The Falacy of Empathy

Empathy, or the ability to feel what other people are feeling, is often associated with good hearted people. In theory, empathy should provide the tools you need to understand someone else’s feelings before you act on instinct, and will block your impulsive actions, making you look like a nice person. Another view of empathy is of people that can display the same emotions as they see, for instance crying when watching a sad film. This empathy is powerful as a motivator, and that’s why so many charities use strong images of poverty or sick puppies to raise money.

On both cases, from an external point of view, it’s hard to understand the reason why people behave nicely or poorly. It’s often assumed that, when people behave well, either being nice to people or helping people in need, they have a high degree of empathy. Conversely, when they don’t, they don’t have empathy. However, that assumption is based on no facts other than apparent behaviour, which can (and often is) manipulative and false.

Why do we need empathy?

Human beings, as other animals, have behavioural strategies to enhance their survival rates. Dogs are known to show deep empathic behaviour, like standing by their owners, or fetching help and saving peoples’ lives, some times without request from a human. Other animals, like monkeys and dolphins show even higher degrees of empathy in some situations, but a much lower on others.

That begs the question: why do we need empathy? Is empathy really important for survival rates, or evolution? Or did we really evolve empathy after we stopped being naturally selected, a few dozen thousand years ago?

There are a few strategies that enhance survival of a species, some of them are related to social relationships. Social animals, those that live in large groups, understand the value in belonging to that group. A zebra alone is an easy prey. Naturally, wanting to belong to a group is a life and death choice. Like zebras, humans are social animals, and it was only after we started bundling ourselves in towns that we needed agriculture and it was after agriculture was introduced that the human race exploded in significance. From an evolutionary point of view, those who were more social ended up gathered inside towns, and prospered. The others, were more easily hunted, or suffered more from the elements, and probably died out in the long run. So, what was left of the human race, were the ones with more social affinity.

It seems obvious to me that empathy (feeling or simulation) is a great enhancement of one’s social abilities. It’ll help you get along with other people even if you don’t like them, it’ll help you not upset them and gain more from your relationship with them. It’s probably the best tool one can have when relating socially with other people. But, as I reasoned above, it’s very hard to separate intention from behaviour, and there are many people that can display extreme empathic behaviour at times, and be a sociopath at others. These people are very likely simulating their behavioural empathy, and in large numbers, it’s hard to separate them from the “real” empaths.

Up until a few thousand years ago, the civilisations were disconnected enough that displaying empathy would only take you so far. But as they began connecting with each other, invading and assimilating cultures, human interaction changed from mono-cultural to multi-cultural, and that’s when displays of empathy became the most powerful tool in human societies.

The Roman religion changed drastically from pluri theistic to mono theistic, and collected a pout-pourri of elements from the diverse cultures it had invaded in order to strongly relate to them and keep other cultures, not just countries, tight with Rome. The Roman empire has fallen, but the dominance of the Catholic church is as strong as ever. That display of empathy, which is the base of the whole catholic church, is what made them the most powerful people in the world for millennia.

We all know the outrageous behaviours that church officials have in all religions, from the most junior to the most senior positions, including most popes, which leads to the conclusion that empathy can be used for both good and evil, and that most people in the world find it hard to separate between good (real) empathy and bad (simulated) empathy.

Whenever you have two survival strategies that provide identical effects to identical stimuli, neither of them are selected over the other, but they coexist in a proportion that is not fixed themselves, but are selected by other means. For instance, politicians must posses the simulated empathy, otherwise, they would never be able to pass on laws that were harmful to a large group of people. The same can be said about the legal and advertising fields, and most senior positions on companies, like CEOs. Those professions are crucial to how our society expect to behave, and thus those kind of people will never be selected out.

One could argue that we don’t really need politicians or lawyers to thrive, and I would agree, but the fact that they’re in power, means they’ll continue to hold that power until there’s enough pressure to push them down. But it will never be strong enough, since people with simulated empathy are being born every day, so there is a pressure to keep the world as it is, due to the very existence of those people.

But of course, neurotypical people considered to have empathy form the large majority of human beings. So, not all simulated empathic people are politics, lawyers or evil people. Some of those people still believe they have real empathy, and can easily convince others of that. Maybe those others also have simulated empathy, or maybe they’re so empathic that they agree to avoid wrong judgement. All in all, by multiple mechanisms, empathic behaviour is self preserved.

To whom do we show empathy?

In the history of human kind, we have seen that most of the time, empathy is directional. Slavers did not feel bad for the slaves, nor whale hunters for whales. In a predominantly white, middle class neighbourhood in the US, people are more likely to cry over a puppy that was ran over by a car than a black kid that was murdered by the police. Excuses like “he probably deserved it” is how people cope with this severe lack of empathy.

In poor countries, like Brazil, the wealth difference is so striking that the same behaviour is common between rich and poor people, no matter the origin. In Sao Paulo, rich people drive their fancy cars around extremely poor people every day. Some otherwise average youngsters burn homeless people alive, others shoot stray cats and dogs in the street, but when they go back home, they love their families, and they’re good kids at school.

In other countries like Israel and Palestine, people are raised to protect their own and to kill the other side. They love their families and friends with such a strength that they would die for them, but as easily kill an entire family in brutal ways just because they belong to another group. This detachment from reality is extremely polarised: empathy towards your own group is as strong, as negative empathy towards competing groups.

This is not specific to Israel, Brazil or the US. I know many people in those countries who are great people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and who would instantly help people (or other animals) in need. But examples like that can be seen anywhere in the world.

Trends, and the distortion of empathy

Another behaviour that was socially selected is how well you can follow the trends, which basically translates to being politically correct. One that doesn’t know or understand a conflict between gender equality since the last century may look very rude and lacking empathy if one says: “some people are naturally more direct and blunt, and women are normally more emotional, thus more easily take offence”. Regardless of the veracity in that phrase, this is an opinion like any other, and in itself, devoid of context. But fights for women suffrage in the last decades have made that kind of comparison somewhat rude.

More recently, the fight has also started on the sexuality realm, where people are no longer content with homo/bi-sexuality, but needed to create a huge number of terms to describe, with accuracy, their feelings about their own sexuality. All in all, a great effort, and certainly very important to the subgroup where this has any meaning, but to a large extent, this matters very little to most other human affairs.

Laws, education, health, jobs, technical discussions, travel, culture, religion and almost all other important subjects that we deal with on a daily basis need no separation between skin colour, ethnicy, gender or sexual orientation. The very fact of making those separations clear, is prejudice in itself, much like stating on a federal law that “black people should also get the vote” when there is no other legal separation between “white” people and “black” people in the voting laws.

We can all see that in practice this is not true, there is a huge separation of intent, execution and judgement across all minorities everywhere in the world, but creating specific categorisations will only create problems for the categories that don’t yet exist. We’ll have to repeat the legalisation of vote for every new category that appear in the future.

But this is also considered empathy, since it’s a matter of exacerbating your empathy towards the cases that you know need exacerbating, because the trend is to do so. Even people that would naturally empathise with some minorities’ problems, have to show an increased response to the topic. That increase response cannot be naturally selected, not even socially selected.

It stands to reason, then, that understanding empathy trends and acting upon them, also known as being politically correct, is solely an artificial factor, and therefore a simulated empathic response. The term politically correct already carries that meaning in itself, but the importance of this is wider: being politically correct is just another behaviour that natural and simulated empathic behaviour express itself, and it would be naive to believe that this is the only simulated empathic response since we split from apes.

This fact, not only reinforces the idea of the existence of simulated empathy embedded in human nature, but helps show that humanity will never get rid of it, as it is a crucial mechanism with which we group ourselves.

Lack of empathy? Or lack of simulation?

In Baron-Cohen’s original paper, where children were asked to choose an option from the point of view of the character, not themselves, autistic children have consistently selected the wrong answer. Is this because they cannot sympathise with the character, or because they cannot understand why, in possession of all the knowledge, they have to choose the wrong place?

I myself have answered that wrong by instinct, and got myself laughing at it. I have also cried like a baby in Grave of the Fireflies and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I can’t watch most American “comedies”, because they all rely on deep embarrassment, and I cannot cope with it, to the point of having real physical discomfort.

Autistic people (Asperger’s included), often offend people and are generally regarded as rude. Is it because they intend to offend, or because they can’t see past the social norm, the politically correct response? Or is it because they really cannot empathise with the other party and end up being cold hearted? I can’t answer that for other people, but I can certainly empathise with people’s feelings, I help a good number of charities that help animals and people, and I teach my kids to respect everyone, independent of their origins. When I’m told I offended someone, I feel deeply and I try very hard to make up, but that doesn’t mean I will be able to do “the right thing” next time.

I can’t simulate empathy. I can’t increase or create empathy for something that society demands me to. I can’t change my opinion or behaviour towards people just because they belong to a group that is trendy. In the same way, I can’t simulate behaviour (I’d be a horrible actor), but I have good imagination (I could be a writer). I can’t simulate affection, love, hate, laughter, but I do posses all those feelings and I display them wholeheartedly. This certainly makes me neurologically atypical, but does that make me wrong? Deficient?

Neural diversity

As with everything else in the universe, neural diversity is a spectrum. But unlike simple things, it’s composed of a large number of factors that compose behaviour, capacity and plasticity. Even though most research on autism have found strong correlations for hereditary, most genes found in autistic more often than in neurotypical people were present in a small percentage of autistic people. This means that the number of genes and the expression of each one count little towards the overall phenotype. People with milder forms of autism, included Aspergers’ Syndrome, have even fuzzier relationships.

Even though it’s assumed that autism account for 1-2% of the population in one form or another, the behaviour autistic people demonstrate can be observed in otherwise neurotypical people, like perseverance on comfortable tasks, lack of sight amidst multiple choices, irritability towards certain sensory inputs (loud music, too many people talking, too hot, too cold), etc.

It would be an interesting line of research to determine how mild or abrupt is the theoretical wall that separates those tagged as “neurotypical” from those diagnosed as autistic of some form, with regards to all known “disability” traits. The fact that people consider that disability is a clear demonstration that they do not accept that behaviour as “normal”. However, how does one define normal? How many abnormal traits do I have to have to be considered autistic? How far should I be from “the norm”?

In IQ tests, the answer is simple. There’s an arbitrary number, 100, and everything above is good, below, not so much. There was a lot of work done (by Raven and others since) to transform the answers of the diverse tests into virtually the same range of numbers, and a lot of controversy stemmed from that, but the general idea applies. You can also apply statistical modelling and define those one sigma above and below, and treat them accordingly. For instance, there are some countries that have reduced prison sentences for people below one or two sigma.

But, like when you mix all the colours of modelling clay together, everything is now turning grey. There is no black and white, no man and woman, no gay and straight. Everything is a spectrum, and behaviour is not an exception. So, what do we accept as good or bad behaviour? How do we include intent when that’s clearly hidden and easily simulated?

Murder is easily on the wrong side of the spectrum, but shouting is a very common and non-abusive behaviour in autistic people. It’s often a response to stressful situations, when you don’t know what else to do. The difference is that stressful situations arise in autistic people that wouldn’t in neurotypical people, for example, when having a hair cut, or when someone else cannot understand what you’re saying. Even though they’re directed at the barber or the other person, they’re absolutely not personal.

How much to accept?

There is, of course, the danger that, allowing some people to behave oddly because they have a letter from the doctor, we’ll encourage other opportunistic people to behave in the same way. An example, if my interpretation is correct, is the Linux mailing list. I don’t know Linus personally, but from his emails and what I hear from people that do know him well, he is most certainly not an asshole.

His consistent behaviour classed as “abuse” is his inflamed reaction to bad code, which cannot easily be separated from the people who wrote it. Some people take it personally, others don’t. My view is that those who do, are either neurotypical or have had history of abuse, and those who don’t, are either towards the autistic end of the spectrum or actively ignore it from a sense of higher purpose, or worse, are opportunists. So, while his behaviour is questionable, and mostly unnecessary, I don’t see the intent of abuse in it, and different people react one way or another for different reasons.

Clearly, a person of his position relying solely on abuse, even with a great intellect, would have fallen long ago (ex. Ulrich Drepper). But that’s not the same for the opportunists, like people that have lesser intellects and need to get their ways via abuse alone, or as a reinforcement. On a healthy community, that kind of behaviour gets automatically curbed with time, but on a community that has its key member (read – great and necessary intellect) behaving in an encouraging way, will have positive feedback, and it can be a lot harder to get rid of the opportunists, and it may even encourage the rise of more of them with time. Linus seem to deal with those people reasonably efficiently (he also trashes maintainers), but not only it generates more work for him and more stress to the community, but it also decreases the trust in that community, which translates into good people abandoning ship.


My opinion in all this is simple: treat the disease, not the symptoms.

If Linus encourages opportunistic people, convince him why he should avoid rants for the right reason. Saying it’s not politically correct will most certainly have the opposite effect. Codes of conduct can easily be cheated, abused and transformed. People with intent to do harm will plan well their actions, those that will be caught, however, will be the unaware and innocent.

Do not be offended, unless there was intent. Offence is the easiest thing to get wrong. I may cough and you interpret as an insult, and it all goes downhill. Every time you feel offended, ask the offender the reasons. He/she may surprise you.

It’s not all about you. If I behave badly near you, it doesn’t have to be because of what you’ve done, or who you are, or how you see yourself in the mirror. Most people don’t care much about you (or me), and offence is normally taken by self-important people. Self importance is not a bad thing, and it normally comes in response to previous abuse and sudden revelation (I’m going through that phase myself), but it doesn’t justify offence. I have since had people describing me as disabled or an asshole, and all I did was to explain most of the contents in this post. From now on, I can just send a link.

I personally don’t care much if they understand or agree, as long as they don’t affect my life. This is a liberating feeling that I recommend to every one that has “come out” for whatever reason: be yourself, but respect everyone else.

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