Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

The spectrum of empathy

I’ve become really interested in empathy since reading George Lakoff’s “The Political Mind.” So I was fascinated to read “The science of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen. He suggests we think of empathy as a spectrum, with people we typically consider “evil” at one end (Adolph Hitler), with zero empathy:

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Baron-Cohen says most of the people with zero empathy suffer from personality disorders. I don’t want to suggest most Republicans have these disorders, but the above characteristics do seem to fit a lot of well-known GOP politicians. Or, if they are empathetic, it’s toward a very small percentage of the population: millionaires and big corporations. For some reason they can’t seem to put themselves in the shoes of 90 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year.

Baron-Cohen says that’s a big mistake:

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in Apartheid South Africa, but the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

I agree that empathy is a key part of understanding our increasingly global world, which is why I was glad to see it being taught to children, especially as self-reported rates of empathy are declining in young people. You can take this quiz to find out how empathetic you are. Read some of Rick’s thoughts on empathy here and here.


Comments on: "The spectrum of empathy" (2)

  1. Wonderful post, Molly.

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