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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 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

 

Top 10 Trends in Empathy for 2020

10. Empathy is the new love. You know how in fashion gray is the new black? Same idea. Empathy is the new love. What people really want is to be “gotten” for who they authentically are as a possibility. In hoping to be understood for who they really are as a possibility, people are not asking for love; they are asking for empathy. If empathy is the new love, what then was the old love?

According to philosophers and poets, the old love is akin to a kind of madness—sometimes divine madness, sometimes just plain earthly madness. The one who is in love is semi-hypnotically held in bondage by an idealization of the beloved. In one way, love shows up as animal magnetism, a powerful attraction; in another way, in a quasi-hypnotic trance, love idealizes the beloved, and, blindly and madly overlooks the would-be partner’s failings and limitations.

Moutain path with sign in Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountainous empathy paths ahead for 2020 with sign in Rocky Mountain National Park

Folk wisdom, as noted, suggests that love is blind; Bob Dylan, that love is just a four letter word; Plato, that love is a kind of madness. So far, love sounds like tertiary syphilis.

The goal of love is to erase the boundary between the self and other. Merger of one’s mind and body with the beloved’s mind and body is the sought after result. In contrast to love, empathy navigates or transgresses the boundary between oneself and other such that the merger is temporary and the integrity of the self and other are maintained. One has a vicarious experience of the other—but the difference and integrity of the self and other are preserved.

So from the relational perspective of too much or too little merger and engagement with the other person—love shows up as a breakdown in empathy. It is now love versus empathy. In contrast with empathy, love is a boundary transgression, but one that is permissioned, invited, welcomed. Thus in empathy one creates a space of acceptance and toleration in which love lives.

  1. Empathy and politics: this is an election year in the USA. Politics in this age of polarization is characterized by bullying. How does empathy speak truth to power?

How to deal with bullying without becoming a bully? Set firm limits – set firm boundaries – thus far and no further. Being empathic does NOT mean giving up the right to self defense.

Still, without naming any names, the problem with mud wrestling with a pig is that everyone gets dirty – and the pig likes it! No easy answers here. One modest proposal:

Empathy is the emotional equivalent of jujitsu – use the aggressor’s energy to send him flying the other way. Being empathic does not mean being nice, agreeable, or even being disagreeable. It means knowing what the other person is experiencing because one experiences it too as a sample or trace affect.

As discussed further below in the trending one-minute empathy training, drive out cynicism, aggression, polarization, bullying, and the result is that empathy spontaneously comes forth, expands, and develops.

Power and force are inversely proportional. As the bully’s power goes down, the risk of the use of force [violence] increases. Empathy is powerful, and if necessary it meets force with force. But then it is no longer an empathy; it is empathy in the form of a breakdown of empathy. Empathy consists in restoring the boundaries and integrity to the situation.

  1. Empathy, capitalist tool: Empathy is the ultimate capitalist tool: No business or enterprise can operate for long, much less flourish, without empathy to facilitate teamwork, coordination between customers and sales persons, employees and employers, leaders and staff, and stake-holders at all levels. Even the cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair.

Unfortunately, business leaders lose contact with the human dimension of business in solving legal problems, meeting information technology breakdowns,  reacting to the competition, or dealing with the latest accounting crisis.

Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it.

Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy. I hasten to add that, ultimately, both empathy and data are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic competing offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.” We do not just have empathy. We have empathy, capitalist tool.

7. Your brain on empathy: “It’s all in your head” is a necessary truth, but not in     the sense that you are imagining your experience of joy, fear, anger, pain, or suffering. It’s in your head because it—your experience—is in your brain, that is, your nervous system. We are neurons “all the way down.”

A word of caution. This scientific discovery of mirror neurons and mirroring phenomena should be distinguished from the neurohype occasioned by the application of the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to issues that extend from the pseudo-disciplines of neuro-law to neuro-aesthetics to neuro-marketing and even neuro-history.

Show a jury in court a picture of a person’s brain and it gives the argument credibility (whether for or against conviction). But it is just a picture. Monitoring the neurological activation of individual brains in response to such conditions as videos of painfully impacted limbs, legal arguments, classic paintings, advertisements, and so on, has reached the point where an alternative point of view is being offered on statistically questionable, “voodoo correlations” in fMRI research.

The debate is whether or not mirror neurons exist in human beings. Even if they do not, mirror neurons in monkeys have completed the work that needs to be completed. Some kind of mirroring system exists. It is highly probable that there is an analogous system, even if more complex and diffuse, in humans that functions in mirroring emotions and behavior and that underlies our relationships in empathic community.

However, what the debate has suggested, entirely independently of the status of mirror neurons, is that human beings are connected biologically in a way, not completely understood, such that we resonate with one another affectively. The debate over whether human beings have mirror neurons in the narrower sense continues. The neuro-hype is dialed down in the year ahead.

  1. Empathy is good for you health and well-being. Empathy is on a short list of stress reductionpractices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathyin the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul.   

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. Note: the list of evidence-based articles and peer-reviewed publications is long, not repeated in this short blog post, and can be found in Chapter Four of my Empathy Lessons .

  1. Online empathy in cyberspace: While nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, or unpredictable scheduling dynamics. You know that resistant client who just can’t seem to get to his session due to traffic, rain, or other tenuous excuse? The possibility of an online session, which requires a computer and the privacy of a closed door, shows up the resistance for what it is.

Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized.

Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To order the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])

  1. Empathy and law enforcement: My friends, associates, and colleagues on the police assure me that posters branded with the logo of the local police and a pitch for expanded empathy are showing up in police station locker rooms, break rooms, and behind the scenes facilities. At this point in time, these are for the police, not the public.

Street smart police “get it” that empathy is distinct from compassion or “being nice.” Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experience of the other person. The police officer’s emotional radar has to be out about what the would-be suspect or citizen or fellow officer is experiencing if the officer is to avoid making a potentially bad situation worse.

If the would-be suspect is enraged and about to escalate such a scenario requires a distinct response than if the suspect is afraid and literally shaking in his shoes. Empathy provides  valuable and indispensable emotional intelligence about the mental status of the other person. The police are already guided by their common sense, intuition, and gut feeling in approaching other people. Why not provide explicit training in what to do with one’s empathic receptivity, for that is what this “gut feeling” and intuition amount to? Police departments are realizing that practice in empathy lessons can refine and fine tune the intuition and gut feeling so these actually become powerful tools literally in keeping the peace or when necessary minimizing the appropriate use of force.

All this is important and communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the tax payers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, which will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?

  1. Natural empaths get expanded empathy. This continues the trend from last year. Paradoxically, natural empaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Natural empaths are so sensitive to the pain and suffering of the world that they must isolate themselves, cutting themselves off from the emotional life sustaining recognition and support that people require to flourish and be fully human.

The Natural Empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is swamped by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or overcome by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.

But the suffering is not inevitable. Such statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy.

The empathy lesson for the Natural Empath is to “tune down” her empathic receptivity and “tune up” her empathic understanding and interpretation, while being more flexible about her ethical standards. Here “flexible” does not mean be unethical, but rather allow for the possibility that one needs to work on the balance between one’s own well-being and that of others in helping others.

Now please do not jump to conclusions. That does not mean the Natural Empath should become hard-hearted or unkind. That would definitely not expand empathy. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathic receptivity, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?

The empathy lesson for such individuals? Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. For example, focus on mentalizing, top down empathy, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes, rather than imaginatively evoking the vicarious emotions of the other person’s experiences. Perspective-taking exercises—imaginatively putting oneself in the other’s point of view—expand the participant’s empathy during training sessions. Perspective taking incidentally promotes helping, “pro social” behaviors when it indirectly activates pro-social emotions such as compassion.

Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive, Natural Empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathic receptivity in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Do the work of “up regulating” empathic interpretation whereby one imaginatively puts oneself in the other person’s position and considers the experiences thereby inspired vicariously, reducing the “load” on the emotions. This is different than intellectualizing, compartmentalizing, or distinguishing in thought, but perhaps not different by much. The differences are nuanced, but of the essence.

The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—Natural Empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.

  1. Empathy and psychiatry: The mind engage fixing their own professional house: The psychiatrists with whom I talk advocate a deep and authentic appreciation of the practice of empathy—in order to get the patient to take the medicine. I express agreement—if you are thinking of stepping in front of a bus, don’t! Take the medicine and live to fight another day.

However, this points to the blind spot in psychiatry: A conversation for possibility with another empathic human being also changes one’s neurons and does so in a different but as deep and powerful a way as a psychopharmacological intervention. The mechanism is complex is not fully understood, but neither is the mechanism for lithium salts or antipsychotic medications.

Psychiatrists and many general practitioner MDs are perpetuating a fiction that the drugs they are prescribing are correcting biochemical deficiencies caused by disease, much as (say) a prescription of insulin corrects a biochemical deficiency caused by diabetes (for example see Anne Harrington’s The Mind Fixers, p. 273, which I have found essential in identifying this trend and whose language I paraphrase here). Such rhetoric is badly oversold. No one is saying that the medicines do not help the person tolerate distress, regulate emotions, or self-sooth. Often they do. However, the rhetoric is indefensible and the science is at best a work in progress.

Given the complexity of the scientific challenges, psychiatry need not feel embarrassed. However, neither should it be enthusiastically promoting imminent breakthroughs and revolutions as if it were an adjunct to the popular press or a corporate press release.  

The underlying science is not anywhere near the level the neurohype would have us believe. “You have a chemical imbalance” is a marketing position, not a scientifically established truth. “Schizophrenia is like diabetes and you have to take this antipsychotic drug for the rest of your life” is a rhetorical position, not a scientific fact. This is scientism, not science. This is psychiatry’s troubled search for the biological basis of mental illness. The trend being highlighted here is that, as a profession, psychiatry will focus on medical interventions in the context of culture and community.

  1. The one-minute empathy training is trending: Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic.

Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously comes froth.

Now do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does notexpand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.

The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple. 

Okay – I have read enough and I want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.

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