Brain Hacks: How to Learn Empathy
Empathy is a twisty topic, and one that's often hung with mounds of cultural baggage. The politically correct party line at the moment is, "All empathy is good; all lack of empathy is bad, bad, BAD."
The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than this (decidedly unempathetic) black-and-white thinking on empathy: strong empathy is a bit like a superpower and a crippling weakness, all rolled up into one.
In this article, we'll be looking at the full range of empathy profiles - from sociopaths, supposedly unable to feel empathy at all, to empaths, those souls so bursting with empathy that stepping on a bug makes them feel awful.
And what I most want to talk about in today's article is striking the right balance - enough empathy that you are able to perceptively know what other people are thinking, what they are feeling, and what they want, but not so much that you render yourself unable to take any action, out of fear of hurting, offending, or invoking the displeasure of someone else.
As a child, I can remember some curiously contrasting behaviors: pulling legs of ants to see what they'd do, without worrying much about what they felt (it seemed to me that they did not feel pain; normally, I euthanized them after these experiments regardless); but coming to the rescue of countless hapless earthworms I'd discover frying on the sidewalk after crawling out of the dirt following a rain shower and being stranded up on pavement they could not burrow back down into.
According to psychologists, we don't really fully develop cognitive empathy - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and imagine the world through his eyes - until our teenage years. Affective empathy (feeling others' pain) for boys takes a hit in early adolescence, before rebounding; for girls, it just goes up and up.
Yet, we live in an increasingly self-centered world; as I mentioned in "Navigating the Culture of Me", more and more individuals are being less and less empathetic; it's happening much faster in women, but affecting both sexes, and issues with empathy are becoming a bigger problem for everyone: either you aren't that empathetic yourself, or you have to deal with people who aren't.
The first question we must ask ourselves, when dealing with our own empathy shortfalls, is whether empathy can be learned - and if so, do we even want to learn it?
The Truth About Empathy
Here's an interesting video on the subject from RSA Animate:
I think one of the most interesting subjects discussed in this video is the concept of meeting individuals from outside of one's usual circles or experiences and getting to know them well in order to increase one's own empathy.
That's a recommendation I've made a number of times on this site before - in the article on being a great conversationalist; in the one on reference points and changing worldviews. By exposing yourself to various different kinds of people, you challenge your own preset notions, make it increasingly difficult for yourself to remain removed and judgmental, and humanize people who previously were only stereotypes to you. But more on that a little later in this article.
The video also talks about labels, something I talked about in these three articles:
- Labels Good and Labels Bad
- What Happens When You Label People (or Let Them Label You)
- The 9
Male Identities and How They Affect You with Women
The problem with labels is that labels are a way of dehumanizing another person - they take a complex, multidimensional individual, and reduce him to a one-dimensional caricature. You can use this to your advantage sometimes - in the case of sexy, attractive caricatures, where you become some fantasy figure a woman finds exciting and sexual, or if, say, you're applying for a job and can paint yourself as the "dream candidate" - but any unfavorable labels must be fought with fire and vehemence. They're ways of taking away your humanity and reducing you to a cartoon character, and almost everybody uses them.
One of the things you may have picked up on this site is that there is a very strong focus on empathy in the content here. Almost every article on this site:
- Explains why things are in a way that's digestible even to people who'd disagree
- Extolls the virtues of understanding and empathizing over writing off and judging
- Reminds you to be responsible and considerate in your use of what you learn here
There are a number of reasons why that is - including the fact that I'm trying to reach a wide audience with the content on here, and not merely the 500 people in the world who already believe X concept and just felt like reading another article on it telling them things they already knew - but the one of biggest interest to the average reader is probably this: being able to empathize with other people - REALLY empathize; to know their thoughts and feel their pain - makes you BETTER with other people... better able to get what you want, and better able to help them get what they want.
Right up to the point where you've got too much of it.
The Empath's Cross
One of the extremes of empathy is the extreme of being what's becoming popularly known as an "empath." Sort of like the term "psychic vampire", there's some occult-ish stuff on the Internet about how empaths are actually psychically connected to others' emotions and that's why they feel them so strongly... but that's not what we're talking about here, nor is it how we're using the term. The "empath" I'm talking about is simply a person with sky-high empathy whose heart bleeds for other people.
Very high empathy has some really cool advantages, including:
The ability to absorb others' bad emotions and make them feel good: this occurs because the other person understands that the high empathy person genuinely "gets" his or her emotions, then provides uplift or inspiration once the negativity is alleviated (see Drexel's article "How to Show Empathy with Women" for more on this)
High attunement to others' emotions, and an ability to nip problems in the bud: when you're very attuned to others' emotions, you're able to sense problems a mile away, and can deal with them when they're still small - rather than having to wait until molehills explode into mountains, as tends to happen with lower empathy individuals
High creativity: when you instinctively know what is appealing to others, you spend a lot of time as a creative, because your creative works are reward with praise, recognition, and success
Expansive knowledge base: one of the more interesting traits of high empathy people is that their brains are always in the "on" position - they don't really zone out; they're always tuned to "full awareness" (we'll talk about this below too). On the plus side, that means they are picking up knowledge and information everywhere, all the time, about all things, and this tends to give them a large base to intuit and problem-solve from
Now, the downsides - and here's where the "cross to bear" comes into play:
Getting weighted down with others' bad emotions / become the suffering servant: all that playing therapist to others has a price: you end up feeling all the bad things those others offloaded onto you. You can also end up feeling obligated to help out those in need, and end up sacrificing your own happiness for that of others (frequently, these others you attract who need your help end up being people who are always in need of constant saving, to boot - they end up becoming a perpetual drain on your energies)
Can become oversensitive to others' emotions: you can become so oversensitive to others' emotions that it becomes paralyzing; you don't want to hurt people, feel bad about saying "no" to them, can't stomach negative feedback from them, can't deal with rejection, and just end up shutting yourself off away from them and disconnecting to avoid dealing with the influx of emotions
Can't handle routine: because high empathy people are used to guiding and directing (i.e., they're the ones telling others how to fix that problem and how to make this thing happen and what to do to get over that emotion), getting stuck into a routine where they are not in control and especially if they have inflexible / un-understanding teachers, bosses, or superiors is absolutely strangling
Easily tired out and drained: the flip side of that "always on" awareness the high empathy person's brain is switched into is that they're constantly running at full power, which means the battery burns out faster, too. In the wrong situations - with very demanding people, or high-stress low-control circumstances - the high empathy person can become fatigued more rapidly than individuals of lower empathy, who aren't taxing themselves working to be as constantly aware of others' shifting thoughts and emotions
Basically, think of a highly empathetic person as someone whose emotional association is stuck in the "on" position. That brings some strong benefits, but also some strong drawbacks. Many more creative high empathy people effectively become recluses, cutting themselves off from most other close relationships to stem the tide of emotions these relationships bring.
The Sociopath's Holes
The converse of the empath is the sociopath, or psychopath (some psychologists use the terms interchangeably; some define them differently): someone with little or no empathy.
In some ways, being a sociopath is a pretty nifty deal: you get to be charming, charismatic, and can push for and do whatever you want without caring one iota how the other person thinks or feels about it.
No more failing to stand up for yourself when the airline company messes up your reservation because you're afraid of making a stir and, besides, it's not like it's the ticket agent's fault anyway... instead, the sociopath will do whatever he needs to do to make sure the damn airline company rectifies the issue and gets him his ticket already.
No more taking on lost causes in need of constant emotional support who latch onto you like barnacles and suck you dry like leeches; the sociopath doesn't need them, doesn't want them, and scrapes them off the moment they start nipping at his boots. No thanks.
But being a sociopath has its own unique set of disadvantages, too. First off, though, let's look at a piece of research on sociopathy; namely, whether sociopaths really are wholly devoid of empathy... or not.
Here's an excerpt from an absolutely fascinating article from Psychology Today, that will change the way you think about empathy (and psychopathic killers):
“But then, how can they be so charming at times? I remember chatting with one of the patients, Patient 13, a particularly severe psychopath (he had scored the full 40 points on the psychopathy checklist). Surrounded by the guards, he seemed a most pleasant person. He was smiling, engaging, and seemed to feel exactly what we wanted from him. Many of our ‘normal’ participants seemed rough and unfriendly in comparison. Valeria Gazzola, with whom I lead the lab, suggested that we let the patients watch the movies again, but asking them to try and empathize with the victims in the movies. What we found was that this simple instruction sufficed to boost the empathic activation in their brain to a level that was hard to distinguish from that of the healthy controls. Suddenly, the psychopaths seemed as empathic as the next guy. Their empathy was switched on.”
And that's the secret of the sociopath's magnetic charm - he's able to turn his empathy on and off at will. As that Psychology Today article goes on to state, for most people, empathy is the default mode; for sociopaths, it's something voluntary.
In fact, even highly empathetic people can switch empathy off: even if you're a high empath, I'm sure you can think of at least a few times in your life when something or someone made you so angry that you just switched off empathy for that person and were ready to do whatever you needed to do to punish or destroy them.
But, perhaps an even more appropriate analogy than that of a switch is that of a dimmer: we can dial our empathy up, and we can dial our empathy down. That article quoted above noted in brain scans of psychopaths before asking them to empathize, there still was empathetic activity in the brain - just not a whole lot of it. And the difference between a person of "normal" empathy levels and a person of high empathy levels, again, is not an on-off switch; it's a matter of degree.
Before we move on and talk about learning and using empathy in the best way possible though, let's get a more balanced picture of a low empathy person - both the benefits, and the drawbacks.
Benefits of low levels of empathy include:
The ability to go after what you want with assertiveness, persistence, and steely-eyed determination
Not getting slowed down by emotionally needy or parasitic individuals who want and need your constant help and support
Fearlessness, because not only are you not empathizing with others, you're also not empathizing with yourself - "future you" is insignificant, in other words, so you can do whatever you want now and not fear the consequences
The ability to see things clearly and objectively, without the emotions of those around you or those who will be affected by a decision muddying up the picture
Disadvantages of low levels of empathy include:
Bullishness that can be charming at first, but fatiguing to others around you after a while, as they become constant victims of your runaway winner effect (i.e., you always win, and they always lose)
Failing to differentiate between people who are valuable to your life but going through a hard spell, and people who are pure value drains who are always going to need hand-holding forever, leading to a revolving door of people in your life - including those people who would be most valuable to you over the long-term
Recklessness and poor long-term decision making, because you're not thinking about the effects of your actions on other people or on future you - you're not considering the full range of variables, and not able to while in an unempathetic state
A tendency to make "logically sound" decisions that are nevertheless emotionally bereft or morally bankrupt, based on incomplete logic that only accounts for what you've learned is logically important, and ignoring what your empathetic subconscious deems to also be important (but it's switched off and can't influence your decision making)
So, it isn't all charm and success for sociopaths; rather, it's more
short-term charm and short-term success, and long-term failing out of people
from their lives, and long-term negative consequences from their
brilliant-seeming short-term decisions.
Thus, the extremes of empathy - very high empathy, or very low empathy - carry with each of them some tantalizing boons... but also some very unpleasant banes.
But what if you could learn how to have empathy in just the dose you needed it, at just the time you needed it, and in such a way that you were rarely ever either over empathetic or under empathetic?
Know what I think the key to perfect empathy is? It's this:
Default to "above average empathy", with the ability to dial up or dial down as needed, depending on circumstance. To my mind, that's the ideal; keep it at healthy but measurable doses. With above average empathy, you:
Immediately understand most people
Avoid making short-sighted momentarily expedient but eventually destructive judgment calls (the sociopath's folly)
Get to be especially attuned to the environment, with an almost precognitive-like awareness of what's coming next
Be sensitive to "future you" and avoid putting yourself in situations that might be fun now but very harmful to you later
Being able to dial your empathy up means you can switch into highly creative mode, clear through negotiation logjams to find mutually beneficial solutions (rather than relying on the low empathy individual's bull-your-way-to-success approach that leads to an embittered other side and imploding relationships), and more effectively model and predict how other people are likely to act, even in situations in which you have zero real world experience.
Being able to dial your empathy down means you can switch into bull-mode when empathetic negotiations aren't working or you're dealing with an unempathetic person who won't work with you, assertively chase down things you might otherwise be apprehensive about chasing down, and set aside fear when you need to set it aside.
This "empathy switching" is something almost no one does naturally - but everyone can learn to do.
Cerebral Cruise Control
First, let's talk having empathy, for the readers who lack it.
I've frequently surrounded myself with low- or no-empathy friends. I grew up as a very high empathy person, only to find myself crippled by a social phobia that left me paralyzed by fear of even the smallest consequences of any of my actions: what if someone didn't like me; what if I hurt their feelings; what if I messed up. Eventually, I came to view my high level of empathy as a major weakness, and sought to control it, and to surround myself with people who were the opposite of what I was.
I sought to emulate their positive traits - boldness, fearlessness, shamelessness; this was very difficult for me at first, but to a certain extent I learned to dial my empathy up and down as they could, and eventually I could (usually) be every bit as bold, fearless, or shameless as they could - sometimes much more so... though nearly always 100% conscious of what I was doing, and suppressing fear and shame, rather than not feeling it outright.
At the same time, I learned to value my own empathy, because even as I learned the strong advantages of my sociopathic friends, I also observed their weaknesses: chaotic relationships, self-destructive patterns that prevented them from truly progressing, and a veneer of charm, intellect, and improvement that was really very much veneer: despite being some of the most vocal people you'd ever meet about change and self-improvement, meet them years later and you'll find that, while they may have been promoted in their careers, otherwise they remain exactly the same, even while your more "ordinary" friends have changed and evolved. Sociopathic people tend to be frozen in time, stuck in a kind of permanent unchanging state.
It's my opinion that this unchanging state, the lack of creativity, chaotic relationships, and self-destructive patterns are all symptoms of a single root cause: low empathy is really just the brain placed on cruise control.
This is my personal theory. I haven't seen any research supporting it. But in observing the difference between my own high- and low-empathy states, and in observing the differences between people I interact with who are high in empathy or low in empathy, I've noticed a strikingly common trend: people high on empathy really THINK about what you say, what they see on your face, what you're feeling, what's going on in the environment, and what the causes of everything are. They're turning over everything, and processing hard. This is also why they're so suggestible: because they're open to and considering everything, people on high empathy are able to be guided and suggested.
Compare this to low empathy individuals and sociopaths: when you're in this category, you're on FULL autopilot. You're not running your brain at a million RPMs trying to crack that nut and really figure stuff out and get inside people's heads and understand why what's what and that's that. You're not trying to assemble pieces of knowledge into artful, creative works, or to tie together a mental model that forms a coherent picture out of all the little details you've observed. You may be very intelligent; and you may be well-read. But you don't analyze; you read, retain, and repeat. With people, you charm and seduce - but you don't think. You don't feel what they feel. It's like running an assembly line; each new person is just another one plopped out on the conveyor belt and given the same treatment as every one else.
The biggest question someone in a low empathy state might ask
himself is, "What should I do differently next time?" He won't ask himself, "What was going
through her head that made her react that way?" or, "How would I feel
if I were her and I talked to me that way?"
That's what I think empathy really is: it's thinking hard about all the new stimuli you have coming in right now, and viewing a situation from multiple different angles different from and even totally alien to your own.
Sociopaths take a mental shortcut and turn off most of that hard thinking most of the time, allowing them to run consistent processes for getting what they want and appearing charming and persuasive, always seeming fresh because they are untaxed by the mentally fatiguing work of having to carefully consider, weigh, analyze, and decipher every new piece of information.
Conversely, empaths have this shortcut disabled, or haven't learned to take it, and are unable to shut off their analysis mode, and so are easily affected by anyone and everything that sees fit to put heavy emotions and arguments on them, forcing them to spend mental resources dealing with this new, weighty cognitive load.
It's all about turning your autopilot on or off.
How to Have Empathy
Earlier we touched on the importance of gaining more reference points with all kinds of different people if you want to experience higher degrees of empathy. Why's that?
Well, because it forces you to see other people who were previously only one-dimensional stereotypes as fully fleshed out, real people.
Multiple studies (including this one from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009) have that found that people who live abroad outside their home countries develop higher levels of creativity:
“Despite abundant anecdotal evidence that creativity is associated with living in foreign countries, there is currently little empirical evidence for this relationship. Five studies employing a multimethod approach systematically explored the link between living abroad and creativity. Using both individual and dyadic creativity tasks, Studies 1 and 2 provided initial demonstrations that time spent living abroad (but not time spent traveling abroad) showed a positive relationship with creativity. Study 3 demonstrated that priming foreign living experiences temporarily enhanced creative tendencies for participants who had previously lived abroad. In Study 4, the degree to which individuals had adapted to different cultures while living abroad mediated the link between foreign living experience and creativity. Study 5 found that priming the experience of adapting to a foreign culture temporarily enhanced creativity for participants who had previously lived abroad. The relationship between living abroad and creativity was consistent across a number of creativity measures (including those measuring insight, association, and generation), as well as with masters of business administration and undergraduate samples, both in the United States and Europe, demonstrating the robustness of this phenomenon.”
... and, as we know, creativity and empathy are closely linked.
The reach out programs mentioned in that RSA video are another link in the chain for empathy-building: a Palestinian mother may despise Israelis because she lost a child to an Israeli bombing, while an Israeli father may loathe Palestinians because he lost a child to a Palestinian rocket attack. But put the two together and let them talk, and they will quickly discover their enemies are not quite the monsters they made them out to be beforehand. And it's the same for understanding both those weaker than you, and those more powerful, too.
But what about base-level empathy in the
first place? What if you're the type who'd meet a mother crying about
losing her child, and just not be affected? Maybe even be a little bored?
I'm not going to vilify you here. The people who will are, paradoxically, not being all that empathetic toward you; they don't understand how you can not feel empathy.
It again ties back to whether you are doing the mental heavy lifting of forcing yourself into the other person's shoes emotionally or not. You see, empathetic people like to consider themselves selfless, but the reason they cry when they see another in pain is not because they are truly selfless individuals; rather, it is because when you are in an empathetic state of mind, you imagine that other person's pain as your own, and imagine that you are them, or that their pain has happened to you.
If that sounds a little crazy ("Why would I want to do that?"), I understand. It's a social bonding mechanism that humans use to communicate their closeness to and support of others.
The real advantage of empathy isn't just "making other people feel like you care", though; I've spent enough time around low empathy individuals to know that isn't a major concern ("The LAST thing I want is some needy clingy person hanging around trying to suck emotional support out of me!" - either that, or they're more interested in the appearance of care than actually caring outright).
Rather, the advantage is those advantages we listed above: awareness, better long-term decision making, and genuine, substantial self-improvement (not just the "Oh yeah, I'm totally improvement-oriented!" line you feed people because it makes them think more highly of you).
And the only way to develop those benefits? Yup - you've got to train yourself to switch empathy on in a big way.
Not just some of the time, if you're usually low or no empathy. You've got to have your brain switched into that taxing, focused, analytical mode all the time. That means constantly asking yourself:
Why is it this way? If something is a way, there must be a reason for it.
What other ways could it be? What are possible alternatives?
How does this interact with the other things I know and believe?
What is this person feeling right now? What emotions are she experiencing?
What do those emotions feel like if I experience them myself?
Why does this person act the way he or she does? What's the root cause?
Is this person trusting of me? What would I feel like if I was her and I violated that trust?
Is this person paranoid? What would I feel like if I was as paranoid as him, and what would I be afraid that I am going to do?
The more you expose yourself to various new people and new situations and the more you keep your analysis hat on FULL BLAST, the more you will cultivate the ability to thoughtfully and empathetically think about the world around you in a way that modulates your self-destructive and stuck-in-place tendencies, and accents the superficial charm you've gotten so good at developing with real substance that others value and that makes your life increasingly better at a far faster rate than promotions in a work environment can net you.
Tamping Down Runaway Empathy
If you're on the other side of the spectrum, and you're crippled by excessive empathy, you need to do as I did and learn to dial it down a notch.
Again, experience wins the day here; if your natural default is "high empathy", this is what you'll switch into in unfamiliar high stress situations. So, you need to get yourself as much experience in as many different kinds of situations that you are familiar with whatever life throws at you, and can respond in a way that's more automated and less "brain going crazy with constant heavy analysis and emotion."
The object here is not to become constantly automated and unempathetic; rather, the objective is to learn to switch into low empathy in situations that benefit from low empathy.
For example, when you are pulling women home, you do a lot
better in somewhat low
empathy mode. If you go too
low empathy, you won't be able to recognize and respond to legitimate
objections with anything other than the "plow your way to success!"
approach, which sometimes works, and sometimes blows up in your face.
Conversely, if you're at average or higher empathy, when she starts
raising objections, you're going to give them too much thought: "What if she's
serious? What if she really is
tired, and I'm making her even more
tired by keeping her out right now?" And then you send her home, and
she goes into auto-rejection because she
expected you to overcome her objections and give her great sex, and
instead you took her words at face value.
The secret here is process. When you can build an automated process that you follow for something, you're able to dial down empathy and just run the process. Then, instead of having to think your way through something, you can switch on your magnetic charm... and behave much like the sociopath does in social situations.
And there's no question that the men women find the most sexually enticing - charming, charismatic, risk-taking men who are unafraid of defying social convention and are bursting with sex and sensuality - are dead ringers characteristics-wise for just about every sociopath who's ever lived.
Seduction works best when you emulate low empathy individuals - these simply are the types of men that women are drawn to (perhaps due to the fact that individuals who are low in empathy tend to be more successful on average - they attain a much greater proportion of leadership roles than their share of society at large would imply they should get - or perhaps because being low in empathy allows one to more quickly and efficiently build a persona that generates optimal results with the opposite sex without being stifled by fears of rejection and the like).
And you may have to operate in low empathy during relationship fights, especially if a girlfriend is pushing very hard and your natural inclination on being pushed is to yield.
But there are other times when you will want your empathy close to full blast - e.g., when you are learning something new, or trying something out that you haven't tried with women before. Here, you want to be fully immersed in the reactions and results you're getting, so you can adjust on the fly - and also figure out if this is something you want to keep doing or not.
I'd recommend that once you learn to control it, you usually keep
your empathy dialed up, but get good at dialing it down whenever you
need to either do something that makes you uncomfortable (like
challenging someone you don't want to challenge, or approaching a girl you're
nervous to approach) or is otherwise hard to do (you've got to go talk
your way into an exclusive members area, with nothing but your charm
and your wits - not the time to be empathetic touchy-feely - rather,
it's just time to go).
Dialing Up and Dialing Down
You will find that people who are low in empathy tend to consider those high in empathy to be "weak"; meanwhile, those high in empathy tend to consider those low in empathy to be "cold" or "evil." Yet, both high and low empathy have strong advantages; and both sides of the spectrum nicely complement one another's deficits.
In fact, the strongest, and warmest, individual is the one who's able to span both sides, and everything in between. The man who can be high in empathy when learning and understanding and communicating, and low in empathy when acting and doing and persevering, is an immensely powerful man.
This man is a man who understands others fully and intuitively, and nurtures his relationships with them; who keeps energy-draining individuals away from himself, and only individuals who are his equals or better, and who are worth his time and attention; he does things that build up his future, rather than sabotage it, and yet he does so with might and resolve and without an oversupply of fear and self-doubt. He's a cautious man, but not so cautious that he misses out on good times and great experiences; and because he is always aware, he is highly creative and able to summon a solution for nearly any problem, and is then able to knuckle down and execute on said solutions until they are done.
Being able to dial your empathy up and down, like a dimmer, is power of a man who has truly mastered himself. Because empathy, what for all its cultural baggage and moralizing, is at the core of things a tool: one that can paralyze you or destroy you, if you have too much of it or too little, or one that can help you make real your wildest fantasies, if you learn to wield it properly and at the right times.
However, it does take some training; and you will have to force yourself to think and feel a LOT harder (if you're normally switched off) and build up your tolerance for mentally taxing activities, or to override a number of emotions (if you're normally switched into overdrive) and build up your tolerance for emotionally scary things.
Either way, if you really want to realize the full potential of what you've got in your skull and what you can achieve in this short time you've got alive, then get your empathy handled - learn to feel it powerfully and more if you don't, and learn to tamp it down and direct it and steer it if you can't. The world is yours if you do.
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