Syndicate content

cognitive science

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

The things we do: The high price of cheating a little

Roxanne Bauer's picture

"A Fool and His Money" by David Goehring Dishonesty is usually something we think about at the individual level.  Lies are errant, definite actions that individuals perform at specific moments. 

But lies are also important in aggregate because the effect of many small lies taken together can be devastating.

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and his collaborators, starting in 2002, conducted a series of studies called “The Matrix Experiments”. In this experiment, the team gave participants, men and women from different age groups, 20 simple math questions. They asked them to solve as many questions as they can in five minutes and promised to reward the participants $1 for each problem solved. After five minutes, the participants are instructed to count how many problems they solved, insert their answer sheets into paper shredder machines, and report their results to one of the test supervisors to receive their cash. They did not need to show their answers as a proof. What the test takers did not know was that Ariely’s team programmed the shredders in such a way that they only shredded the margins of the papers while the main body of the page remained intact.

In the end, Ariely and his colleagues found that very few people lie a lot, but almost everyone lies a little.  They tested over 40,000 people and found that only a few dozen were “big cheaters” who claimed to have completed many more problems than they did.  Conversely, more than 28,000 people, or nearly 70 percent, were “small cheaters” who, on average, solved four problems but reported to have solved six.

What is interesting to note is that the sum of the team’s losses to so-called big cheaters was a total of $400.  Compare this to the few dollars each that “small cheaters” stole. Together, these small transgressions added up to a whopping $50,000, causing a much higher impact than the few bad apples.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Transparency, Accountability, and Technology
Plan International
The recently launched Sustainable Development Goals have kicked off a renewed development agenda that features, among other things, a dedicated emphasis on peace, justice, and strong institutions. This emphasis, encapsulated in Goal #16, contains several sub-priorities, including reducing corruption; developing effective, accountable, and transparent institutions; ensuring inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making; and ensuring access to information.  Indeed, the governance-related Goals merely stamp an official imprimatur on what have now become key buzzwords in development. Naturally, where there are buzzwords, there are “tools.” In many cases, those “tools” turn out to be information and communications technologies, and the data flows they facilitate. It’s no wonder, then, that technology has been embraced by the development community as a crucial component of the global accountability and transparency “toolkit.”

Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom House
The world was battered in 2015 by overlapping crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources, and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent. These unsettling developments contributed to the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.