Sunday, April 10, 2011

(Belated) Birthday Wishes for Empathy

A dangerous coping mechanism I learned early in life was to not need people. If you don't need others, they can't let you down. Not only was this self-destructive, I began to assume that because I seemingly didn't need people, others didn't need me. This lack of empathy had me at times wonder if I had psychopathic (abnormal lack of empathy) tendencies. Even today, I have to make a conscious effort to not fall back on that. Birthdays are one of those times. It's the one time a year where everyone is culturally obligated to celebrate you. So when my birthday came last Friday, I was reminded of my uneasy expectations. This is one of the reasons why I don't have a Facebook wall. Why I don't advertise my birthday. And why I'm infamously bad at others' birthdays. I want this to change.

This year, I was flooded by appreciation from those around me. My AP US History class threw a little surprise party (complete with "Brookie's Cookie Cake" and presidential finger puppets). My sister and her husband surprised me with a visit. And my wife surprised me by telling stories at my weekly improv show, Mister Diplomat, followed by an after party at the theater. As much as I try to remind myself how important social praise is, I was still taken back at how much these surprises meant to me. Even after my history class, I noticed a change in my attitude. I was more appreciative of the good interactions and more able to deal with the bad interactions.

This got me thinking what inspires people to do such nice things. Part of it is obligation, but to go above and beyond requires something more. That extra something is empathy. So I decided to find a way to measure my own empathy and came across this test. It gives 60 statements and asks how strongly you agree or disagree with it. Here's the scale:
0 -32 = low (people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20)
33-52 = average (most women score about 47 and most men score about 42)
53-63 is above average
64-80 is very high
I scored a 19. Well below average and within the "disorder" category. I was especially alarmed when I read this article trying to redefine evil as a lack of empathy. The article discusses several facets I'd never considered. Like how more testosterone (even in the womb), usually results in less empathy. This may help explain why women are commonly regarded as more caring. However, a person's environment also matters. Children who have insecure attachment to their caretakers (abusive households, foster children, etc) often has less empathy. For me this shows how empathy multiplies empathy, especially for young people. Which shows me my role, as a teacher, in the cycle of empathy. It's even got me thinking of ways to directly focus on growing in our sensitivity to others (through public schools, through improv, through personal relationships).

The problem of empathy is bigger than just face to face interactions. There has been a fairly agreed upon assumption that empathy levels have decreased in America. I'm skeptical, but some blame this on conservatives. This could explain why political conservatives are seen as less willing to pay for the poor or why they focus more on security (from other less empathetic people). Either way I think this character trait is important for our political leaders. Perhaps an empathy test could be added to economist Alex Tabarrok's So You Think You Can Be President? game show idea.

So I am empathy deficient and it's clearly important. What I am to do? First, I need to learn from my ultra-sensitive wife, who scored a 56 on the empathy test. Part of marriage is carrying around another perspective of life. I can already see how her thoughts have improved mine. I also need to remember that even though it's difficult to change your own empathy, it's not impossible. Even knowing that I err on the side of less empathetic can help me override my default.

And finally, I think we should all have the goal of expanding our empathy circle. There's no reason not to include people in other cities, states, or countries. It certainly means putting more burden on you, but giving as much as we can to others may be what separates humans from animals. A main source of conflict is a lack on empathy. If we could implant a chip in our brain that made us feel others' pain as much as we feel ours, the world would be a much nicer place to live (though perhaps not a happier place). Until then, read the personal stories of others who lack empathy, have pity on us, and love us. You can start by commenting on this post.


  1. I scored a 69! I love quizzes. :)

    I would talk about how important I think empathy is, but that would seem biased considering the score I just revealed...

  2. I appreciate your openness about this, Harrison. It’s clear that you are open to acknowledging personal faults and willing to try to do something about them. That should serve you well.

    And happy belated birthday. Sad I missed Traci’s stories.

  3. Patty9:04 PM

    I loved this post, Harrison! I'll take the test later, but you've got my attention when you share your feelings, shortcomings and appreciation for others who are different than you. Traci is a remarkable blend of feelings and cerebral insights, in my opinion. Keep sharing these thoughts.

  4. Lindsey,

    I'm glad you liked it. Here's a question for you super-feelers out there: If you could get rid of your empathy (and feel others pain less) would you? Was there ever a time when you would say yes?


    Thanks. You missed some good ones.


    Can do. And yes, Traci is awesome.

  5. Patty8:42 PM

    Somehow I got a 57, Harrison. In my 20s I believe I would have scored much lower - experiences have changed me a lot. I value empathy and wouldn't want to get rid of it for anything. I interpret it as heightened sensitivity more than "feeling others pain." It causes you to feel others' joy, too. Thanks again for the post. P.S. George said he scored lower than you.

  6. Patty,

    Interesting. My guess is raising four children can make you much more empathetic. Hopefully it will have the same effect on me.

    Also interesting that the difference between you and your husband is similar to the difference between Traci and I. I wonder what the disadvantages/advantages are of that.

  7. Shoot I just wrote this long post that got lost! I got a 62 and I was kind of surprised. In summary.

    Shortcomings me being empathetic
    1. I am hyper-vigilant about not being in people's way in public.
    2. i tend to stay in bad relationships longer than I should.

    Harrison, it's great to see this side. I'd be interested in hearing about techniques that have been used with Asbergers patients to help them grow in empathy. I'm guessing that they'd be educational for all of us.

    Maybe you're next post...

  8. hmmm intresting read, only 40 on the test tho so thats up for improvement


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.