Tag Archives: empathy deficit disorder

Can Empathy Modify Someone’s Political Views?

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 11.03.44 AMNovember 17, 2015

In the context of the rising xenophobia expressed by — mostly — Republican presidential contenders, this new study from the University of Toronto is certainly apropos: It finds that empathy towards a political opponent’s moral views is a more effective path towards political persuasion. I think it highlights the power of being able to step outside yourself and put yourself into the mindset – the emotions, thoughts and values — of another; especially someone with whom you disagree strongly.

A summary of the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin pointed out that if opponents really care about making even modest in-roads with each other, they’ll pay attention to this research: It showed that arguments based on a political opponent’s moral principles, rather than one’s own, have a much better chance of success. 

“We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization,” said Mathew Feinberg, one of the researchers. A series of experiments had liberals and conservatives come up with arguments of their own for someone of the opposite political viewpoint.

The results showed that both groups were extremely poor at developing arguments that would appeal to their political opposite, even when specifically asked to do so. Worse, some participants in both camps actually attacked the morality of those they’d been asked to convince. 

But appealing to core principles of the opposite political persuasion appeared to help. For example, conservatives were more inclined to support universal health care when presented with purity-based arguments that more uninsured people might lead to more disease spread. Liberals showed an uptick in support for higher military spending, when shown an argument based on the principle that the military and the employment opportunities it provides help to reduce inequality.

“Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process,” suggests Feinberg. A good point.

Credit: Shutterstock

Share

A True Test of Empathy Towards Others

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.44.38 AMApril 7, 2015

Many people believe themselves to be compassionate beings who experience empathy towards others. That’s the capacity to put yourself “inside” the other person, and experience his or her reality. It’s different from just feeing sympathy for another’s situation. Research confirms our innate capacity for empathy; we’re “wired” that way. But practicing it? That doesn’t always occur, especially when you’re challenged to do so. I think the latter presents the true test. For example, say you’re feeling burdened with stressful situations or conflicts of your own; and a friend or family member is also experiencing major difficulties. Are you able to muster up and convey empathy to that person, when you’re dealing with your own difficult issues at the same time? That’s the real challenge. It’s a kind of corollary to the idea that virtue is meaningless in the absence of temptation: Empathy is meaningless in the absence of major self-concerns! 

Photo credit: HBR.org

Share

Six Traits Common To Empathic People

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 11.37.48 AMAs the impact of empathy and compassion upon social and personal wellbeing receives more public attention, it’s good to see accumulating research that documents it. A recent article by the sociologist and empathy researcher Roman Krznaric, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” describes six attitudes and behavior common among empathic people. They illustrate, as well, how those patterns can be cultivated by most anyone. The article was published in  Greater Good, from the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which “studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.”

Krznaric writes, “…empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives—and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation. (Research) reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus improve the lives of everyone around us.”

The six habits he describes are, in essence: curiosity about strangers; searching for commonalities beneath differences and prejudices; envisioning oneself in the life of another; two-way openness — giving and receiving; active engagement with some purpose larger than yourself; and putting yourself in the mindset of those whom you disagree with. To me, this last feature is similar to the third, but all are practices that build positive emotional connection with others and are worth cultivating.

For the full article, click here.

Share

Wealth, Entitlement and An Inflated Self

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 9.55.27 AMResearchers at Berkeley have found that higher social class is associated with an increased sense of entitlement and narcissism. This is another study in the realm of “demonstrating the obvious,” but that’s good, because it gives research data underpinnings to clinical observations. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also found that promoting values that reflect a sense of equality with others had a diminishing affect on their narcissism. And that’s especially interesting because it links with other studies that find that empathy and compassion are innate; we’re “hardwired” that way, as this recent study finds, for example. But that capacity can be dulled or diminished by socially conditioned values and rewards, which then shape our conscious sense of self. We then define ourselves in ways that limit and constrict our sense of who we’re capable of being.

The current study about social class and narcissism was summarized by Eric W. Dolan in The Raw Story:

Climbing the economic ladder can influence basic psychological processes within an individual. According to a new study , wealth tends to increase a person’s sense of entitlement, which in turn can lead to narcissistic behaviors. Continue reading

Share

Having Power Diminishes Your Empathy For Others

Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 10.51.47 AMSeveral research studies have shown that increasing power in an organization (or in any kind of relationship) tends to diminish capacity for empathy, compassion, and seeing another person’s perspective. This is especially damaging to effective leadership of people subordinate to those in power. Studies have shown that increased power diminishes activity of your “mirror neurons,” which provide the sense of connection with another person’s experience, and fuels empathy. Here’s the latest study that sheds more light on what happens. It shows the need for helping leaders develop and strengthen their capacity to connect with others’ reality and experience, which helps counter the tendency towards self-absorption in one’s own perspective, when one is in a higher-power status.

From the study, summarized in Digital Journal:

Researchers have some new insights into how power diminishes a person’s capacity for empathy. According to scientists, a sense of power shuts down a part of the brain that helps us connect with others. For their study that builds on past information about how the brain operates, the researchers found that even the smallest bit of power – for instance from a job promotion or more money – can shut down our ability to empathize with others. Continue reading
Share

The Rise of McCarthy Tactics From Some Republicans

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 10.47.11 AMWhen an elder politician like “Mr. Republican” Bob Dole says “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says closed for repairs…” you know we’ve entered Bizarro World. Especially when he added, in that same FOX interview, that neither Reagan, Nixon nor himself could “make it in today’s GOP.”

it’s worth examining what’s driving that trend, and a more serious one: A group of influential Republicans are creating a new norm of juvenile, schoolyard-name-calling behavior. And they’ve been churning out innuendos about Democrats consorting with the enemy — such déjà vu tactics harking back to the days of Joe McCarthy. There are political motives for this oddly, self-destructive path. But there’s another source worth considering as well: The mental and emotional drivers that may underlie the resurgence of McCarthyism at this particular point in our culture. It amounts to a kind of arrested development, borne of a crumbling identity of manhood; one that has always linked class status, power to control and dominate, and self-interest with a righteous sense of high moral stature.

I’ll explain below, but first take a look at some recent examples of the slurs and innuendos reminiscent of McCarthyism:

After attacking Chuck Hagel’s character during his Senate confirmation, Rep. Daniel Issa went on to call Obama’s press secretary a “paid liar.” And discussing the IRS scandal, he implied — in a typical McCarthy innuendo, that it’s “a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters — and we’re getting to proving it.” (My italics, to illustrate the deliberate suggestion of associations). Despite these insinuations of high-level corruption, the originator was revealed to be a conservative Republican who sought greater clarification of the criteria for granting tax-exempt status. Continue reading

Share

Why The Tea Party/Republicans Fear A Transforming America

In the aftermath of the interim budget agreement, it’s clear that a new reactionary ideology has taken root in Tea Party/GOP policies. Psychological drivers are always present in political or personal ideologies and policies. I think it’s useful to expose and understand those within the positions of this new incarnation of the Republican Party, in order to order to counter them with constructive, positive alternatives.

In brief, the Tea Party/GOP is pushing for economic and social policies based onfears: Fears of massive transformation, turmoil and chaos underway in our society. And, fears about how those transformations will impact lives largely defined by self-interest, power and money. Some fear-generated policies are consciously created; others,unconscious. That is, some reflect a yearning for restoration of a way of life that no longer works in today’s changing society and globalized world. Other policy positions reflect conscious manipulation of those fears; But all driving the positions the Tea Party/GOP demands and is determined to enact.

I call their ideology and policies “reactionary” because they are a retreat away from creating positive,resilient responses to large-scale upheaval and change; and towards objectives that fail to address the sources of problems they aim to fix. Worse, their view of the impact their policies would have upon society doesn’t correspond to factual reality – as a broad range of commentators, bothconservative andliberal, have pointed out.

For both reasons, one may describe the policies and ideology of the current Republicans as, psychologically speaking, delusional.

Understanding What The New ReactionariesFear

We’re living through Continue reading

Share

Obama, Empathy And The Supreme Court Nominee

Well, people, it looks like the fight over the e-word has started again. Remember last year, when President Obama said that the capacity for empathy was an important criteria for selecting a Supreme Court nominee? He was quickly attacked by those who apparently heard empathy as a code word for some kind of ideological bias. And shortly after, Obama backed off from using the term.

Last June, I wrote here about why I thought he should keep on using the word empathy, not back away from it. I have a particular interest in the subject, having written about our national empathy deficit disorder in The Washington Post a few years ago — and which I recently updated on my Psychology Today blog. During last year’s Supreme Court nomination process, critics distorted what empathy is. It’s actually the capacity to experience what another person experiences. It’s what gives you the capacity for wisdom, perspective and sound judgment; not bias or distortion or being bamboozled into the other’s point of view.

Nevertheless, as Obama decides who to nominate as Justice Stevens replacement, its like Yogi Berra said: Its dj vu, all over again.

To wit:A recent article in The New York Times asks if Obama is looking for empathy by another name. The piece, by Peter Baker, points out that

A year after Mr. Obama made empathy one of his main criteria in picking his first Supreme Court justice, he is avoiding the word, which became radioactive, as he picks his second nominee. Instead, he says he wants someone with a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.

Baker goes on to say,

The issue is more than semantic. The president emphasizes that while adhering to the rule of law, judges should also be able to see life through the eyes of those who come before the bench. His critics call that a prescription for twisting decisions to reach a desired outcome..

The dispute became so contentious last year that even Mr. Obamas nominee for the court, Sonia Sotomayor, disavowed the notion of empathy during hearings before her confirmation, saying that judges cant rely on whats in their heart.

In the same vein, Lee Epstein, a constitutional scholar at the Northwestern University School of Law, said in the Times piece, You hear empathy and you dont think impartiality, judicial temperament.

And getting right to the heart (whoops, sorry!) of the matter,

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. It seems to be calling again for judges to be less committed to fidelity to the law and calling for them to reach decisions that somehow endeavor to decide who ought to win.

All of this posturing should be exposed for the ignorance and manipulation it contains, and presented in hopes that the public will buy it. We need to emphasize why empathy is a plus, an inborn capacity, and the basis of healing the serious wounds in our global society, as Jeremy Rifkin has written in The Empathic Civilization. But asfar as the relevance of empathy to the Supreme Court issue, The Nations Katrina vanden Heuvel,writing in The Washington Post, put it in proper context:

Is it better to have a corporate stooge on the bench than someone capable of understanding how his or her decisions will affect 300 million fellow citizens? Better to have a biased judge than a humane one, a dishonest justice instead of one whos insightful? It goes to show how hysterical those critics have become about empathy.

Its sad and discouraging to witness fear-fueled distortions coming from elected officials and others. I hope that President Obama returns to his well-founded support for empathy as a criteria. It’s especially important at this time in our history when we need more, not less empathy, not only in a Supreme Court justice, but in our society at large, to help face and solve major problems that confront us – economically, socially, psychologically. As I wrote previously, in the Bible King Solomon asked God for a heart that listens. Notice that he didnt ask for a head that thinks. Continue reading

Share

Becoming Sane In A Turbulent, Interconnected, Unpredictable World — Part 1

Why Emotional Resiliency Doesn’t Work In The 21st Century

It’s becoming clear that our understanding of emotional resilience – what it is and how to achieve it — (and, more broadly, psychological health) doesn’t mesh very well with today’s realities. Conventional descriptions of resilience and pathways to mental health don’t enable you to handle the challenges and stresses we face in the 21st Century.

Let me explain. Resilience is generally defined as the ability to cope successfully with misfortune or traumatic events. Being able to bounce back from adversity and keep on going. What helps you do that includes, for example, reviewing your strengths, focusing on positive thoughts and feelings, learning stressmanagement, looking down the road to what you can manage better. And, by getting psychotherapy and medication when you’re unable to bounce back very well on your own.

Prior to the 21st Century, that view of resiliency and how to build it was more relevant than today. The adversity and disruptions you were likely to experience were more stable, in a sense. The world was more predictable, more linear, with respect to the kinds of stresses and disruptions that would occur – as emotionally troubling as they might be.

Most of our thinking about emotional resilience and healthy functioning, then, fits a world in which unanticipated negative events are fairly predictable. They follow a fairly understandable course, following which you can reasonably anticipate a return to some form of previous stability. In that world, wars eventually ended. The economy went through recessions, then recovered. You might suffer a career or relationship setback but could assume that there was a path to recovery.

That notion of resilience and the ways to build it remain an important foundation for mental health. But they don’t help so much when you’re faced with the challenges of today’s environment. That’s because the very notion of resilience and the strategies for bouncing back are reactive. They focus on responding to something that happens to you, rather than on what you need to be doing proactively, as part of your way of life.

Starting with 9-11, and especially since the economic meltdown that began in the fall of 2008, we’ve been living in a world that’s rapidly transforming beneath our feet. Today’s world is an interconnected, interdependent, diverse, unpredictable and unstable global community. And that’s created new psychological challenges for everyone, challenges that require a highly proactive mentality.

Without it, you might feel like the woman who consulted me recently. Even before she sat down she said, ”I don’t know whether to reach for the Prozac….or Prilosec!”

Her grim humor masked her “recession depression” and other emotional battering. She didn’t know what would help. I’ve witnessed that a great deal in the last few years: Career and financial worries or losses; the ripple effect of those upon family life; anxieties about what sort of future one’s children are headed into, especially with climate change and terrorist threats; and the increasingly polarized views about our government’s role in people’s lives. Research and clinical observation show that all of the above are taking a psychological toll on relationships, families, career expectations, and on people’s entire sense of what they’re living and working for — their life purpose.

Unfortunately, those of us in the mental health professions haven’t been much help with these issues. Most of us continue to look through the rear-view mirror at a model of resiliency and health defined by coping with and managing conflicts in relationships and the workplace; conflicts that you can bounce back from and reestablish some kind of stability…all while continuing to pursue self-interest, such as getting your needs met, your personal goals achieved, your “happiness” acquired.

But today’s world of ongoing disruptions, continuous uncertainties and insecurity has become the new normal. Seeking to bounce back to stability and focusing on self-interest, which we’ve learned to think is the pathway to success, health and well-being, isn’t the right ticket.

In short, there’s no state of equilibrium you can bounce back to. In this highly diverse, interdependent, interconnected world. Trying to do so is a fast ticket to dysfunction and derailment. You can’t reestablish equilibrium within a constantly shifting world. But engaging these new realities in positive ways will support your success and well-being.

Research shows that you can proactively build specific emotions, thoughts and actions that are effective for adapting to life in the non-equilibrium world we now live within. That’s encouraging, because I think we’re evolving towards a new definition of psychological health via rethinking resilience.

The criteria of a new, proactive resiliency – maybe call it “prosilience – may sound contradictory because they include letting go of self-interest in your relationships and work. The new view of resilience emphasizes being flexible, open and nimble; being able to shift and redeploy your personal resources – emotional, creative, intellectual – towards positive engagement with others.

Resiliency grows from putting your energies, your values, emotional attitudes and actions in the service of the common good – something larger than just yourself. That’s what supports both success in your outside life and internal well-being. And in today’s rapidly transforming world, you need both.

In the future look for new posts about perspectives, research and actions that relate to “becoming sane in a turbulent, interconnected, turbulent world.” Through them I hope to contribute to a revised and needed reformulation of what psychological health and resiliency are in today’s world — in all realms of life: intimate relationships, career challenges, engagement with diverse people, and in our responsibilities as global citizens.

Share

Thoughts On Political Intolerance and Bigotry In Today’s Culture

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the G.O.P. has become

…theparty of trickle down and weapons of mass destruction, the party of birthers and death-panel lunatics. This is the party that genuflects at the altar of right-wing talk radio, with its insane, nauseating, nonstop commitment to hatred and bigotry.

Glenn Beck of Fox News has called President Obama a racist and asserted that he has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.

Mike Huckabee, a former Republican presidential candidate, has said of Mr. Obamas economic policies: Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.

The G.O.P. poisons the political atmosphere and then has the gall to complain about an absence of bipartisanship.

And over the weekend, such civil rights leaders as John Lewis were subjected to racial slurs; Congressman Barney Franks was slammed with homophobic labels as he walked to the Capitol. Much of this occurred with the egging on of Republican House members, shouting and sign-waving from the balcony, as they watched Tea Party members engaging in what Michael Steele described as just “stupid things” being said by “idiots.” But they aren’t. They are statements of bigotry and racism.

The interesting thing, psychologically, is what propels this in 2010, and how pervasive such intolerance is, in our country. I think it may be more widespread in appearance than in reality, however, though it certainly looks like the former. And Herbert is dead-on when he writes,

…it is way past time for decent Americans to rise up against this kind of garbage, to fight it aggressively wherever it appears. And it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters.

I think the real trends across our culture are in opposite directions — towards greater, not lesser tolerance; towards awareness that we’re all interconnected in this globalized world, and that we rise or fall together, as a species. Continue reading

Share

Awakening The Common Good In Our Self-Serving Culture

The eminent historian Tony Judt, author of the seminal work Postwar, about the dynamics of Europe since World War II, has written an important new book, in my view, Ill Fares the Land. The New York Times has called it a bleak assessment of the selfishness and materialism that have taken root in Western societies (that) will stick to your feet and muddy your floors. But the Times adds that Ill Fares the Land is also optimistic, raw and patriotic in its sense of what countries like the United States and Britain have meant and can continue to mean to their people and to the world.

In his review, Dwight Garner explains that Judt is describing the political and intellectual landscape in Britain and the United States since the 1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher era, and he worries about an increasing and uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake. What matters, he writes, is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is, and he sees growing and destabilizing inequality almost everywhere.

Its heartening to see at least one public intellectual a vanishing breed lay out in a direct, forceful argument the accumulating toll of greed and self-centeredness that has dominated our recent political and social landscape. Judt describes these themes as elevated to a cult by Know Nothings, States Rightists, anti-tax campaigners and most recently the radio talk show demagogues of the Republican Right.

Judt observes, for example, that the notion that taxes might be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation (roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, not to mention soldiers, warships, and weapons) is rarely considered. Click here for the full Times review.

I think Judts theme about serving the common good is growing throughout our culture. Its increasingly visible, for example, in the recognition that humans are wired for empathy and for serving something larger than their just their own needs — many of which are socially conditioned to begin with and fuel self-centeredness and narcissism.

In that vein I wrote about healing our empathy deficit disorder in my previous post, and author Jeremy Rifkin has argued much more broadly and in great depth about the rise of an empathic civilization” in his major, well-documented new book.

I also see the awakening of interconnectedness and service to the common good increasingly visible in the rise of a new business model one that combines having impact on the common good as well as achieving financial success. The green business movement incorporates much of this emergence, as well as related trends towards sustainable investment, social entrepreneurialism and venture philanthropy. I would add to those the growing recognition of the need for a psychologically healthy management cultures, as well.

Interesting, also, in Judts book is his argument that the left and right have switched sides, in a sense. That is, he explains that today the right pursues radical goals, and has abandoned the social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath, Theodore Rooseveltto Nelson Rockefeller. He argues that its now the left that is trying to conserve the institutions, legislation, services and rights that we have inherited from the great age of 20th-century reform. For another interesting take on the reversal of the left and right from the 1960s to the present, see economist Ev Ehrlichs two-part essay on his blog, Ev Ehrlich’sEveryday Economics.

It sounds lame, but true: Were sure living through some interesting times.

Share

Healing Our “Empathy Deficit Disorder”

You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD. And no, I don’t mean ADD or ED. It stands for Empathy Deficit Disorder.

I made it up, so you won’t find it listed in the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Given that normal variations of mood and temperament are increasingly redefined as “disorders,” Im hesitant to suggest adding another one. But this ones real. It’s based on my decades of experience as a business psychologist, psychotherapist and researcher, from which I’ve concluded that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition. And it has profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society.

Our increasingly polarized social and political culture over the past year has prompted me to post this — an expansion and revision of an article I wrote for The Washington Post a couple of years ago about our nationwide empathy deficit. It’s worse than ever, but ignored as a psychological disturbance by most of my colleagues in the mental health professions.

First, some explanation of what I mean by EDD: People who suffer from it are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from themselves. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes including hatred towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life from one’s own.

Take the man who reported to me that his wife was complaining that Continue reading

Share