11 July 2014

The downsides to empathy

"You have a SNP in the oxytocin receptor which may make you less empathetic than most people. 
When under stress you may have more difficulty recognizing the emotional state of others which impacts loneliness, parenting, and socializing skills 
Lower levels of reward dependence (reliance on social approval). Lower autonomic arousal while perceiving harm to others." 

Indeed, I've been told by many people that I am not empathetic enough, and I have social skills only slightly better than someone with Asperger's. 

But I object to the characterization of this as "dysfunction". It is different than the norm, sure.
Does empathy imply more morality?  Is lack of empathy a pathology? Not necessarily

Just because I can't tell how you feel from your expression doesn't mean I'm any less likely to care. It just means I need more explicit communication - which is generally a good thing anyway. 
Combined with good communication, I bet it makes for less misunderstandings: while I do worse than average on "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test", I KNOW when I'm not sure, while people who do better are often confident even when they are wrong. Therefor I'm more likely to ask. 

A study published in the journal Science by Dr. Hillel Aviezer of the Psychology Department of the Hebrew University, together with Dr. Yaacov Trope of New York University and Dr. Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, confirms my theory: "viewers in test groups were baffled when shown photographs of people who were undergoing real-life, highly intense positive and negative experiences. " (as opposed to the typical "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test" which uses actors). "When the viewers were asked to judge the emotional valences of the faces they were shown (that is, the positivity or negativity of the faces), their guesses fell within the realm of chance. " 
Nobody can really "mind read". But people rated more empathetic absolutely believe they can. Sounds like dysfunction... 

Reliance on social approval is a terrible thing! 
This study http://mic.com/articles/92479/psychologists-have-uncovered-a-troubling-feature-of-people-who-seem-too-nice isn't really about "niceness" as it claims, so much as about the politeness that stems from a high reliance on social approval. In other words, ASDs are a lot less likely to hurt others in order to fit in or be accepted.
The typical human will deliberately choose what they know to be a wrong answer, just so they can fit in with everyone else: http://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html
 Reliance on social approval is the basis of peer pressure, of group think, of failure to act in crises (if others are around), of the negative feelings of shame and low-self-esteem. And as the study above shows, it makes people more likely to be evil. I'm at a loss for what positives come from it. It sounds an awful lot like dysfunction to me. 

Lower autonomic arousal while perceiving harm to others is probably a trait you want in, say, a rescuer (USCG Search and Rescue, for example, which I am, or a firefighter or cop or paramedic) - similar as I said above, the fact that I don't have a strong emotional reaction to your distress doesn't mean I don't care. It means I can stay calm and collected during your crises, which makes me more effective at helping you. Do you really want your rescuer to be so sympathetic that they freak out or start crying when they see how much pain you're in? 
A highly sympathetic pediatrician would develop lots of stress from continually causing children pain, even though they know the shots are in the child's best interests. Again, that sounds like dysfunction to me. 

Aspys and similar folk tend to be more intelligent and better at all sort of tasks. The fact of being less common doesn't automatically imply pathology - if it did, being overweight would have to be reclassified as normal, and a healthy BMI would have to be considered disfunction (at least in the US). 
Evolution has gone from pure stimulus response to instinct behavior to emotional reactions to higher order reasoning and logic. I propose the rise of the Aspys, who are less emotional and more logical, is another step in that direction!

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