The growth of our empathetic ability may have been key for the growth of civilization, and civilization may have selected for it. Two social policies that we can implement today to further empathy are reducing inequality, and screening and treating autism and psychopathy.
In this series:
It may be that developing our capacity for empathy is the key to surviving the myriad threats of the 21st century, from war to climate change, as Jeremy Rifkin argued in his 2009 book The Empathetic Civilization and Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argued in their 2012 Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Indeed, the growth of civilization over the last tens of thousands of years may have both both depended on, and selected for, the growth of empathy.
In his landmark 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker draws togther multiple kinds of evidence that the incidence of violence has declined since the Paleolithic era.(I find the evidence compelling as do others at the IEET like Russell Blackford, but for more on the debate about whether violence has in fact declined see Ben Abbott and this debate from the International Studies Review. Piero Scaruffi reviews the main arguments of the book here.) Pinker attributes this decline to a number of trends:
- Decline of Warrior Culture The shift from the raiding and feuding of bands of hunter-gatherers to the settled life of farming villages under expanding government control
- Growth of Governments The expansion of governments’ monopoly on violence from the Middle Ages through the present, and the growing enforcement of bans on civilian violence
- Enlightenment Thought The spread of Enlightenment ideas about human rights and the impermissibility of cruelty and murder
- The New World Order The absence of war between major world powers since WWII
- Increasing capacities for cognitive empathy As we became healthier, and our psychosocial environments richer and more complex, we have increasing abilities to take the perspectives of other people.
In other words, along with the declining necessity of violence for survival, the growth of government controls on violence, and the emergence of anti-violence values, we may also be getting nicer because we are getting smarter. The well-documented “Flynn effect” has shown that in the last hundred years of intelligence testing populations in the industrialized countries have continually improved in the abstract reasoning skills necessary for cognitive empathy. The strengthening of these faculties allows us to use Enlightenment values to temper our more primitive particularism towards those who are similar or genetically related, and aversive feelings for people who are different. The stronger our prefrontal cortex and its cognitive abilities, the more likely we are not only to understand the perspectives of others, but to mold our conscience to have generalized empathy and compassion for humans and animals. (It should be noted however that a recent meta-analysis of 106 studies finds the relationship of empathy and aggression surprisingly weak, although it still concluded that the more empathy people have the less they are physically and verbally aggressive.)
Intelligence, which is the focus of the next essay, is correlated with self-control, agreeableness and willingness to trust others. The more intelligent people are the less likely they are commit violent crimes, and to be tolerant of difference. These links between niceness and intelligence may in fact have a common genetic root. A recent study of 3700 children in Philadelphia found that genetic variation in emotional intelligence was strongly tied to genes for reading ability and verbal memory. I will address our ability to enhance our social or emotional intelligence through cognitive enhancement methods in the next essay. In this essay however I am focusing on the methods we can use to enhance our emotional empathy, as well as ways to enhance cognitive empathy other than simply making ourselves smarter.
There may also be a feedback loop between the biology of empathy and trust, and the social structures that they sustain. It may be, for instance, that the growth of agrarian society and governmental monopolies on violence not only reduced violence through social controls, but also imposed higher mortality rates on high testosterone men, contributing to behavioral feminization through natural selection. Unlike in hunter-gatherer societies, highly aggressive men in agrarian society would not necessarily have had higher reproductive success to balance their higher mortality rate. In turn, societies with more cooperative genes and biochemistries may more easily sustain cooperative and peaceful governments.
Some psychologists see worrying evidence of declines in empathy in the last couple of decades. For instance researchers gathered 72 studies of the self-reported emotional and cognitive empathy in American college students between 1979 and 2009 and found a marked decline. But when people are responding to questions like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” or “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” they are comparing themselves to some idea of what the average person is like. It may be that in any classroom the students who believe they are more empathic are in fact more empathic, while the standard for empathy has ratcheted up over time. If students today are evaluating themselves as less empathic it could be because of their increased expectations for their own and others’ empathetic concern, not because their own has actually declined. That is more consistent with the fact that American students are volunteering more than they ever have in the past, and that violent crime in the U.S. is at a forty year low.
Inequality and Empathy If there is in fact a decline in empathy among some populations however it may have less to do with rising narcissism or texting, and more to do with rising levels of inequality within societies. A growing body of evidence demonstrates the impact of inequalities of wealth and power on empathy and moral behavior. Lower class people experience more empathy and are more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful, even after controlling for gender, ethnicity and spiritual beliefs. Upper class people are more narcissistic, more likely to justify inequality as the legitimate result of differences in ability, and are more likely to break traffic laws, steal, cheat and lie. (On the other hand, since education is correlated with more social tolerance and support for the rights of minorities, and economic stressors tend to make people more xenophobic, there other ways in which inequality can make the poor more racist, patriarchal and homophobic.) Reducing inequalities of wealth and power in the world are therefore one of the most important ways to enhance empathy and social trust.
Screening and Treating Autism and Psychopathy Another social policy avenue for increasing caring is to expand publicly financed screening and interventions for autism and psychopathy. Obviously the identification and treatment of psychopathy is far more important since autism is not related to antisocial behavior. But training to enhance cognitive empathy for children and adults on the autism spectrum significantly improves their social lives and well-being. Currently there are no clearly effective treatments for psychopathy, although therapies to boost the response of the psychopath’s amygdala to perceived pain and fear in others is a promising avenue.
Part Three will be posted on Wednesday,
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