Can there be an excess of empathy? How would we know?

BPS has a gloss on this paper by Bremser and Gallup, which suggests that eating disorders and social anxiety may be an example of Extreme Female Brain:

too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.

The austistic spectrum disorders are believed (by some, but not all) to be evidence of extreme male brain, perhaps because of hypersensitivity to androgens, for instance. There’s a lot to hate about that theory, not the least because it takes typical male traits as biological in origin and thus discounts the social construction of gender hypothesis. But say it’s true. If so, there might also be an Extreme Female Brain. What would someone in that situation look like?

Well, Bremser and Gallup are suggesting it would combine three factors: disordered eating, social anxiety… and vegetarianism:

suggested a novel explanation for why vegetarianism is particularly prevalent among people with eating disorders. Previously it’s been assumed that vegetarianism is popular for this group as a means of calorie restriction. However, if eating disorders are part of the manifestation of an Extreme Female Brain, one that’s associated with exaggerated empathy, then vegetarianism may be a natural consequence of having enhanced empathy for animals.

At this point there’s little effort to tie anything to a particular etiology, but the suggestion is that one can literally care too much. My primary interest in this is as a would-be vegetarian and as a fallibilist. How would we know if we are caring too much? How can we ever know if our moral intuitions have misled us? Does the mere fact of making a sacrifice of personal well-being for another indicate that our care is excessive? Should we then say that humanitarian aid workers are pathological, civil rights activists delusional  and martyrs sick?

And what if “Extreme Female Brain” allows some to see clearly what others are blinded to? Certainly this is true for “Extreme Male Brain,” since autistic spectrum disorders do include many very intelligent people who can better analyze data or parse evidence than the supposedly-healthy men and women who are not on the spectrum. Why isn’t “extra care” a superpower? It’s associated with eating disorders, certainly, but only because of extraneous factors that cause a person with this hypothetical hypertrophied caring capacity to notice that what other people want from them is for them to be thin and beautiful! Their care is correctly reporting the desires of others!

At least for women. The study shows that men with eating disorders are actually incorrectly recognizing the emotions of others:

Among female participants, dysfunctional attitudes towards eating were associated with higher scores on an objective measure of empathising, one that involved interpreting emotions from pictures of people’s eyes. But for males, dysfunctional attitudes to eating actually predicted lower scores on the test.

The researchers surmised that perhaps these men were over-interpreting the pictures – “hyper-mentalising” – and seeing emotions that weren’t there, which would be consistent with their central thesis about the Extreme Female Brain. Supporting this, further studies found that dysfunctional attitudes towards eating and fear of negative evaluation by others also tended to go hand in hand with higher self-reported scores on schizotypy, including exaggerated suspiciousness, magical thinking and paranoia – arguably all signs of “hyper-mentalising”, and the opposite of what’s seen in autism.

Clearly this line of research has only just begun. We haven’t even established the causes and mechanisms of autism; there is every possibility that these speculations about the gendered brain are merely bad pattern matching. But it’s interesting to wonder about the big question: even presented with a pathological account of care, is it possible to believe that care for others could be in error? Lurking in the background for me here is Susan Wolf’s essay on Moral Saints, and anxieties about care ethics in general. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Can there be an excess of empathy? How would we know?”

  1. This is certainly interesting (though yes, I super-cringe at the phrases “Extreme Male Brain”, and “Extreme Female Brain”).

    I am not sure if you intend for the argument about “Extreme Female Brain” to be treated seriously as an hypothesis, or simply as a thought experiment (in other words, assume this correlation matters, if so, then what are the interesting implications). The part about empathy as a type of superpower is certainly interesting, and I think as a thought experiment it has a lot going on with it.

    However, I think the connection between something called “Extreme Female Brain” and vegetarianism/veganism and eating disorders probably doesn’t pass the sniff test as a hypothesis. First, because anyone who has hung around animal rights activists can attest, there is a large number of people who are seem somewhere along the autism spectrum (though I am loath to this sort of armchair diagnosis, but the behaviors I have seen make me assume it is so). My other objection (and, another caveat, is that I haven’t done a high level of research on this issue, so I could easily be wrong about what current studies are saying) is that as far I can tell, the claims about being vegetarian or vegan from people with eating disorders has less to do with calorie restriction, and more to do with camouflage. In other words, we live in a society where animal flesh and animal products are so central to most meals, that someone claiming to be a vegetarian or a vegan can basically get by without eating, no questions asked. In other words, the person with the eating disorder claims to be vegetarian or vegan so no one wonders why that person isn’t eating (parents, school officials, friends, etc). My understanding is that many of these people with eating disorders, when they do eat frequently do eat animal parts and products. Which would mean they are not vegetarian or vegan in any sort of consistent way. All this means the correlation between eating disorders and claims or vegetarianism and veganism don’t seem to have anything to do with overlapping empathy. (though again, maybe recent research on this issue has pointed in new directions).

    1. Hi Scu! Great of you to comment on this! (Long time no blog!)

      The phrase “extreme female brain” comes from Simon Baron-Cohen as an echo of his account of autism as “extreme male brain.” I choose to think that Simon is character created by Sascha B-C who has gone rogue from Da Ali G Show and is now pretending to be a professor of developmental psychopathology. (In fact they are cousins. Or maybe the gag goes that deep.)

      In any case, this is just a thought experiment: is there some account of psychology that might persuade us to change our judgments? Or can we always save our positions with by de-pathologizing? I.e. superpowers! What then does this “save the appearances” account of moral justification do to my pretensions to contrite fallibilism?

      As for the vegetarian/eating disorder correlation, it seems vastly underdetermined to me. There are lots of other ways to engage in calorie restriction in a socially acceptable manner, so I don’t see it as being as spurious a correlation as you say. But I also don’t mean to somehow pathologize vegetarians. I also think you don’t quite get the overlapping groups right in your account: sure, animal rights activists might be predominantly autism spectrum or simply neurotypical. Assuming that veganism is the right position, it’s possible for people to get there lots of different ways. The question is: might one group (hyper-empathizers) get there for the wrong reasons? And again: how would we know their reasons were wrong?

      Here is some research that points to a connection beyond simply excusing calorie restriction:

      -Female college vegetarians are more likely than meat eaters to feel guilty after they eat, be more preoccupied with being thin, and are more likely to use laxatives, extreme exercise, and vomiting to lose weight.

      -Teenage and adult vegetarians are four times as likely as omnivores to engage in binge eating.

      -Vegetarian adolescents in both Turkey and Australia show greater concern over their appearance and engage in more extreme eating behaviors than meat-eaters.

      -Finnish vegetarian women have higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than non-vegetarians.

      -College students who avoid meat are more obsessed with their weight and diet more often than meat eaters. They are also more inclined to agree with the statement, “If given the opportunity to eliminate all my nutritional needs safely and cheaply by taking a pill, I would.”

      None of it is definitive, I don’t think, but it demands further explanation.

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