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.

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?