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Empathy is a multifaceted beast, and it can get us into trouble when social upheavals strike.
There’s a bunch of measures of empathy, but many of them make a distinction between cognitive empathy (being able to think like someone else) and emotional or affective empathy (being able to feel like someone else). Within cognitive empathy, we often speak of perspective taking (the ability to put yourself and potentially adopt in another’s mindset) as a critical skill. In contrast, we often talk about empathic concern (feeling sympathy with or concern for those less fortunate) as an important part of emotional empathy.
When confronted with tragedy, we often extend empathic concern toward those most like us. This concern is associated with experiencing the same patterns of brain activity when seeing someone else (who is similar to you, or part of your ingroup) feeling sad as when feeling sad yourself. However, this isn’t typically the case for people who aren’t similar to you, or those who are part of your outgroup. Even chimpanzees have a hard time empathizing with other primates who aren’t chimpanzees. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
Specifically, people in your outgroup who also seem to have the capability to harm your ingroup are more likely to elicit smiles when they’re hurt and to be more likely to be volunteered to receive electric shocks. But how do we know who’s likely to harm people like you – your ingroup? Though researchers have sometimes used culturally normative definitions of such people in their work, I would argue it’s important to examine people’s own beliefs to assess this notion. For instance, the rising notion of “black privilege” suggests that whites have myriad opportunities stripped from them on account of racial preference. Conversely, lists of ways to avoid being killed by police circulate in the black community.
With such threats to different kinds of ingroups believed to be posed by specific outgroups, it’s extraordinarily hard to engage in emotional empathy with “the other side”, let alone engage in cognitive empathy. Going through the work of taking another person’s perspective isn’t likely when that person feels like a threat instead of someone with whom you might cooperate. To empathize with people who are different from us, we may have to take a view of all humanity as our ingroup. However, there are large individual differences in the ability to do this, and when one feels under threat, such radical empathy poses even bigger challenges. Even if such things could be taught, there appear to be interactions between genes and hormones related to empathy. Those who are more likely to empathize with their ingroups are more likely to be receptive to oxytocin (which is a hormone that’s more associated with ingroup bonding than universal connectedness), whereas those less receptive to oxytocin are willing to harm members of the outgroup to the degree their brains “want” to harm the outgroup.
So, what can we do to help empathy build between groups who view each other as threatening? Shared suffering may be the answer, coming together over shared tragedies to let pain bind closed the wounds of humanity. Failing that, empathic listening to both sides may also help, allowing people to express their pain or fears without judgment or defensiveness. In the wake of last week’s tragic shootings of two black men and five police officers, a black man offered free hugs outside the Dallas police department headquarters. The Dallas police themselves guarded the people’s right to protest peacefully. Perhaps emotional empathy can give rise to cognitive empathy.
Empathy is a challenge to us all, and it may have untoward consequences if we only exercise it toward those we perceive to be like us. In my own experience, I grew up playing the Police Quest series of games, and the narratives that Jim Walls spun affected me viscerally, allowing me to peer inside a cop’s life in a way that sticks with me still. Conversely, working at the Walk-In Counseling Center allowed me to hear the stories of people who grew up with very different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in ways I’d never experienced before and moderated my political beliefs. But each of these took years of work to fully set in for me, to let me see what both sides might be thinking – yet recognizing that my own empathy will be forever incomplete as a result of living outside of both black and police worlds. Society will not heal quickly from these wounds, and more than just emotional empathy will be necessary to do so.
In 2013, two remarkable TV shows hit the air- and cable-waves that provide backstories of two of cinema’s most notable villains. Hannibal features a retelling of the story of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham that surprises even the most die-hard connoisseurs of Thomas Harris’s original novels and the movies that have been made from them. Bates Motel fills in the history of Norman Bates, tracing his descent from a gawky teenager into the Psycho murderer.
The personality trait of absorption is strongly evident in a character in each series. Absorption is a strange trait in the Giant 3 model of personality that doesn’t fit cleanly anywhere. It was originally designed as a measure of hypnotic susceptibility, but it’s been refined over the decades to emphasize getting lost in one’s own experiences, whether those experiences be enthralling external stimuli or deeply engaging thoughts and images that come to a person’s mind. Absorption relates equally to the superfactors of Positive Emotionality and Negative Emotionality, indicating that it predisposes people to strong emotional experiences. Within the Big Five model of personality, it’s associated with the fantasy proneness and emotionality facets of Openness to Experience, not the parts of Openness that are associated with playing with ideas or political liberalism.
Some of my recent work has examined how absorption is related to initial attention to emotional pictures and subsequent attention to noise probes. We found that people high in absorption had more emotional attention to emotional pictures (both pleasant and aversive) compared to neutral pictures. Thus, people high in absorption get wrapped up in what they’re seeing when it’s emotionally evocative. Furthermore, we found that people high in absorption show less attention to a loud noise probe during all pictures. It’s as if they’re so wrapped up in processing the pictures that they don’t have as strong an ability to disengage attention to process something else coming in a different channel (that is, hearing as opposed to sight).
How does this apply to our two fictional characters? Both of them get really absorbed in the imaginal part of their internal experience, which wreaks havoc on their emotional lives. Will Graham’s unique perceptual gifts entail mentally reconstructing a crime from the residues left at the crime scene. He may be a perceptive person, but his genius lies in absorbing himself in what he sees and piecing people’s last moments together through the eyes of a killer. This kind of perspective taking is rare in individuals on the autism spectrum, as Graham claims himself to be. Therefore, I would argue that absorption is the key trait allowing Graham to get inside killers’ heads; his inability to disengage from the disturbing images that run through his head confuses him and creates untoward consequences that demonstrate the perils as well as the promise of high levels of absorption.
Norman Bates is a more purely maladaptive face of high absorption. Absorption is also associated with dissociation, which refers either to the feeling that one’s self or surroundings aren’t real or to the experience of having done something without recalling having done it. As the seasons progress, Norman’s increasing absorption in his fantasies about his mother propel him from committing murders of women he desires to taking on his mother’s identity without recalling having done it in the morning. Norman’s emotions overwhelm him, and he uses his absorption to retreat into a mental world that’s safer for him, that’s anchored by his mother. It’s this fantasy component of openness and absorption that’s related to psychoticism, which represents a vulnerability to experiencing odd and unusual perceptual experiences consistent with schizotypal personality disorder and certain forms of schizophrenia. In essence, Norman Bates isn’t a psychopathic killer; he’s one of the rare serial murderers with psychotic experiences – in this case, that may be underpinned by absorption. Will Graham exhibits a form of dissociation that might superficially seem related to absorption as well, but instead (SPOILER ALERT) is more likely due to encephalitis than his personality.