groups such as doctors of individuals with autism. This expands empathic understanding, though, once again, the terminology is different. Other experiments conduct explicit training in mentalizing, specifically, teaching participants in the training about associations between target facial expressions and emotions.[iii]

In a separate study, a large meta analysis by the Cochrane Library that reviewed fifty-nine peer-reviewed studies with 13,342 participants of a motivational interviewing intervention based on empathy for substance abuse over against other active interventions or no intervention and produced a similar result: motivational interviewing helped people cut down on drugs and alcohol.[iv]

Still, the debate goes on. 

Is the empathic questioning, the back-and-forth conversation, in the motivational interview that causes something (attitude, hope, fear, and so on) in the client to shift? Or do people convince themselves? Or do they just get better informed? Or do they stop blaming themselves and feel better, and so they “self medicate” less with alcohol or street drugs? 

Lots of questions. No easy answers. Yet when something is so effective across so many studies and researchers are still skeptical, then one has to say: “Okay, skepticism is proper and scientific. Yet nothing is wrong here; but there is something missing—empathy.”

Let’s do the numbers. 

Evidence shows that those who train and practice being empathic succeed in expanding their empathy. Educational programs that target empathy have a demonstrably positive effect on empathy skills, according to peer reviewed studies.[v]

Another case in point: a meta analysis of 17 empathy nursing courses in an educational context indicated statistically significant improvement in empathy scores in 11 of the 17 studies (and non statistically significant improvements in the other 6). Similar positive outcomes were reported when medical students, training to be doctors, were included. When nurses and medical students work at practicing empathy; and they get better at it. How about that.[vi]

A disturbing factoid: The empathy of persons studying to become physicians peaks in the third year of medical school according to measures applied periodically (as reported by Dr. M. Hojat and his colleagues at Thomas Jefferson University).[vii] Empathy expands; but then it seems to contract. The suspicion is that the burnout occurs in the “college of hard knocks.”

Use it or lose it? The stereotype of the harried medical doctor, seeing twenty or thirty patients a day, is increasingly accurate. As the MD (or other health care professional) is pushed down into survival mode, empathy is not improved or expanded. Hear me say it, and not for the last time, the things that make us good at the corporate transformation of American medicine, improving productivity and efficiency, do not expand our empathy. This does not mean that empathy and efficiency are mutually exclusive. It means we have to get better at balancing quantity and quality in both business and empathy. 

In another example, training sessions directed at aggressive adolescent girls in a residential treatment center showed the benefits of expanded affective empathy. Affective empathy is the automatic dimension of empathy (“empathic receptivity” in my definition) that is perhaps hardest to influence.[viii] Parental effectiveness training (PET) was demonstrated to move the participants from below facilitative on the Truax Accurate Empathy Scale up to or beyond the facilitative level. “Facilitative” means knowing how to get things done. That is, the outcome is that the parent’s empathic effectiveness was expanded.[ix]

The effectiveness of empathy training is not limited to the affective dimension. A team at the University of Toronto produced a meta analysis of twenty-nine articles, using seven different approaches to empathy training. All the studies except two (93%) had positive outcomes, improving the cognitive component of empathy (86%). These studies were distributed as follows: education (24%), nursing (14%), therapy (7%), medicine (21%), social work (3%), psychology (7%), human service (7%), couples (10%) and divorcees (3%). Regardless of the training method, individuals expand their empathy when they practice or engage in effortful training.[x]

In another study, some 42 couples involved in a romantic relationship completed a five week empathy training program. The change in empathy was assessed by measured analyses of variance. The assessment reproduced the positive results of earlier findings. The training produced reliably increased empathic interaction between the partners. Scores on three empathic measures improved over a follow up six month period.[xi]

Further evidence that empathy is trainable is available in “The Roots of Empathy” (ROE). This is a formal program developed by Mary Gordon and colleagues in Canada. 

First started in 1996 and introduced into U.S. schools in 2007, the ROE program has been featured on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the USA. ROE aims to build more peaceful and caring communities by expanding empathy in children.[xii]

The program targets elementary school classes, and consists of weekly visits to the class room by a new born baby and the baby’s mother for an entire school year. The group sits in a circle and the mom and baby interact, accompanied by a conversation about the life of the baby, biologically, psychologically, and socially. 

The empathy lessons are elementary—unless you do not happen to have ever been exposed to a baby or the empathic care of one. Babies cry when they are hungry or wet or cold; they coo and gurgle and giggle when they are content and happy. 

Some lessons are elementary; some, sophisticated, engaging with human development, of which the baby is Exhibit A, as the baby grows throughout the school year. 

The roots of empathy are present in front of the class: the baby. The powerful presence of the baby calls forth the emotional resonance, natural curiosity, and wonder of the children. The baby provides the empathy lessons, in effect being the teacher. The baby provides the opening for conversations with the children about human development, socialization, and building a community. The vast majority of human beings are naturally inspired to care for a baby. Whether people know how to deliver such care effectively is a separate issue, requiring separate training. A complex species, these humans: human beings are naturally empathic just as they are also naturally aggressive. 

At the heart of this kindergarten through 8th grade program is the goal of dialing down aggressive behavior patterns in children at an early age, in particular, curbing bullying (about which more in an entire chapter below). For example, roughly 160,000 children miss school every day “due to fear of an attack or intimidation by other students,” according to the National Education Association. 

The program also documents an 11% improvement in standardized achievement tests for the class that is exposed to the Roots of Empathy intervention.[xiii] This is definitely not a predictable result. It should put us in touch with the humbling sense that there are many things that we do not even know we do not know. 

When kids get the empathy to which they are entitled, they study harder and work smarter. When bullying is reduced, kids are less fearful, are less distracted, have more fun, and are able to study. When they study harder and smarter, they get improved scores.

The results of the program are “over the top” positive; and since this is the age of evidence-based everything, the program also spend a lot of cycles gathering key metrics on the results of the roots of empathy. A randomized control trial was conducted. 

Findings indicated that children who had participated in the program compared to children who had not, were more advanced in their social and emotional understanding on all dimensions assessed. These included emotional understanding, perspective-taking, peer acceptance, classroom supportiveness, pro-social behavior and characteristics. Concomitant reductions in aggressive behaviors and increases in pro-social behaviors (e.g., helping, sharing, cooperating) were noted. 

In particular, teachers rated three child (student) behavior outcomes (physical aggression, indirect aggression, and pro-social behavior). The Roots of Empathy program had statistically significant and replicated beneficial effects on all three child behavior outcomes.[xiv]

Peer reviewed research is compelling, but equally compelling are market dynamics: organizations are voting with their dollars that empathy is trainable. 

People with chronic life style diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, asthma, and so on, enjoy statistically favorable outcomes when their physicians show empathy—a fancy way of saying people “get better.” 

Relying on such evidence, a company called “Empathetics” has been founded to train medical doctors in expanding their empathy. 

Using intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University, Empathetics, Inc. trains physicians in expanding their empathy through the use of biofeedback. 

The CEO, Helen Riess, MD, delivered a Ted Talk about the value of empathy in health care.[xv] Dr. Riess and her colleagues at Mass General performed a meta analysis of the effects of empathy on all kinds of diseases. 

Dr. Riess (and her colleagues) report on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in adult patients, in which the patient-clinician relationship was systematically monitored and healthcare outcomes were either objective (e.g., blood pressure) or validated subjective measures (e.g., pain scores). Those doctors (and related professionals) that scored higher on the empathy screening tests had demonstrably better patient outcomes than those with lower empathy scores. 

Three trials included patients with diabetes, two included patients with osteoarthritis. Other disorders included fibromyalgia, oncology, lower respiratory infection, osteoarthritis, hypertension, smoking, somatic complaints, and asthma. The median patient sample size was 279 (range: 85 to 7,557). That’s a lot of people. 

In summary, empathic doctoring produces favorable results. Patients get better compared with those whose doctors who do not score as well on the applied empathy scale. A word of caution. Correlation points to a significant path to improved outcome through empathic relatedness, but, at least in the context of this study, correlation is not causation.

Using the language of evidence-based medicine is trending. The “effect size” of empathy is so large that it overwhelms any confounding variables that might be hiding beneath the surface of experience. Thus, empathy fits right in with the trend. The results are compelling. Applying empathy in interacting with the vast majority of people is like using penicillin to treat the vast majority of significant bacterial infections. Applying empathy in interacting with people is like using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane. If you don’t do it, you are headed for trouble. 

Common factor, empathy, in social healing practices

Psychotherapy is regarded as an example of a social healing practice. Psychotherapy is a conversation for possibility between two persons, one of whom is dealing with difficult personal issues and emotions and another person who is committed to making a difference through empathy. 

Experience shows that physical disorders, injuries, and lesions get elaborated psychosocially. This is not just hypochondria or imaginary disorders that are “in someone’s head.” This is lower back pain, migraines, life style disorders such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and irritable bowel that are aggravated by job, family, and relationship issues (conflicts, stresses, upsets) in a person’s life. Nutrition and exercise are behavioral practices that positively affect health, but can be difficult to influence. 

People have different ways of expressing their pain and suffering. When an investigation of the person’s life indicates that non-biological factors are contributing to the person’s decline or distress, then it is useful to engage an alternative point of view on pain and suffering. It is useful to undertake an inquiry without making too many assumptions that one knows what is actually going on. It is useful to have a conversation for possibility. 

The first person to undertake such an inquiry of whom we have any record was named “Socrates.” His student, Plato, wrote down what Socrates had to say, the most famous statement of which was that he knew only one thing: “I know that I do not know.” Socratic’s approach was so powerful that he was able to undertake fundamental inquiries that challenged his own inauthenticities and those of the persons with whom he engaged in dialogue. His questioning led to insights about basic values of truth, right and wrong, pleasure and enjoyment, and the organization of the community. The example of Socrates inspired talk therapists of all kinds—not to mention religious leaders, politicians of integrity, and educators in diverse disciplines. 

The word “empathy” does not occur in Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, who instead spoke of being a “midwife” of ideas. When a friend of mine read this account of Socrates as a midwife, he shared with me an anecdote from when he was a medical student. He was walking through the hospital maternity department one evening after class. As he passed an open door, one of the patient’s called out to him. She was in labor and she asked his help. As he told me candidly, at that time in his medical training, he knew nothing about childbirth. Thus, as far as he was concerned, the qualification of Socratic ignorance was satisfied. 

My friend asked the woman how he could help. She asked to hold his hand. He thought to himself, “Now this I know how to do!” He held her hand for awhile. She pushed and pushed. The result was a healthy baby boy. How or why the woman was left alone, and what further help arrived was not specified. 

My friend cited this as an example of empathic understanding that just shows up spontaneously. In his recollection this was an example of empathy at a moment of crisis to which no words were adequate. I would say the woman was training him in being empathic, and the empathy lesson worked just fine. 

Socrates did not claim to produce original knowledge himself. But he acted as a midwife for others, who were trying to give birth to sustainable, viable knowledge. In terms of empathic understanding, Socrates exemplified the commitment to new possibilities as opposed to conformity. Socrates made the case for dwelling in the comfort-zone stretching, discomfort of open-ended inquiry in the face of “being right.” He helped his dialogue partners give birth to ideas of their own and distinguish those ideas that are viable from those that are still-born. 

Socrates enjoyed a special relationship with his students and colleagues. He had a special rapport that was a combination ofidealization and affection that set him apart from many of the other teachers of his time, called “Sophists.” The latter were masters of argumentation and rhetoric for hire. 

The sophists were perhaps the original purveyors of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Socrates’ relationship with the sophists in the community was not positive. He spoke truth to power in such a way that those in power were deeply threatened. Some of those in authority came to fear and hate him. 

Eventually Socrates was indicted and convicted, in a trial of questionable merit, of a crime against the state, corrupting the youth. For reasons that are still controversial today, Socrates decided to drink the hemlock instead of fleeing into exile, becoming a martyr to prejudice and political intrigue. 

Nevertheless, the principles that Socrates espoused have become the basis for talk therapy—and overcoming resistance to empathy. To engage in therapy with human beings in their struggle with emotional pain and suffering requires: providing a gracious and generous listening and an authentic human response; inquiry into possibility and open-ended questioning; an alliance between the therapist and client against the disorder and suffering against which the client is struggling; and an understanding of cultural context and community. 

Amid an alphabet soup of therapeutic approaches today, the Socratic method of inquiry stands out as a common factor. It is challenging to try to find something in common between cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization routine (EMDR), rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), psychodynamic therapy, psychoanalysis, existential and humanistic psychotherapy, and so on. 

“Common factor” is an idea given credibility by Jerome and Julia Frank in their book on Persuasion and Healing.[xvi] The Franks debunk not only psychoanalysis, but also many of the alternative therapeutic approaches. The Franks’ position is that the beneficial results of therapy are a function of persuasion and suggestion. The therapist is applying his or her own empathic and emotionally generous personality in the context of the trusted relationship, committed to healing, to persuade the client to alter his habitual life practices in the direction of behaviors that are adaptive, accommodating, and empowering. The hypnotists called it “the rapport”; modern practitioners, “the therapeutic alliance.” 

However, the point here is not to back into an advertisement for empathy. Rather the point is to look at what actually happens in stage one of therapy whether it is CBT, DBT, or one of the diverse talk therapies. Each of these interventions, after establishing a framework around schedule and fee, takes steps to deepen and expand the client’s “in touchness with” his or her own experiences. In DBT this is called “mindfulness”; in psychoanalysis, “free association”; in CBT and REBT, identifying and “interrupting the pathogenic thought”; in existential-humanistic therapy and ACT, “radical acceptance” of what’s so. 

This “getting in touch with” is also the first step in becoming more empathic, and so highly relevant to empathy training. One has to be in touch with one’s own experiences in order to appreciate how the other person shows up in one’s vicarious experiences of that other person. In short, empathy is a common factor shared by virtually all approaches to talk therapy. 

The problem is that grouping empathy with “common factors” has become a way of dismissing empathy. All the interventions share empathy. It occurs on all sides of the multi-dimensional equation, and so empathy itself cancels out. Empathy falls out of the equation—and out of the discussion. 

I suggest an alternative point of view.

What if empathy were the very process that was creating the benefit—and the very equation itself—for each of these supposedly distinct interventions? What if empathy were the very thing that was creating the clearing for EMDR, ACT, and so on, to be effective in the person’s shifting out of stuckness, attachment to suffering, emotional disregulation, self-defeating behavior, or repetitive enactment? 

What if empathy was not the idle wheel, falling out of the equation, but the drive shaft? What if the techniques of CBT, DBT, ACT, EMDR, and so on, were themselves so much formal scaffolding, providing a ritual framework for the dynamics of the empathic relatedness to have its effect? 

Following the baton or dancing light in EMDR would be something to keep the client distracted while he was verbally expressing his experience of the trauma into the gracious listening of the therapist. 

Filling out the paperwork, the surveys, and the homework of CBT would be so much busy work designed to keep the client’s mind off of his anxiety and depression for long enough for the therapist’s empathic responses to the client’s issues to have an impact. 

The breathing in and out of mindfulness, literally a metaphor for empathy as oxygen for the soul, would be a useful holding pattern enabling the client to get in touch with his experience so he can communicate it to the therapist and be “gotten” for who he is as the possibility of radical acceptance in empathic understanding. 

The “tough love” of DBT and the group skills back-and-forth would be a useful distraction for the client’s intolerable emotions until the therapist was either able to get it right with his empathic interpretation or the client exhausted the payer’s twelve approved sessions. Then, in every case, the empathic exchange as it occurs in the conversation between therapist and the client would be what is making the difference. 

More work is definitely needed on this hypothesis. Nor is it likely to be an “either/or” matter. CBT’s “trigger log,” “dysfunctional thinking report,” and “daily thought record,” are useful exercises. Highly useful. It is just that, absent empathy, the CBT process is indistinguishable from dental work—and then the client does not even do the “homework.” What would an evidence-based comparison between empathic and alternative interventions even look like? 

The client comes in, and the therapist greets him with a standard human response, using all her abilities to understand and grasp that with which the other person is struggling. Is one supposed to compare being empathic with being rude? With being hard-hearted? With being confrontational? With misunderstanding the other person? With being stone-faced and unemotional? All of these are possibilities. The stone-faced option has actually been tried, but not with adults presenting for therapy. Presumably because it would be a short session. The adults would not stand for it, and most (possibly excepting the masochistic) would get up and walk out. 

However, it has been tried with infants in the context of attachment studies. When infants are briefly presented with a “still face,” a blank face from which emotion has been removed on the part of care-takers, who are usually warm and welcoming, the infants become noticeably upset. Some start to fuss; others, to cry. So do most people, whether in personal or experimental situations such as being on “candid camera.” Babies and children of tender age are people, too, and I suggest that their response is an example of a standard human one, albeit without any grammatical use of language, and typical of what one might expect from adults.

What is clear is that an overwhelming number and diversity of psychotherapy approaches engage in the use of empathy. This is so even when these interventions allow empathy subsequently to fall out of the equation as a “common factor.” 

Even if the approach in question devalues empathy as a narrow psychological mechanism, it has to endorse its use, because when empathy is absent, generally, positive outcomes are also absent. Those few interventions that devalue empathy—electro shock therapy (ECT), shaming, jail, capital punishment, collective shunning—begin by paying it rhetorical lip service. The result? The amount of aggregated experience that indicates that empathy is an effective intervention is vast and arguably sufficient to overcome any hidden, confounding variables. 

Judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a essential role; however, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. As noted, the issue is that  there are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer bears repeating for emphasis: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks). [xvii]

The “effect size” is a function of the facts—the evidence—that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works—that parachutes work—that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin.

Likewise, with empathy. The use of empathy in human relations is demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health world in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout and compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed, and people allergic to it excluded, or the results will be unpredictable. 

In conclusion, the critical path lies through empathy training: empathy is not an on-off switch but a dial/tuner that requires training to get it just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (and will be further engaged in Chapter Six of Empathy Lessons).[xviii] Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. If you are jumping out of an airplane, use a parachute; if engaging with struggling, suffering humans, use empathy. 


[i] W.R. Miller, R.G. Benefield, J.S. Tonigen. (1993). Enhancing motivation for change in problem drinking: a controlled comparison of two therapist styles, Journal of Consultative Clinical Psychology, June; 61 (3): 455-61: 455. 

[ii] Jay S. Coke, Gregory Batson, Katherine McDavis. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage modelJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(7):752–766. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.7.752; Mark H. Davis, Laura Conklin, Amy Smith, Carol Luce. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 70(4), Apr 1996: 713–726.

[iii] Ofer Golan and Simon Baron-Cohen. (2006). Systemizing empathy: Teaching adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia, Development and Psychopathology 18, 2006: 591–617. DOI: 10.10170S0954579406060305; J. Hadwin, S. Baron-Cohen, P. Howlin, and K. Hill. (1997). Does teaching theory of mind have an effect on the ability to develop conversation in children with autism? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27: 519–537. DOI:10.1023/A:102582600 9731.

[iv] Geir Smedslund, Rigmor C. Berg, Karianne T. Hammerstrom, Asbjorn Steiro, Kari A Leiknes, Helene M Dahl, Kjetil Karlsen. (2011). Motivation interviewing for substance abuse, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, May 11, 2011, Issue 5: CD 008063. DOI: 10.1002/12651858.CD008063.pub2.

[v] C.T. Ozcan, F. Oflaz, B. Bakir. (2012). The effect of a structured empathy course on the students of a medical and a nursing school, International Nursing Review, Vol. 59, Issue 4, December 2012: 532–538. DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-7657.2012.01019.x.

[vi] Scott Brunero, Scott Lamont, Melissa Coates. (2010). A Review of empathy education in nursing, Nursing Inquiry: Vol. 17, Issue 1, March 2010: 65–74. 

[vii] M. Hojat, M. J. Vergate, K. Maxwell, G. Brainard, S. K. Herrine, G.A. Isenberg. (2009). The devil is in the third year: A Longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school, Academic Medicine, Vol. 84 (9): 1182–1191. 

[viii] E.V. Pecukonis. (1990). A cognitive/affective empathy training program as a function of ego development in aggressive adolescent females, Adolescence, Vol. 25: 59–76.

[ix] Mark E. Therrien. (1979). Evaluating empathy skill training for parents, Social Work, Vol. 24, no. 5 (Sep 1979): 417–19.

[x] Tony Chiu, Ming Lam, Klodiana Kolomitro, Flanny C. Alamparambil. (2011). Empathy training: Methods, evaluation practices, and validity, Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, Vol. 7, No. 16: 162–200. 

[xi] J..J. Angera and E. Long. (2006). Qualitative and quantitative evaluations of an empathy training program for couples in marriage and romantic relationship, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, Vol. 5(1): 1–26.

[xii] PBS staff reporter. (2013). Using babies to decrease aggression and prevent bullying. PBS News Hour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/using-babies-to-decrease-aggression-prevent-bullying/

[xiii] PBS staff reporter 2013.

[xiv] Mary Gordon. (2005). The Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. New York/Toronto: The Experiment (Thomas Allen Publishers): 250–256.

[xv] Helen Riess. (2013). The power of empathy, TEDxMiddlebury: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=baHrcC8B4WM [checked on March 23, 2017]. See also: John M. Kelley, Gordon Kraft-Todd, Lidia Schapira, Joe Kossowsky, Helen Riess. (2014). The influence of the patient-clinician relationship on healthcare outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, PLOS, Vol. 9, No. 4 | e94207: 1–7 Helen Riess, John M. Kelley, Robert W. Bailey, Emily J. Dunn, and Margot Phillips. (2012). Empathy training for resident physicians: A randomized controlled trial of a neuroscience-informed curriculum, Journal General Internal Medicine. 2012 Oct; Vol. 27(10): 1280–1286. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-012-2063-z.

[xvi] Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank. (1981). Persuasion and Healing: A Comparative Study of Psychotherapy. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1991. I express appreciation to Danny Levine, MD, for calling my attention to this outstanding contribution from the Franks. Also see my Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery (2015) for a critique of the psychopharmacological (psychiatric) approach in chapter three “Plato, Not Prozac!” (a title that I borrow from Lou Marinoff (2000), who I hereby acknowledge for his contribution). 

[xvii] Howick 2011: 5, 11.

[xviii] Howick 2011; M. Hojat et al, 2011; John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al 2014); David P. Rakel, Theresa J. Hoeft, Bruce P. Barrett, Betty A. Chewning, Benjamin M. Craig, and Min Niu. (2009). Practitioner empathy and the Duration of the common cold, Family Medicine 41(7): 494–501.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy is good for your health and well-being (The evidence)

Empathy is good for your health and well-being: Empathy is on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors.

For evidence-based research on empathy, empathy and stress reduction, and empathy training you may start by googling: Antoni et al. 2011; Ciaramicoli 2016; Del Canale et al 2012; Farrow et al. 2007; Irwin et al. 2012; Maes 1995, 1999; Pollack et al. 2002; Rakel et al. 2009; Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Slavich et al. 2013 [this list is not complete]. 

You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get book from Amazon).

[Also included are chapters on the Top 30 Tips and Techniques for Expanding Empathy, Overcoming Resistance to Empathy, Empathy Breakdowns, Empathy as the New Love, Empathy versus Bullying, and more.] 

The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being.  Here empathy is both the end and the means.

A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday. We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy.

Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare

Well-being rides the wave of empathy

outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically exclude psychiatric disorders and include mainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders.

Generalizing on this research, a small set of practices such as receiving empathy, meditation (mindfulness), yogic meditation, and Tai Chi, promote well-being by reducing inflammation. These practices are not reducible to empathy (or vice versa), but they all share a common factor: reduced inflammation. These anti-inflammatory interventions have been shown to make a difference in controlled experiments, evidence-based research, and peer-reviewed publications.

Using empathy in relating to people is a lot like using a parachute if you jump out of an airplane or getting a shot of penicillin if one has a bacterial infection. The evidence is overwhelming that such a practice is appropriate and useful in the vast majority of cases. The accumulated mass of decades of experience also counts as evidence in a strict sense. Any so-called hidden or confounding variables will be “washed out” by the massive amount of evidence that parachutes and penicillin produce the desired main effect. 

Indeed it would be unethical to perform a double blind test of penicillin at this time, since if a person needed the drug and it were available it would be unethical not to give it to him. Yes, there are a few exceptions – some people are allergic to penicillin. But by far and in large, if you do not begin with empathy in relating to other people, you are headed for trouble.

Empathy is at the top of my list of stress reduction methods, but is not the only item on it. Empathy alongwith mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, spending time in a sensory deprivation tank (not otherwise discussed here), and certain naturally occurring steroids, need to be better known as interventions that reduce inflammation and restore homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research.

Biology has got us humans in a bind, since the biology did not evolve at the same rate as our human social structures. When bacteria attack the human body, the body’s immune system mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sickness behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years, and is basically healthy as the body conserves its energy and fights off the infection using its natural immune response.

Now fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not envision the stresses of modern life back when we were short stature, proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti Plain and defending ourselves against large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stressors of modern life—the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis—and the result is “sickness behavior”—many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression—but there is no infection, just inflammation. 

The inflammation becomes chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to “down regulate” the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as empathy reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor. When an angry—“inflamed”—person is listened to empathically—is given a “good listening” as I like to say—the person frequently calms down and regains his equilibrium. 

Empathy migrates onto the short list of inflammation reducing interventions. The compelling conclusion is that empathy is good for your well-being.

Bibliography, References, and Additional Reading

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(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The Limits of Empathy in Politics

If freedom of expression and free speech are flourishing, but no one is listening, then empathy becomes a tree that falls in the forest when no one is present. Empathy does not make a sound – or a difference. 

Even in politics empathy is always empathy. However, politics brings along a whole new set of questions, issues, and challenges by with which empathy is confronted and to which empathy gets applied. The political becomes personal, unsettlingly so at times.

What then is the limit of empathy in politics? This is the limit: the practice of empathy does not work well with bullies, sociopaths, psychopaths, QAnon style delusional thinkers, the criminally insane, and [some] autistic children. 

The prevalence of bullying in the school playground and politics is widespread and toxic; and one should never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. Yet, if your political opponent is behaving like a bully, empathy is not going to be enough. You will need to find supplementary methods – empathy alone will not work on her or him. These hard cases literally will not “get it.” They will not perceive the empathy. They will not experience your empathy. 

Worse yet, some bullies and psychopaths will accept your empathy and turn it against you, the better to control, manipulate, and dominate you. If the practice of empathy is not the way forward, how then does one deal with bullying without becoming a bully oneself?

The answer is direct: set limits. Set boundaries. Thus, far and no further! Stay in your own lane. Get back into your own corner. Stay in your own space. Keep your hands to yourself! In so far as empathy is all about firm yet flexible boundaries between the self and the other, a rigorous and critical empathy is engaged here; but until the boundary is reestablished, empathy cannot come into its own. Indeed once boundary violations occur and safety or security is at risk, the issue is no longer an empathic one – call for backup, implement self-defense measures, or escape and continue the struggle on another day.  

The FBI hostage negotiating team understands that empathy reduces rage and upset; and they use empathy in context for that purpose, though, as far as I know, they do not use the word “empathy” as such. Yet once the bullets start flying, the time for empathy has passed. Send in the swat team. For an illuminating article on the margins of empathy see Elizabeth Bernstein on “Advice From a Hostage Negotiator” (WSJ.com 06/14/2020) [https://on.wsj.com/3ajoYon]. Law enforcement gets empathy. Bad guys watch out. Once again, never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. 

In so far as empathy is all about respecting the boundaries between self and other, one group and another group, boundary setting is relevant to politics and empathy. So if one can reestablish a boundary, then empathy can be reintroduced, gradually, to guide us in how to cross back and forth across the boundary without submitting to bullying, provoking a temper tantrum, or getting stuck in breakdown. 

Yet the shadow of the tribalism falls over empathy in politics. Empathy gets a bad rap because empathy is often limited in contemporary political debates to empathy of identity. However, empathy – and that is the innovation here – empathy is also empathy of differences. Key terms: empathy of identity and empathy of difference.

With an empathy of differences, in addition to identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. 

Empathy shows up when one person encounters the other person and recognizes his or her differences. I hasten to add no one is asking anyone to give up or devalue his or her identity. The suggestion is that the Empathy of Differences lets identities flourish in a space of acceptance and toleration created by empathic recognition. The empathic recognition in turn creates a political arena where people can debate and compromise and get things done. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoe rarely fits exactly right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot when it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized.

Illustration of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debating his opponent Steven Douglas in front of a crowd, circa 1858. (Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our interests and aspirations have areas of overlap – for example, we want our children to flourish; we want to be able to make a contribution to the community; we want to be secure in our private lives and preference. With goals pursued along different paths, our possibilities converge or diverge without conflict. Our opportunities align in parallel or intersect at right angles instead of clashing. We are able to cooperate and embrace workability instead of obstructing one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Once again, there is nothing wrong with the empathy of identity, but something is missing. What is missing is difference. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, and local community. As noted, there is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But the empathy of identity is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of differences. 

If one is limited to an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are alike.” No one is proposing to try completely to abolish tribalism, but tribalism is definitely limiting and constraining.

All these different tribes sets in motion a trend, which arguably is tribalism’s own undoing, dissolving its identity – Republicans, Democrats, Progressive, Conservatives, Libertarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 198 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. So many identities – so many tribes. If one gets and belongs to enough of them, identity starts to dissolve. 

Tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. If you participate in enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of multiculturalism, communalism, or ecumenical spirituality, market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to commonly shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic of dissolution into a melting pot of identities– for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well but breaks down at the boundary at which one encounter the other individual and group and their differences.

The innovative point here – to emphasize once again – is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as importantly about differences. 

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are similarities. The other is different than I am. But without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is born in the difference. Empathy is born in the difference of otherness and in the otherness of difference. 

If that starts to spin, enjoy the ride.  At least you are not alone – as the practice of empathy is the one thing you cannot do all by yourself. Empathy is a function of otherness. Without the other individual, there is only myself – oneself. 

Solipsism is the philosophical position – the illusion – there the entire universe consists of oneself very alone – hence, solus ipse. One is the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – and the resistance of the other emerges from differences – the otherness of the other. You need an other – and the other individual’s differences – to get empathy started. 

Being open to the other person’s feelings, affects, experiences, beliefs, and resonating in tune with the other individual, yields inevitably both the similarity and differences of those feelings, affects, experiences, and beliefs. That is the empathic moment: I realize we are different and that difference lives and becomes accessible in the space of acceptance and toleration between us. 

This brings us again to the limit of empathy in politics. Thus, the fundamental political question for a rigorous and critical empathy in politics is what to do politically with individuals and groups that one cannot stand. 

What to do with individuals and groups who arouse a visceral dislike and antipathy that are acknowledged to be irrational? What to do with individuals and groups with whom one disagrees on policy, practices, perspectives, procedures, customs, or spiritual practices? The tribalism of the empathy of identity is not going to get you of this impasse. 

The reduction to absurdity of the empathy of identity is humorist Tom Lehrer’s satirical song,  “National Brotherhood Week”:  “Shake the hand of someone you can’t stand.” 

Humor and empathy are closely related. One crosses a boundary between self and other in both cases. In humor one crosses the boundary with aggressive or sexual innuendo; in empathy one crosses the boundary with gracious permission and generosity. 

Lehrer predictably succeeds in being wickedly funny, though deeply cynical, as he sings an upbeat tune: “…The rich folks hate the poor folks and the poor folks hate the rich folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks – it’s American as apple pie! But during National Brotherhood Week – Sheriff Clarke and Lena Horne are dancing cheek-to-cheek.” Note that Clarke was a notoriously committed racist and segregationist during the early Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and Lena Horne was a celebrated African-American singer of romantic smoky ballads – not a likely match up on anyone’s dating site.

While shaking the hand of one’s sworn opponent (or an elbow bump in a pandemic) is always a good start, it is ultimately incomplete. Unless an empathic context of toleration and acceptance is established for the hand shaking, the risk of shaking hands with someone you can’t stand is that one will end up despising the other even more. 

Lehrer’s song ends by expressing the unexpressed elephant in the room “…[Be] nice to people who are inferior to you / It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.” 

As the song implies, absent additional training in and work on empathy and critical thinking, the hypocrisy and prejudice live on. The practice of empathy becomes the practice of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

The disciplined practice of a rigorous and critical empathy is on the path to well functioning political community and successful engagement with one’s political opponents and rivals. A rigorous practice of empathy requires critical thinking to guide it, and, in turn, critical thinking requires empathy to open the space of relatedness, acceptance, and toleration of differences. 

This rigorous and critical empathy includes critical thinking. Critical thinking includes such skills as questioning in the sources of one’s facts and beliefs, examining and questioning one’s assumptions, assessing conflicting reports in the media, looking for hidden assumptions and biases, examining one’s own for conflicts of interest, recognizing one’s own mistakes and cleaning them up at once, basic listening skills, taking turns, and seeing if one’s conclusions are actually implied by one’s facts and reasoning from these facts. These are all important. But the number one skill of critical thinking is putting oneself in the place of one’s opponent, competitor, or colleague and considering the alternative point of view – cognitive empathy. Such empathy becomes a priority in a political context.

In conclusion, when empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy, then the limits of empathy in politics are the limits of politics, not the limits of empathy.

References

Tom Lehrer, National Brotherhood Week [performed]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIlJ8ZCs4jY

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

A Rumor of Empathy is now a podcast (series)

Got to Empathy Lessons on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1OvEwkDD9b3IH66erzehnM?si=MeQ6C1uTQDyYGuAUGbegBw ] [more episodes coming soon]

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

A rumor of empathy (the podcast) hears of a report of an alleged example of empathy in the work, action, or conversation of a person or organization. I then reach out to the person and talk to them in detail about the work they are doing try to get the facts and confirm or disconfirm the validity of the rumor. Makes sense?

A Rumor of Empathy is committed to providing a gracious and generous listening, empathy, in conversation with its guests and listeners. Join the host in chasing 

down and confirming or debunking an unsubstantiated report of empathy in the community and engaging in an on the air conversation in transforming human struggle and suffering into meaningful relationships, satisfying results and contribution to the community. When one is really listened to empathically and heard in one’s struggle and effort, then something shifts. Possibilities open up that were hidden in plain view. Action that makes a difference occurs so that empathy becomes less of a rumor and an expanded reality in your life and in the community. When all the philosophical arguments and psychological back-and-forth are over and done, in empathy, one is quite simply in the presence of another human being. Join Dr Lou for an empowering conversation in which empathy is made present.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

Empathy and humor – resistance to empathy?

Humor and empathy are closely related. We start with an example that includes both. Caution: Nothing escapes debunking, including empathy. My apologies in advance about any ads associated with the video. 

Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. Both empathy and humor relieve stress and reduce tension. 

However, empathy crosses the boundary between self and other with respect, recognition, care, finesse, artistry, affinity, delicacy, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor crosses the boundary between individuals with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards. 

If you have to explain the joke, it is not funny – nevertheless, here goes. 

The community standard made the target of satire in the SNL skit is that people are supposed to be empathic. The husband claims he wants to understand social justice issues but when given a chance to improve his understanding – drinking the empathy drink by pitched by the voice over – he resists. He pushes back. He pretends to drink, but does not even take off the bottle cap. When pressured, he even jumps out the window rather than drink the drink. 

The wife does not do much better. She resists expanding her empathy too, by pretending that, as a woman, she already has all the empathy needed. Perhaps, but perhaps not. People give lip service to empathy – and social justice – but do not want to do the hard word to create a community that is empathic and works for all. 

The satire surfaces our resistance to empathy, our double standard, and our tendency to be fake about doing the tough work – including a fake empathy drink. If only it were so easy!

Therefore, be careful. Caution! The mechanism of humor presents sex or aggression in such a way that it creates tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions. This occurs to a degree that causes stress in the listener just short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the story or joke. Then the “punch line” relieves the tension all at once in a laugh. 

Another sample joke? This one is totally non controversial, so enables one to appreciate the structure of the joke. 

A man is driving a truck in the back of which are a group of penguins. The man gets stopped for speeding by a police officer. Upon consideration, the officer says: “I will let you off with a warning this time, but be sure to take those penguins to the zoo.” The next day the same man is driving the same truck with the exact same penguins. Only this time, the penguins are wearing sunglasses. The same police officer pulls the driver over again and says: “I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The man replies: “I did. Yesterday we went to the zoo. Today we are going to the beach!” Pause for laugh. 

The point is that humor, among many things, is a way in which one speaks truth to power—and gets away with it. In this case, one disobeys the police officer. One is technically in the wrong, though vindicated. Penguins in sunglasses are funny. More specifically, the mechanism of the joke is the ambiguous meaning of “takes someone to the zoo.” One can go to the zoo as a visitor to look at the animals or one can be incarcerated there, as are the animals on display. 

Instead of a breakdown in relating such as “you are under arrest!” the relationship is enhanced. The driver is following the officer’s guidance after all, granted the interpretation was ambiguous.

You get a good laugh—and a vicarious trip to the beach added to the bargain. Empathy is the foundation of community in a deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. Humor and jokes also create a community between the audience and storyteller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter (see also Ted Cohen on Joking Matters (1999)).

The story creates a kind of verbal optical illusion, a verbal ambiguity that gets expressed in laughter. In empathy perhaps one gets a vicarious hand shake, hug, “high five,” pat on the back, or tissue to dry a tear, expressing itself in recognition of our related  humanity, while affirming and validating the self-other distinction.

Featured image of laughing carrousel horses (c) Alex Zonis

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The trouble with the trouble with empathy (this is not a typo)

Empathy flourishes in a space of acceptance and tolerance. But acceptance and tolerance have their dark side, too. People can be intolerant and unaccepting. Be accepting of what? Be accepting of intolerance? Be tolerant of intolerance? Yes, be tolerant, but set limits. But how to do that given that we may still have free speech in the USA, but many people have just stopped listening

“The Trouble With Empathy” is an article by Molly Worthen published in The New York Times on September 04, 2020. The author gets many things just right in an impressive engagement with the complexities of empathy, but in other areas, including the citations of certain academics, I have an alternative point of view. Hence, the trouble with the trouble with empathy is not a typo. The reply is summarized in the diagram (note that it is labeled “Figure 2,” but it is the only diagram – page down, please). For those interested in more detail, read on. 

Babies are not born knowing the names of the color spectrum. Children are taught these names and how to use them in (pre)Kindergarten; likewise, with the names of the emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and high spirits. However, there is a lot more to empathy than naming one’s feelings and getting in touch with our mammalian ability to resonate with one another in empathic receptivity and understanding. 

As an adult, the fact that you failed to be empathic does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training. 

Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.

Empathy breakdowns lead to breakthroughs

Evidence from the past rarely demonstrates what innovations are possible in the future. Just because people are not born with wings does not mean people cannot fly. If the Wright Brothers had accepted the evidence, we would all still be taking the train. I hasten to add there is nothing wrong with taking the train. People can be intolerant, and I too am people. Work on oneself is constantly needed. 

I open my mouth to be empathic and respond empathically—but instead of an empathic response, out jumps a frog: “I feel your pain.” What a fake! If I really felt your pain, then I would say “Ouch!” not “I feel your pain.” I find that I do frequently say “Ouch!” Or just shake my head and provide acknowledgement and recognition: “You’ve really been dealing with some tough stuff.” “Sounds like use could use some empathy.” 

The point is not to devalue the attempted empathic response, clumsy though it may be. The point is to acknowledge that the lazy person expands his empathy in a practice filled with examples of not getting it quite right. If empathy were a sport, it would be filled with strikeouts, fumbles, off sides, failures, and incomplete plays. There would even perhaps be examples of “unsportsman-like conduct.” 

Each of the four phases of empathy has characteristic breakdowns. This is not new news. The news is that if engaged with a rigorous and critical empathy, these breakdowns readily become breakthroughs in empathy. 

Breakthroughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. The Big Four breakdowns of empathy are noted: emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and getting lost in translation. These are not the only breakdowns of empathy, which are many and diverse, but these are the most frequent ones. 

In the example of emotional contagion, one anxious person is telling the other person about all the reasons in the world that he is feeling out of sorts. Pretty soon, the person who is listening is starting to feel anxious too. The person’s receptivity—openness and availability—to the other individual’s emotions is working overtime and his empathic receptivity misfires, becoming: Emotional contagion. Emotional infection strikes again! 

Often it is not so obvious. Often people are caught up in the emotion of the moment. The emotion itself is so powerful that it just sweeps over everyone present like a tidal wave—an emotional tsunami. The person is flooded—emotionally.

If the listener realizes that listening to anxiety-inspiring stories causes his own anxiety to spike, then that is already going beyond emotional contagion and the start of an empathic processing of the emotion. 

If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, being over-stimulated by the inbound flood of the other person’s strong feelings.

Emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—can be redescribed as input to further down stream empathic processing. Then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) gets “normalized” and can very well make a contribution to empathic understanding.

Overcoming the breakdown of empathy into emotional contagion results in the breakthrough to vicarious experience. A vicarious experience is what a person has in going to the theatre, the movies, or a single-person player video game. I experience the fears and hopes of the character in the film, but I do so vicariously. Theatre, film, and the novel were “virtual reality” (VR) long before computers, special VR goggles, and social networking were invented.  

Vicarious experience is not empathy. It is input to the process of empathy. Vicarious experience is the grain of truth in the fake-sounding empathy meme, “I feel your pain.” I feel your pain—vicariously. I experience an after-image of your pain—like the visual after-image of the American flag that results from starring at a vivid depiction of the off-color image of the stars and stripes. I repeat: we gat an after-image of another person’s feelings and emotions. 

I am amazed that no one has as yet explicitly pointed out that we get after-images of other people’s feelings when we are exposed to those feelings for a sustained duration. A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one explicitly recognizes and knows that the other person is the source of the emotion. 

You feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because you are with another person who is having such an experience. You “pick it up” from him. You can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a breakthrough in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then you can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience by being there for him and responding with soothing words and acknowledgement of the situation.

The next breakdown of empathy is settling for conformity instead of striving for possibility. We might also say: settling for agreement instead of striving for possibility. 

People live and flourish in possibilities. Empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (the definition of Hell in a famous play of the same name by Jean Paul Sartre). You follow the crowd in responding to the other person; you do what “one does”; you validate feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; you conform and express agreement; and, with apologies to Henry David Thoreau, you live the life of quiet desperation of the “modern mass of men.” 

When someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, rage, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. We live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the example of the friend who was married and divorced three times. This expresses a strong commitment to marriage, though empathy and husbanding skills are seemingly limited. 

If you acknowledge that the things that get in the way of your relatedness are the very rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation. 

Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation? 

Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited. 

Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.” 

This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her. 

My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures. 

The fact that you failed does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training. 

Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. As that notorious bad boy of a certain 18th century enlightenment, Voltaire, is supposed to have said: Let not perfection be the enemy of the good. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.

Knowing Professor Worthen’s [the author of the NYT article that provoked this reply] interest in religious studies, I conclude with a reflection on empathy and the Good Samaritan. The Parable of the Good Samaritan speaks volumes (Luke 10: 25–37). The first two people, who passed by the survivor by crossing the road, experienced empathic distress. They were prevented from helping out by a breakdown of their empathic receptivity. They were overwhelmed by the suffering and crossed the road. In contrast, the Good Samaritan had a vicarious experience of the suffering. His empathic receptivity gave him access to the survivor’s pain. His empathy told him what the other person was experiencing and his compassion told him what to do about it. 

To get Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and Hermeneutics

Empathy has been given a bad rap in hermeneutic circles by being degraded to a psychological mechanism whereas empathy is rather a way of being in relatedness to individuals and community. Key term: being in relatedness. (For those who may not be tuned into “hermeneutic circles” the short definition is: theory of interpretation. When we open our mouths and speak, a lot of what comes out is interpretation.)

The power of empathy – like that of hermeneutics at large – occurs in cleaning up misunderstandings, breakdowns, and miscommunications. A single diagram on p 35 of Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide says it all, reproduced here for your convenience.

Slide1

Enter the hermeneutic circle of empathy and create a breakthrough – success – in relatedness out of the breakdown(s). The empathy lesson is that, when handled with empathy, breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs.

If empathic relatedness misfires in emotional contagion, conformity, projections, or getting lost in translation, then one approach is to abandon empathy and become angry, resigned and cynical. An alternative and better approach would be to expand empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.

For example, if one is experiencing emotional contagion in relating to another person, then one can respond with what I call the favorite indoor sport of academics – over-intellectualization. Go into your head. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does not expand empathy. A different approach is to take the vicarious experience – the feeling of the feeling of the other – that has been communicated in emotional contagion like an after image of the other’s experience. Use this vicarious experience to be receptive to the other’s experience. Use it as input to understanding what the other person is experiencing.

In another example, empathy can break down in conformity – pressure to conform to social standards or practices that actually empty one’s experience of satisfaction and even be destructive of community. One follows the crowd. One does what “they say.” With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, one leads the life of quiet desperation of the modern mass of men. Instead of promoting conformity – or even a superficial nonconformity – one can use empathic understanding and ask: Who is this other person as a possibility?

If you look at the rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. You have a breakthrough in what is possible through empathic understanding. Satisfaction in relatedness expands. Relationships become satisfying in ways not previously envisioned. Empathy grows and life is enriched.

So far, this is “bottom up” – so-called affective empathy. Yes, even the empathic understanding is understanding of the possibilities in which we live. Strictly speaking, that is not affective, but neither is it cognitive. It is precognitive. However, when I truly get stuck in trying to understand the other individual and her situation, then I make use of “top down” empathy. This is the folk aspect of empathy: I take a walk in their shoes. I think about – try to grasp in fundamental thinking – what it may be like being in their predicament. I “jump start” my relatedness through interpretation.

Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?

Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.

Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”

This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.

Without empathic responsiveness, my empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.

Many additional examples of empathy successes and empathy breakdowns are available in the light-hearted look at the subject: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, including some twenty-eight full color illustrations by that celebrated artist Alex Zonis. If you only read one non-academic book on empathy, this is the one. Check it out here: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide.

(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project

See Lou Agosta’s other books on empathy – academic and popular here: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f

Empathy and Gender

Biology is not destiny. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex, woman is not a mere womb. Likewise, I note: man is not mere testosterone. [Note: This post is an excerpt from the final section of Chapter Seven on my book: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy, available here: click here to examine complete book.]

Cover Art: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy
Cover Art: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy

Biology is important, but biology is not destiny. That was one of the key points of the feminist revolution. Raising children is a job – a big job; and so is being the CEO of IBM as was Virginia Rometty until earlier this year. 

The matter is delicate. These human beings – we human beings – are an aggressive species. It is usually the men that are doing the aggressing. That is indeed a function of testosterone – as well as upbringing [child rearing practices], enculturation, and the evaluation of the species. 

Common sense suggests that woman is the more nurturing gender, given her role in giving birth and keeping the home fires burning in agricultural, hunting, and traditional indigenous cultures. Women are keeping the home fires burning, so what are the men doing? Men are out systematically doing battle with saber-toothed tigers and hostile neighbors.  If this seems like an over-simplification, it is. Yet it is a compelling one, given the evolution and history of the species.

This issue of empathy and gender becomes controversial. Claims have been made that a man’s brain  is different than a woman’s. In particular, men are “wired” for systematizing; and women are “wired” for empathy – for relating, especially relating to children and other human beings in general. This research – usually credited to neuropsychologist Simon Baron Cohen but also to Frans de Waal – has for sometime now been debunked – shown to be limited, distorted, and flat out wrong.

When one looks at the methods and the data in detail, no consistent gender difference in empathy have been observed – read on!  

I provide the reference point upfront. As noted, the research by Simon Baron Cohen that men’s brains are “wired” for systematizing and women’s for relating and relationships are questioned and indeed debunked in Robyn Blum’s article in Heidi L. Maibom, ed. (2017). (For Bluhm’s original article see The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy. London/New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 396 pp. )

Robyn Bluhm’s article probes the research on the evidential basis of this nurturing role and inquires: does it extend to empathy and how far?

Early gender-empathy studies were vulnerable to self-report biases and gender stereotyping that pervasively depicted females in a biased way as the more empathic gender. According to Bluhm, these early studies simply do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Case closed on them. Dismissed. Enter Simon Baron-Cohen and his innovative research, renewing the debate and shifting it in the direction of neural science as opposed to social roles and their self-fulfilling stereotypes.

Bluhm points out in detail that as Baron-Cohen’s work gained exposure and traction in the academic market place of ideas subtle shifts occurred in his presentation of the results. At first Baron-Cohen highlighted measures that were supposed to assess both cognitive and affective empathy, but later the affective dimension fell out of the equation (and the research) and only cognitive empathy was the target of inquiry and was engaged (p. 381).

Though Baron-Cohen’s initial research described the “male brain” as having “spatial skills,” his later publications, once he became a celebrity academic (once again, my term, not Bluhm’s), redescribe the male brain as “hardwired for systematizing”; likewise, the “female-type” brain, initially credited with being better at “linguistic skills,” was redescribed as “hardwired for empathy.” The language shifts from being about “social skills.” Baron-Cohen speaks of “empathy” rather than “social skills,” so that the two distinctions are virtually synonymous (p. 384).

As the honest broker, Bluhm notes that, as with the earlier research in gender differences, Baron-Cohen’s research has been influential but controversial. Men and women have different routes to accessing and activating their empathy; they respond to different pressures to conform to (or rebel against) what the community defines as gender-appropriate behavior; and men and women even have different incentives for empathic performance.

For example, “…[M]en’s scores on an empathy task equaled women’s when a monetary reward for good performance was offered” (p. 384). Monetary rewards up; empathy up? Though Bluhm does not say so, I came away with the distinct impression of a much needed debunking of the neurohype—what we would now call “fake news”—a job well done.

Bluhm’s work is especially pertinent in constraining celebrity, executive consultants (once again, my term), running with the neuro-spin, and publishing in the Harvard Business Review, who assert that brain science shows we need more women executives on corporate boards to expand empathy.

I hasten to add that we do indeed need more women executives, but that is not something demonstrated by brain science, at least as of this date (Q2 2020). We need more women executives because it is demonstrated by statistics (just one of many sources of reasons other than brain science) that to devalue the contributions to innovation, service, and productivity of slightly more than half the population is bad business practice—foolish, inefficient, and wasteful. The challenge is that the practices that make one good at business—beating the competition, engaging technology problems, solving legal disputes—do not necessarily expand one’s empathy, regardless of gender.

[In a separate, informal email conversation (dated July 2, 2018), Bluhm calls out Cordelia Fine’s fine takedown of “The Myth of the Lehman Sisters” in the last chapter of Fine’s book (not otherwise a part of Bluhm’s review): Cordelia Fine, (2017), Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society. New York: W. W. Norton. It is a bold statement of the obvious – that the part of basic anatomy that differs between men and women is definitely NOT the brain. But that is missed due to lack of empathy which is committed to responding to the whole person – not just the brain or the sex organs.]

In an expression of insightful and thunderous understatement, Bluhm concludes: “With the exception of studies that rely on participants’ self-reports or on other’s reports of their behavior [which are invalid for other reasons], no consistent gender differences in empathy have been observed. This raises the possibility that gender differences in empathy are in the eye of the beholder, and that the beholder is influenced by gender stereotypes…” (p. 386). Just so.

Okay, having debunked the myth that men’s brains are different – and in particular less empathic – what to do about the situation that many men (and women?) struggle to expand their empathy? The recommendation is not to treat empathy and an on-off switch. Empathy is rather a dial – to be tuned up or down based on the situation. That takes practice.

Some men – many men – may start out with an empathic disadvantage in experiencing their feelings after having been taught such stuff as “big boys don’t cry.” But if people, including men, practice getting in touch with their experience, then they get better at it – experiencing their experience. Likewise, with empathy. If you practice, you get better at it. For those interested in practicing, but not working too hard, may I recommend: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide: click here to examine (and buy!) the book.

Further Reading

Ickes, William & Gesn, Paul & GRAHAM, TIFFANY. (2000). Gender differences in empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation?. Personal Relationships. 7. 95 – 109. 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2000.tb00006.x.

ELPG Front Cover as jpg

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy in the age of the coronavirus

What does empathy in the age of coronavirus look like? Two words to get started: social distancing.

Social distancing makes sense and is necessary; but social distancing has a cost and an impact.

No hugs allowed. No shaking hands. Bumping elbows? Questionable. “Hug therapy”? There is such an innovation, as the right kind of hug seems to release endorphins – but it is on the ropes. Not good news, though perhaps only a temporary – months long? – setback.

Do not overlook the obvious good news. Some jobs can be performed remotely using

Follow medical doctor's orders - keep calm - and wash your hands!

Follow medical doctor’s orders – keep calm – and wash your hands!

online methods and Skype-like facilities such as Zoom or Signal. Many businesses already operate secure virtual  private networks. Many kinds of consulting, coaching, guidance, and talk therapy can occur via telecomm, and, though aspects of empathic relatedness may be lost or stretched thin, good enough results can be attained to make it worthwhile to try. Other situations are more problematic.

The social distancing recommendation is strained to the breaking point when it comes to first responders such as doctors and nurses (police, fire, ambulance drives, and others).

Yes, one can take a throat and nose swab without too much interaction, but it is not going to happen from six feet away. Moreover, one does not know what is the cause of the patient’s symptoms so further “laying on of hands” is often required. Thus, the risk. I acknowledge that it is deeply cynical, but I have to note: “Just because we have a germ phobia does not mean we cannot get sick.” We can – and do.

Here the empathy lesson is that empathy is a two way street and the first responders may require reasonable accommodation – and empathy from the community including the patients. So if the doctor shows up in a HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suit, it is not for lack of empathy, it is due to needing to screen dozens of people and stay healthy to screen even more. See above on the cost of social distancing.

What to do when there are no masks and gowns, or MDs and nurses are asked to wear yesterday’s contaminated stuff, are the tough questions. Some hospitals (and families), who have fabrication (including sewing) skills, are making their own. Others are calling the media and blowing the whistle on this appalling situation of first responders at unnecessary risk. All are madly rushing about trying to close the barn door now that the horses [of the apocalypse?!] have escaped. [Update: paragraph added: 03/21/2020.]

Once again, empathy is about community and responsibility. Here is the empathic moment according to celebrity MD, Sanjay Gupta:

“How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health,” Gupta said on the air with CNN. “Never, I think, have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to that occasion.” [Kate Shepard and Allison Chiu reporting The Morning Mix March 18, 2020: ‘I’ve never seen Dr. Sanjay Gupta like this’: Strollers, joggers in locked down San Francisco spark anger on CNN: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/18/coronavirus-cnn-sanjay-gupta/ ]

UPDATE: March 22, 2020:

University of Chicago Medicine infectious diseases expert Dr. Emily Landon spoke during the Illinois governor’s COVID-19 press conference on March 20, 2020. Hear her explain why the statewide order to stay at home is crucial to protecting everyone.

“Our health care system doesn’t have any slack. There are no empty wards waiting for patients or nurses waiting in the wings. We barely even have enough masks for the nurses that we have. Looking back to the last time, we were– limited tools and having a dangerous infection spread quickly was the beginning of the 1918 pandemic.

“Two cities in America made different choices about how to proceed and when only a few patients were affected. St. Louis shut itself down and sheltered in place. But Philadelphia went ahead with a huge parade to celebrate those going off to war.

“A week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun. And thousands were dead, many more than in St. Louis. This is a cautionary tale for our time. Things are already tough in Illinois hospitals, including mine. There is no vaccine or readily available antiviral to help stem the tide.

“All we have to slow the spread is social distance. And if we let every single patient with this infection infect three more people and then each of them infect two or three more people, there won’t be a hospital bed when my mother can’t breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much.” Do your part – follow Dr Landon’s guidance. Meanwhile –

You have got to get the black humor here. The situation in Washington DC (and on CNN) is serious but not hopeless; the situation in Milan, Italy, is hopeless but not serious – people under lock down as the death toll rises are going out onto their balconies and singing.

The mother of an eight grader in New Rochelle, New York, who comes home with a fever, is leaving trays of food outside his bedroom door and everyone is eating off of paper plates. This is what empathy looks like in the age of the coronavirus.

This is not a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit. Six guys in HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suits descend on the family in New Rochelle and make them sign an agreement to stay home for two weeks. They signed. It could be worse. This too shall pass, and presumably the kid (whose fever is going down) will have enhanced (if not unconditional) immunity and can himself serve as a first responder once he grows up.  [See Jason Riley’s Report from New York’s Containment Zone March 17, 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/report-from-new-yorks-containment-zone-11584485597?cx_testId=3&cx_testVariant=cx_2&cx_artPos=3#cxrecs_s.%5D

Well and good, except where’s the empathy?

Empathy is all about boundaries and crossing boundaries with understanding, receptivity, responsiveness, respect, dignity, courtesy, humor (when appropriate), affection, affinity, and, at the risk of circular reasoning, empathic relatedness.

So what are the proper boundaries in a coronavirus epidemic? Empathy lessons 101 teach us that the most fearsome thing is the unknown – the Hold that thought. The unknown is stressful. The unknown leaves one feeling isolated. The unknown inspires anxiety. The unknown creates an opening for alternative facts, half truths, and total nonsense.

As noted in this blog previously, you know how in the vintage black and white monster movies, once the audience actually sees the Swamp Thing, which is obviously a guy in a lizard suit, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary. The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.

Doubtful this is the Zombie Apocalypse, but it puts me in mind of that U2 classic “Mysterious Ways”: “We’ll be living underground. Eating from a can. Runnin’ away from what you don’t understand. Love.” [Insert dramatic base line here.]

All right, so we are not yet ready for the Zombie Apocalypse, but some people are acting like it – like Zombies, that is. Especially unfortunate is that a few of them hold high public office or are media personalities. But we have got to work with what we’ve got for the time being. Other people are totally “business as usual.” Both extremes need to cut that out! Instead think! Think:  community and responsibility.

I am inspired in this thought – community and responsibility – by Jason Bridges. From a practical point of view, Jason Bridges, a professor of philosophy of mind and of Ludwig Wittgenstein (University of Chicago), writes eloquently in an unpublished but widely circulating email of community and responsibility in the time of coronavirus:

“Crises like this lay bare what is always anyway true: we are all members of community. To belong to a community is to be responsible for it” (Unpublished email 2020).

Though Bridges does not use the word “empathy,” this is the empathic moment. Those of us who are not at an especially high risk may usefully ask: “Is doing this responsible?” (“This” being many forms of in-person social contact we have taken for granted.)

The issue – and conflict – is that empathy is supposed to bring us closer –emotionally and spiritually. However, given the kind of physical embodied creatures that we humans are, emotional and spiritual closeness are often mediated by physical, bodily closeness (though crucially not always). (See above – back to “hug therapy.”)

We seem intrinsically to be a species that likes to congregate and get close to one another, at least on many occasions. Some cultures – Italian, Spanish, French, Southern (?) – seem to do this more so than others – Scandinavian, German, Northern (?). America, China, and Russia are vast and include some of each.

Thus, we return to the crucial issue of social distancing and its impact – and cost – with an illness spreading through community contagion.

By cancelling in person events at church, work, school, sports, theatre, and so on, in order to save lives, one is doing exactly the thing predicted to expand loneliness, isolation, detachment, and risking irrational behavior such as hording and opportunistic price increases. You solve one problem; create another. That’s another reason this is a crisis – the dominoes are still falling.

You see the dilemma? Going to church is not usually regarded as an intrinsically empathic activity, but lots of people do it because the experience of community addresses their need for empathy, to be acknowledged as a whole person, to feel included. Same idea with other community events.

Research shows that loneliness can be as bad for one’s health as smoking cigarettes or obesity (see John Cacioppo, (2008), Loneliness, Human Nature, and the Need for Social Connection, New York: W. W. Norton). Loneliness causes stress, reducing the immune system response, and triggering inflammation. Fear also causes such an immune response decline; and, heaven knows, the unknown – including aspects of the COVID-19 situation – is the most fearsome thing. So here is the rock and here is the hard place – what is one to do?

Just doing some brain storming here. The line at the polling station during the March 17, 2020 election had people waiting six feet apart. The frozen custard shop was reconfiguring its service line with markers on the ground at six-foot intervals. Given that the store is often jammed with children pushing forward, it is going to be interesting to see how that works.

Tips and techniques for maintaining and expanding social contact include: pick up the phone and talk to someone. Do not merely text, but have a conversation. Same idea using video conferencing such as Skype, Zoom, or Signal. Talk with one or two friends a day –once again, talk, not text. Do something for someone. It does not have to be volunteering to get the first coronavirus vaccination human trials, and dealing with the uncertainty whether it will cause your children to be born with tails. Do something small. Make a trip to the store for the senior couple next door. Help with chores, homework, or whatever you can contribute.

Although exercise and mindfulness do not usually require talking with others, they can be done in such a way that social distancing is maintained – for example, running outdoors or sitting indoors in a spacious room. These reduce loneliness and related stress.

I will not further comment on the detailed recommendation as numerous resources are available from WHO and the CDC (other relevant local authorities should be included here), frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not to do. I accept the guidance and so should you, dear reader.

Now I agree events need to be cancelled due to the risk of community contagion. What I am asking is whether, for the time being, people can get their head around sitting two sneezes distance apart (in accordance with present CDC guidelines) and the pastor holds two services – one for seniors and one for those less at risk. More work? Yes, but perhaps doable just the same. (Okay, “two sneezes” means the six

Seems like the right idea to me for so many reason. Artistic activity boosts the immune system? Might be worth a try, though tragically the local Italian newspapers are crowded with obituaries. The hypothesis is that the warm, affectionate, cultural practices of getting in close for conversation and food and Catholic mass and so on, did not work well, rapidly spreading a highly contagious pathogen. No good deed goes unpunished!? Yet good deeds in abundance are many and even more are needed.

So, once again, what does empathy in the time of coronavirus look like?

As noted, it also looks like the Italian people, who are suffering severe fatalities in the pandemic, getting out on their balconies and singing – serenading the neighborhood.

It looks like maintaining a healthy routine of exercise, diet, communicating at arms lengths and with electronic media, keeping calming and carrying on – I mean – washing your hands.

It also looks like young healthy people making grocery shopping runs for senior citizens who are still healthy but reluctant to venture out. It looks like shoppers buying two cartons of eggs and two packages of toilet paper instead of two dozen.(What were these people thinking? Right, they were not thinking – that is the point – as Hannah Arendt noted long ago, not thinking can provide an opening for evil to get a foothold.)

It also looks like employers keeping staff on the payroll even though business is in a downturn.

It looks like insurers forgoing their monopoly rents and agreeing to reimburse first responders for their services in treating all potential patients without condition or qualification.

It also looks like government support for big pharma, which has a chance to shine [for a change!], in developing a vaccine (and anti-viral treatments) on a crash, moon-shot-style basis, which vaccine, in turn, has to be given-away to the planet.

Paraphrasing Jason Bridges, crises like this lay bear the weakness and strengths of the community. It puts me in mind of the kid’s game “The Cooties.” Some seven-year-old yells “You’ve got the cooties!” It is the game of tag. The kids all runs around like crazy playing tag – the opposite of social distancing, yet a transformation of it – because you cannot get close or you might be “tagged.” Fortunately, no one dies of the cooties, unlike COVID-19. Thus the breakdowns of empathy of the community are exposed – hoarding, stigmatizing, opportunistic behavior, boundary violations, beggar thy neighbor behavior.

Never was it truer that good fences (not walls!) make good neighbors; but there is a gate in the fence and over the gate is inscribed the word “Empathy.” Every breakdown, when handled with empathy, has the possibility of a breakthrough – a breakthrough in sustaining and crossing boundaries with expanded understanding, generosity, humor (as appropriate and inappropriate), responsiveness, receptivity, respect, random acts of kindness, dignity, and our shared humanity.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project