About the SA Blog Network

The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong
The Moral Universe HomeAboutContact

Empathy as a choice 2: Autism and psychopathy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Last week, I wrote about a simple idea: far from being an automatic reflex, empathy often requires a choice to engage with others’ emotions.  Moreover, people often refuse this choice, because empathy can be challenging, painful, costly, or all three.  Instead of meeting these challenges, we often keep our distance from others’ suffering, tune out the opinions of people with whom we disagree, and generally empathize only when it is convenient.

Popular (but potentially outdated) views of empathy hold that some people--like Star Trek's Data--are constitutionally unable to read others' emotions.

Viewing empathy as a choice, I think, reframes the science of this phenomenon.  Psychologists tend to focus on people’s ability to empathize—for instance, measuring how people measure on traits such as emotional intelligence.  On this view, some people are simply good at reading others, and some are not.  I call this the “Roddenberry Hypothesis” because it is embedded in the character structure of Star Trek, The Next Generation (indisputably the best television show of all time).  TNG’s cast includes Deanna Troi—a Betazoid known throughout the galaxy for sharing and understanding others’ feelings—and Data—an android who can no more empathize than you or I can jump tall buildings.  Scientists long shared Roddenberry’s assumption that empathy is (1) automatic, and (2) stable.  Increasingly, I believe that a more important trait is not how good a person is at empathizing, but how motivated they are to engage with others in the first place.

This changes, among other things, the way we view psychiatric conditions featuring deficits in empathy.  The most famous of these are of course autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  In a landmark work almost 20 years old, Simon Baron-Cohen characterized ASD as a form of “Mindblindness,” or an inability to understand others’ experiences.  Baron-Cohen’s description of this deficit was dramatic and bleak.  Here is his take (borrowed from Alison Gopnik) on how a dinner party must feel to a person with ASD:

“At the top of my field of vision is the blurry edge of a nose, in front are waving hands… Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways… Imagine that these noisy skin bags suddenly moved towards you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.”

In essence, this argument implies that individuals with ASD, like Data, are constitutionally incapable of empathizing.  Although Baron-Cohen and others have backed off of this position, Mindblindness continues to dominate much research and popular conceptions surrounding ASD.  Recently, however, a different model has begun to garner attention in autism science.  This viewpoint—best described by Coralie Chevalier, Robert Schultz and their colleagues—holds that individuals with ASD might be able to engage with social cues, but less motivated to do so.  Early in development, children with ASD might not feel as rewarded by the act of engaging with others as do typically developing children.  This, in turn, might reduce ASD individuals’ motivation to “practice” reading others’ thoughts and emotions.  Like anything else that one doesn’t practice, a lack of experience with other minds eventually could produce symptoms of Mindblindness.

This social motivation theory further suggests that when ASD individuals are motivated to empathize, they may do so unexpectedly well.  And indeed, a spate of neuroimaging and behavioral studies have shown that in high motivation situations—such as when viewing family members as opposed to strangers, or being instructed specifically to attend to others’ internal states—individuals with ASD show improved (though not necessarily “normal”) ability to infer others’ states and more typical patterns of brain activity in response to social cues.

A more recent study paints a similar motivational picture of psychopathy.  James Blair and others have sometimes framed this disorder as a functional cousin of ASD: whereas individuals with ASD may find it difficult to understand others’ internal states, individuals with psychopathy appear to understand, but not share others’ emotions.  This callousness, in turn, underlies the unfortunate streak of violent and criminal behaviors that characterize psychopathy.  But—as with ASD individuals’ difficulties understanding others—we can ask the question: are individuals with psychopathy lacking the ability to share others’ emotions, or simply the motivation to do so?

Christian Keysers and his colleagues took a clever neuroscience approach to this question in a paper published last month (Keysers speaks about the work in an interview here).  They built on loads of data demonstrating that people activate similar neural systems when they experience pain and when they observe others in pain (a phenomenon I’ve coined the Bill Clinton effect).  Keysers and colleagues found that individuals with psychopathy failed to engage these regions as much as control subjects when watching videos of others experience painful events.  However, this study featured a fascinating twist: in a second condition, both criminals and control subjects were instructed to explicitly try to empathize with the people in the videos they watched.  Under this condition, individuals with psychopathy engaged these regions more than they had without instructions, and almost as much as control subjects.  These data, again, suggest that oftentimes deficits in empathy can be reduced through the right motivational “triggers.”

One important message to not take away from this work is that the deficits associated with ASD and psychopathy are in some way these individuals’ fault.  Both conditions clearly involve early-developing differences in people’s responses to social cues.  However, broadly abandoning the idea of empathy as an automatic ability that people either have or don’t have—and instead viewing it as a choice—can change the way we can see these disorders, and the ways we think about treating them.


Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 4 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Ettina 12:07 pm 09/1/2014

    As someone on the autistic spectrum, I can tell you that my difficulties in social situations have absolutely nothing to do with empathy – chosen or automatic. When I know someone else is suffering, I can’t help but feel empathy for them. If anything, I seem to have more empathy than the average person.

    But if someone told you, in Russian, “I’m sad because my mother died yesterday”, you’ll only feel empathy for their sadness if you understand Russian. If you don’t know Russian, his statement will have no meaning to you and you won’t realize he’s talking about a sad event. For autistic people, nonverbal communication is like a foreign language, and we often don’t understand what it’s conveying. If I don’t realize someone is sad, I won’t show empathy for their sadness. But as soon as they tell me, in a way I understand, I’m sympathetic. (Whether I’ll know what to do to comfort them is another matter.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Tseipii 10:43 am 12/27/2014

    @Ettina your sympathy is OK. Sympathy and empathy are different beasts. I have no empathy because I analyze but sympathise while doing it. Empathy is like feeling experiences not emotions.
    I have noticed that I dislike empathetic people but I greatly enjoy sympathetic people. Sympathetic people also like and enjoy my reasoning where as empathetic people tend to take it personally. They can not take a joke even for others. Give and take…
    I try my best to sympathize as well but there is no way that I’m going to toss away my reasoning abilities. There is no place for experience when it comes to analysis.

    I don’t consider myself autistic or a psychopath. I am actually very altruistically inclined and I show emotions on my face a lot but no empathy… I help people when asked, I have strict personal ethics etc.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Tseipii 11:03 am 12/27/2014

    I would like to add that it can be hard to differentiate sympathy from empathy from brain scans because both are emotional but those types of feelings are different. It is funny how some like to put empathy above sympathy but my preferences differ. Empathy is grounded on experience and does not allow detachment from human experience.

    Link to this
  4. 4. psychophizer 5:27 pm 02/6/2015

    I have a big question on this thing. This would not be of course the place to diagnose someone however I am confused. Personally I have a TBI. I haven’t been diagnosed with autism however in high school I kind of wanted to find myself a girlfriend so I started studying Nonverbals online a lot as well as in person.
    What nonverbals are normally recognized? Nor do I remember how much comparitively I studied into it for example fist clenched connotates anger, as well as arms crossed lowered eyebrows etc… but is aggressive wrist-posture innately understood?

    Is it normal to be focused in a conversation on their non-verbals innately? Personally I don’t know if it is normal to care about other people’s emotional states innately. Do people normally do so and for example I don’t feel bad if I hurt someone but unless I kind of choose to. For example I can cry about something retroactively but then kind of like shut it off immediately. Is this normal or healthy? Is this classified as lack of remorse?

    Also I have a hard time sometimes remembering what people are referring to particularly the context. For example if a person defines a context is it of course defined by past experiences but if a disagrees with societies definition of right and wrong and has a different sense of morality is that anti-social personality disorder?

    Also I lived with an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic for about 7 months he kept always saying it’s all one giant equation like all the time and I can’t sop thinking about that. I kind of come up with ideas I know are crazy and I don’t maintain them but is it possible for a person to learn schizophrenia? Plus I don’t really know how much is coming from brain damage from recently being hit by a doulie and subaru/ drinking myself to beriberi or is it possible that I have caught schizophrenia?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article