Monday, August 08, 2005

Is Empathy Systematic?

That is a relevant question, because yet another person is making claims about the "essential" differences between men and women. (As the bio attached to this op-ed piece notes, the author has written something titled, "The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain.") As you all know by now, reductionism of various sorts makes me crazy.

In any case, according to this guy, his research divides people and their brains into "systematizers" and "empathizers," and, what a surprise, in his research the former is associated more with males and the latter with females. The part that is making me crazy (today, anyway; something else about this will make me spit tomorrow) is that the underlying assumption is that empathizing is not systematic, it's just this "there, there" response. As he puts it:
Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own.
Okay, people, listen up: recognizing what another person may be thinking or feeling means that one must have a typology of emotion--a system, if you will. It's not just random hand-holding. There are, in fact, laws involved, and you can, in fact, control an emotional system or predict its behavior. (What's that old line about parents? They're so good at pushing our buttons because they installed them?) You can argue about whether the difference in subject matter makes a difference, but, damnit, it's still a system.

Second, however, none of this takes into account how socialization affects the systems to which we devote our time. (First questions regarding the mechanical mobile versus human faces in the first 24 hours of life: How was "look at" measured? Did the measurer know the sex of the infants? It's possible that this test would still stand up, but let's not forget that "assertive" gets coded as "aggressive" or "bitchy" when the genitalia expressing the behavior varies.) I think it's absolutely likely--not just possible, but likely--that hormones influence our development, including the development of our personalities and our likes and dislikes, and possibly even the development of something like Asberger's or autism. But it's also likely that we still do not have much of a clue about the mechanisms involved, number one, or, number two, the interaction of the vast number of inputs to the system.

Back to the socialization question. If you are in a subordinate position, because of your sex, you'd damned well better learn how to read emotions. You'd better be able to figure out what pattern your parent, boss, partner, etc. is displaying today, because if that person is going to go off, you want to be able to defuse or get out of the way. If you're not subordinate(d) you do not have to care what other people are feeling. If you're smart, you learn to do so anyway, but you simply do not have to care. Thus, to my mind, measuring empathy and not taking that socialization into account means you've muddied your results. Just saying.


Blogger Gard E Abrahamsen said...

Reminds me of countless Russian women who have argued that "men are not capable of having strong emotions as women do," and then proceeded to not understand why I was offended by that remark. After all, as a member of the male species, I was supposed to not feel anything.

12:14 PM  
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Blogger Brad said...

I get exasperated with reductionism too. According to research supervised by Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of the article, Autism-spectrum traits are more common among bio-medical scientists than the general population. I wrote an article about it on my own blog - Empathy Defecit.

You wrote "If you're not subordinate(d) you do not have to care what other people are feeling. If you're smart, you learn to do so anyway, but you simply do not have to care." Not caring is a sign that empathy is absent. One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, said in an online article that many corporate executives and government leaders are afflicted with psychopathic personalities:
"PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care ... Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich ..."

9:52 PM  

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