What Is Empathy?

What Is Empathy?

Empathy. Everyone knows what it is, right? It’s that sixth sense, a kind of ESP that picks up the vibes of what somebody else is feeling. Except that telepathy doesn’t exist, and given the lack of Betazoids on Earth there is nobody who can genuinely “hear” emotions broadcast by your brain.

So what is empathy and how does it work? It turns out that it’s based on observation. Minutiae of expression–body language–signal emotions at a subconscious level.

Humans being social animals, we have evolved to be sensitive to these signals from others around us. They provide hints for how we should approach others, how we should adapt our behavior to their moods so that they will be more receptive to our interactions.

But since we cannot actually read the thoughts of another, cannot infallibly know what they are thinking, we rely on projecting what we can observe onto our own psyche. We predict their responses based on what we ourselves would do in their situation.

There’s an elephant in the room of this analysis of empathy: it relies completely on an assumed similarity of thought. To be able to mirror the thought processes and mind state of another person requires a certain degree of equivalence of culture, environment and neurology.

Among the mostly homogeneous communities around the world this works well enough for the majority of people that they take its universal applicability for granted. But that is not the case.

Those of us who have a different neurology, or were raised in different culture, think differently. When we try to imagine another’s thoughts we predict them based on our own minds. We use the knowledge we have gained through our own experiences.

But, when those experiences are sufficiently different from those of the person whose mind we are trying to model we find that the conclusions we reach are different from those that they would arrive at.

The converse is also true: neurotypical people are equally bad at imagining what autistic people (and also people from different cultures) are thinking and feeling.

Empathy is not some magical ability. It is nothing more than considering the question, “What would I do/feel in their situation?” It’s simply a forecast based on what we can see of them.

For accuracy forecasting relies on both knowledge of the initial conditions (what we observe of their situation and mood) and an accurate model of their behavior (how they think). It is this second part that explains the disconnect for autistic people.

We simply do not think in the same way. We respond differently to the same stimuli. And so when we try to imagine their thoughts we imagine them responding as we would. And that is different to how they would respond.

The result is that we are assumed not to have any significant capacity for empathy, for putting ourselves in the place of others. But my view is that the very definition of empathy means the odds are stacked against us even before we begin.

8 thoughts on “What Is Empathy?

  1. Excellent, thank you, Alex! In my thesis on autism as a parallel embodiment, I have proposed the simple concept that autists, far from being empathy impaired, simple possess a different empathic system based on our neurological function. As for empathy, I coined the term, the Endeavour of Empathy, because empathy is actually an effort of will born of the desire to connect Self with Other. Not a magical ability. xo I shall be reposting your article! xo

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  2. I love the way you define empathy: the ability to think, “What would I do or feel in their place?” I am an Aspie, my oldest is an Aspie, my youngest is ASD, and I have worked with special needs children since I was in primary school, though I have never held a professional position working with autistic individuals. And actually, in my relatively extensive experience with autism, I have learned that autistic people can answer that question much more quickly, clearly, and thoroughly than neurotypicals.

    By my reckoning, we are actually much better at empathy than NTs. The problem becomes the model of behavior we are using. Because our frame of reference is different, we will respond differently. People who are empathetic (but not very good at it) will assume that we neurodivergents are not empathetic.

    I don’t know what you know about girls and Asperger’s. But generally, we are better able to mimic the behavior of others around us, and so we can frame our response more to the question of “What is expected of me to do or feel in their place?” This ability to predict and conform to the expectations of others despite feeling the wrongness of it to our very core is, I believe, the primary reason that Asperger’s is missed in so many girls.

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    1. Thank you ClaireElaine. My own experience matches what you say about autistic people being particularly empathetic. I agree with your point about mimicry, and the autistic ability, particularly evident in girls, to learn to meet others’ expectations. We learn to become adept at observing those around us, reproducing their behaviors so that we blend in and don’t attract negative attention. I love how you expanded my question as “What is expected…” Conforming to others’ expectations, or rather our model of those expectations, does help us “pass” but at a cost. I think we run the risk of becoming overly compliant which can lead us to put ourselves at risk.

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  3. This. Totally this. It’s not so much that we autotistic people lack empathy, but more that there’s a sort of empathy gap but us and others. But as we are considered disordered + in the minority, that gap is considered part of our disorder.

    One thing I have noticed throughout my life is that while I may not always understand what goes on in other people’s heads, I at least am making the effort. And that usually cannot be said for the (mostly neurotypical) people around me.

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    1. I agree: understanding what is going on in someone else’s head is beyond me too. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to build a model of their responses–we can figure out what they’ll do but not necessarily why.

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