Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.
Empathy and Shifting Perspectives
The term ‘empathy’ can cover a very wide range of our responses to another creature’s distress. It can cover the rush of feeling that comes of seeing images of starving children or abused pets—the sort of responses that sometimes lead us to reach for our credit cards and donate to the Red Cross or one or another Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It can cover the sense that I might begin to have for one of my students who has suffered the loss of a loved one. It can cover the slow, developing understanding I can have for the situation of parents struggling to raise their sons and daughters in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, or the situation of my mother and her friends in the retirement home as they confront the varieties of loneliness and disappointment that come with challenges to mobility and cognitive functioning. I will focus on the sort of empathy that grows out of cultivated capacities to track what is going on with others.
This sort of empathy requires having some understanding of what other creatures think, feel, suffer, enjoy, and want. And although any sentient creature could be a focus of such empathy, most of the research I know concerns empathy for our fellow human beings. And much of the research is predicated on the thought that if I am to empathize with you, I must have some capacity to understand your perspective on your situation. Perspective-taking is key to this sort of empathy. Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso describe things this way:
The ability to intuit another person’s thought, feelings, and inner mental states is surely among the most impressive of human mental faculties. Adopting another’s perspective requires the ability to represent the self as distinct from others, the development of a theory of mind to realize that others have mental states in the first place…and explicit recognition that others’ mental states and perceptions could differ from one’s own. Humans appear to be born with absolutely none of these capacities but instead develop them during the first few years of life. Developing these perspective-taking abilities appears critical for many good things in social life, from empathy, to cooperation, to possible acts of altruism. Not all humans develop these skills to equivalent degrees, and those who do not develop these skills to any degree are among the most puzzling (and occasionally horrifying) members of society as they look perfectly human but act completely unhuman.[i]
Like any of our capacities, our perspective-taking capacity can be underdeveloped or badly used. We can fail to engage in perspective-taking when we ought to engage in it, and we can make many errors when we try to understand what is going on with others. The empathy of interest to me depends upon perspective-taking. And accurate perspective-taking, in turn, depends upon breaking free of egocentric bias.
There are two very different sorts of questions that researchers can ask when working to elicit empathy in their subjects. They can ask subjects to think how they would feel if they found themselves in another person’s situation. This sort of question, notice, leaves things entirely in the purview of the self. Alternately, they can ask people to imagine how the other person feels. This sort of question shifts the focus from the self to the other. Daniel Batson calls efforts to imagine how things would be for me in your situation the ‘imagine-self perspective’ on your circumstances. He calls the request to think how things are for you the ‘imagine-other’ perspective.[ii] It turns out that these two forms of perspective-taking yield dramatically different results. The difference is so dramatic that the self-perspective orientation may not count as empathetic at all. Batson describes the difficulty with an example:
When the other’s situation is familiar or clear, imagining how you would feel in that situation may not be needed for sensitive understanding and may even inhibit it. Hearing that a friend was recently ‘dumped’ by a romantic partner may remind you of your own experience last year when you suffered the same fate. You may get so caught up reliving your own experience that you fail to appreciate your friend’s pain. Especially if you found it easy to rebound, you may contrast your own experience to that of your friend, who is struggling. Rather than sensitive understanding and empathetic concern, you may respond with impatience and judgment. The role of an imagine-self perspective in evoking empathy is, then, indirect at best.[iii]
In Batson’s review of relevant research, there is significant evidence that subjects engaging in imagine-self perspective-taking show patterns of neurological activity importantly different from the sort characteristic of subjects engaging in imagine-other perspective-taking. The two groups think differently, feel differently, and exhibit different patterns of neurological activity. In effect, imagine-self perspective taking does nothing to disturb the egocentric bias so characteristic of our kind.
[i] Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso, “Perspective-Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), p. 297.
[ii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), pp. 267-279.
[iii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” p. 268.
Tomorrow, June 7: Barriers to Empathy
Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy.