Empathy, Cognition, and In-Group Preferences

The speculative post on empathy generated a great set of comments over on Facebook, but I think the discussion was weighed down by the framing from the original article regarding “Extreme Female Brain.” Those (like Cordelia Fine) who have rejected the account of autism-spectrum disorders as “Extreme Male Brain” have largely done so because of the absence of evidence for gendered brains when subjects are properly primed with statements designed to downplay gender differences. Studies that show gendered responses are evidence of larger gender biases and stereotype threats in our society at large. So let us drop the gendered speculation except where it’s unavoidable. (Male “mind-reading” from cropped photographs of eyes is error-prone in experimental settings, but this, too, might be a case of stereotype threats.)

The science of empathy is quite advanced, and gives us a basic picture of what and where various parts of an empathic response occur. (I’ve tried to work on the problem of cross-race implicit bias before, but I’ve learned a lot more of the science since then.) There is research that suggests that something like “emotional contagion” is a precursor of empathy. Contagion is importantly different from full-blown empathy in that it is not reflective or subject to ethical or contextual regulation. One of the main questions in the neuroscience of empathy is whether full-blown empathy takes a top-down or a bottom-up approach. Either we start with emotional contagion and move to a rational consideration of what we’re feeling and how we should deal with it, or we start with a contextual appraisal and executively-directed attention and this leads to empathic response. Either we “feel for the other” first and then decide (with limited success) whether we ought to do so and how we ought to deal with it, or we make a contextual decision that someone else’s feelings are morally relevant and then allow ourselves to share in their experiences.

For normal folks, this is likely a little of both: a little bottom-up contagion, a little top-down regulation and contextual judgment. But we are not all neurotypical, and in the world of neuropluralism there may be multiple modalities of empathic response. Consider the hypoethetical neuropluralism of the overcaring brain, the one hypothesized to lead to eating disorders. Someone who was hyper-empathetic (in the sense of having uninhibited emotional contagion) might find themselves unable to avoid the contempt of their peers: they can’t (easily) engage in the kind of meta-cognitive reappraisal that allows them to deny the relevance of the other person’s contempt. Someone with a “healthy” brain might quickly tamp down the emotional contagion that shares in the contemptuous other’s disgust for us, or even transform that disgust into pity or understanding that the contemptious other is really projecting his own body anxieties. The hyper-empath does not manage that, to his detriment.

What I was interested in was the idea that someone who has this particular defect might end up extending their empathic response to non-conspecifics, like non-human animals. But since I also worry quite a bit about other kinds of in-group preference, it occurs to me that the hyper-empath might potentially be unable to deny the relevant of distant others or other races. Could hyper-empaths avoid implicit bias problems on cross-race facial identifications? Would they have the same attenuated empathic response to the suffering of non-proximate others as neurotypicals?

In both cases, there’s clearly a troubling role for contextual regulation and meta-cognitive appraisal: how else could we explain that even our empathy is racist? Rationality excludes the slave from the master’s moral community. Executive judgment reminds us that animals are not morally relevant and prevents us from feeling the importance of their suffering. The cognitive limits of “full-blown empathy” prevent us from caring for the suffering of strangers.

In this sense, the hyper-empaths’ failure at meta-cognitive regulation of emotional contagion might lead them to the same cosmopolitan empathy that those with ordinary empathic response achieve only through travel, working with animals, or after careful thinking about the tenets of utilitarianism.

Bam! Superpowers.





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