Saturday, June 13, 2015

Feeling the other's pain

In the Reign of Terror, by Jessie Macgregor (1891). We don’t respond equally to signs of emotional distress in other people (Wikicommons)

We like to think that all people feel empathy to the same degree. In reality, it varies a lot from one person to the next, like most mental traits. We are half-aware of this when we distinguish between "normal people" and "psychopaths," the latter having an abnormally low capacity for empathy. The distinction is arbitrary, like the one between "tall" and "short." As with stature, empathy varies continuously among the individuals of a population, with psychopaths being the ones we find beyond an arbitrary cut-off point and who probably have many other things wrong with them. By focusing on the normal/abnormal dichotomy, we lose sight of the variation that occurs among so-called normal individuals. We probably meet people every day who have a low capacity for empathy and who nonetheless look and act normal. Because they seem normal, we assume they are as empathetic as we are. They aren’t.

Like most mental traits, empathy is heritable, its heritability being estimated at 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). It has two distinct components: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Some researchers identify a third component, pro-social behavior, but its relationship to the other two seems tangential.

Cognitive empathy appears to be the evolutionarily older component of the two. It is the capacity to understand how another person is feeling and then predict how different actions will affect that person’s emotional state. But this capacity can be used for selfish purposes. Examples are legion: the con artist; many telemarketers; the rapist who knows how to charm his victims ...

Affective empathy is the younger component, having developed out of cognitive empathy. It is the capacity not just to understand another person's emotional state but also to identify with it. A person with high affective empathy will try to help someone in distress not because such help is personally advantageous or legally required, but because he or she is actually feeling the same distress.

Affective empathy may have initially evolved as a means to facilitate relations between a mother and her children. Later, and to varying degrees, it became extended to other human relationships. This evolutionary trajectory is perceptible in young children:

Children do not display empathic concern toward all people equally. Instead, they show bias toward individuals and members of groups with which they identify. For instance, young children of 2 years of age display more concern-related behaviors toward their mother than toward unfamiliar people. Moreover, children (aged 3-9 years) view social categories as marking patterns of interpersonal obligations. They view people as responsible only to their own group members, and consider within-group harm as wrong regardless of explicit rules, but they view the wrongness of between-group harm as contingent on the presence of such rules. (Decety and Cowell, 2014)

Similarly, MRI studies show that adults are much more likely to experience emotional distress when they see loved ones in pain than when they see strangers in pain. A stranger in distress will evoke a response only to the degree that the observer has a high capacity for affective empathy. The higher the capacity the more it will encompass not only loved ones but also less related individuals, including total strangers and nonhumans:

Humans can feel empathic concern for a wide range of 'others', including for nonhuman animals, such as pets (in the Western culture) or tamagotchi (in Japan). This is especially the case when signs of vulnerability and need are noticeable. In support of this, neural regions involved in perceiving the distress of other humans, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, are similarly activated when witnessing the distress of domesticated animals (Decety and Cowell, 2014)

While we associate affective empathy with morality, the two are not the same, and there are situations where the two come into conflict. In most societies, kinship is the main organizing principle of social relations, and morality affirms this principle by spelling out the duties to one's parents, one's kin, and one's ethny. The importance of kinship may be seen in the Ten Commandments, which we wrongfully assume to be universal in application. We are told we must not kill, steal, lie, or commit adultery if the victims are "thy neighbor," which is explained as meaning "the children of thy people" (Leviticus 19:18). High-empathy individuals may thus subvert morality if they view all human distress as being equal in value. At best, they will neglect loved ones in order to help an indefinitely large number of needy strangers. At worst, strangers may develop strategies to exploit high-empathy individuals, i.e., to milk them for all they are worth.

Mapping empathy in the human brain

Empathy appears to arise from specific mechanisms in the brain, and not from a more general property, like general intelligence. It is produced by a sequence of mental events, beginning with "mirror neurons" that fire in tandem with the observed behavior of another person, thereby generating a mental model of this behavior. Copies of the model are sent elsewhere in the brain to decode the nature and purpose of the behavior and to predict the sensory consequences for the observed person. Affective empathy goes further by feeding these predicted consequences into the observer's emotional state (Carr et al., 2003).

Recent MRI research has confirmed that empathy is associated with increased development of certain regions within the brain. Individuals who score high on cognitive empathy have denser gray matter in the midcingulate cortex and the adjacent dorsomedial prefontal cortex, whereas individuals who score high on affective empathy have denser gray matter in the insula cortex (Eres et al.,2015). A high capacity for affective empathy is also associated with a larger amygdala, which seems to control the way we respond to facial expressions of fear and other signs of emotional distress (Marsh et al., 2014).

Can these brain regions be used to measure our capacity for affective empathy? Two studies, one American and one English, have found that "conservatives" tend to have a larger right amygdala (Kanai et al.,2011; Schreiber et al., 2013). This has been spun, perhaps predictably, as proof that the political right is fear-driven (Hibbing et al., 2014). A likelier explanation is that "conservatives" are disproportionately drawn from populations that have, on average, a higher capacity for affective empathy. 

Do human populations vary in their capacity for affective empathy?

Is it possible, then, that this capacity varies among human populations, just as it varies among individuals? I have argued that affective empathy is more adaptive in larger, more complex societies where kinship obligations can no longer restrain behavior that seriously interferes with the ability of individuals to live together peacefully and constructively (Frost, 2015). Whereas affective empathy was originally expressed mainly between a mother and her children, it has become progressively extended in some populations to a wider range of interactions. This evolutionary change may be compared to the capacity to digest milk sugar: initially, this capacity was limited to early childhood, but in dairy cattle cultures it has become extended into adulthood.

I have also argued that this evolutionary change has gone the farthest in Europeans north and west of the Hajnal Line (Frost, 2014a). In these populations, kinship has been a weaker force in organizing social relations, at least since the early Middle Ages and perhaps since prehistoric times. There has thus been selection for mechanisms, like affective empathy, that can regulate social interaction between unrelated individuals. This selection may have intensified during two time periods:

- An initial period corresponding to the emergence of complex hunter/fisher/gatherers during the Mesolithic along the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic. Unlike other hunter-gatherers, who were typically small bands of individuals, these people were able to form large coastal communities by exploiting abundant marine resources. Such communities were beset, however, by the problem of enforcing rule compliance on unrelated people, the result being strong selection for rule-compliant individuals who share certain predispositions, namely affective empathy, proneness to guilt, and willingness to obey moral rules and to expel anyone who does not (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

- A second period corresponding to the spread of Christianity among Northwest Europeans, particularly with the outbreeding, population growth, and increase in manorialism that followed the Dark Ages (hbd chick, 2014). The result was a "fruitful encounter" between the two: on the one hand, Christianity, with its emphasis on internalized morality, struck a responsive chord in these populations; on the other hand, the latter modified Christianity, increasing its emphasis on faith, compassion, and original sin (Frost, 2014b).


Recent research has brought much insight into the nature of empathy, which should no longer be viewed as being simply a noble precept. We now understand it as the outcome of a sequence of events in specific regions of the brain. We have also learned that individuals vary in their capacity for empathy and that most of this variability is heritable, as is the case with most mental traits. Moreover, empathy has two components—cognitive and affective—and the strength of one in relation to the other likewise varies. Although we often consider affective empathy to be desirable, it can have perverse and even pathological effects in some contexts.


Carr, L., M. Iacoboni, M-C. Dubeau, J.C. Mazziotta, and G.L. Lenzi. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 100, 5497-5502.  
Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Decety, J. and J. Cowell. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 337-339 

Eres, R., J. Decety, W.R. Louis, and P. Molenberghs. (2015). Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy, NeuroImage, 117, 305-310. 

Frost, P. (2013a). The origins of Northwest European guilt culture, Evo and Proud, December 7 

Frost, P. (2013b). Origins of Northwest European guilt culture, Part II, Evo and Proud, December 14 

Frost, P. (2014a). Compliance with Moral Norms: a Partly Heritable Trait? Evo and Proud, April 12

Frost, P. (2014b). A fruitful encounter, Evo and Proud, September 26 

Frost, P. (2015). Two paths, The Unz Review, January 24 

hbd chick (2014). Medieval manorialism’s selection pressures, hbd chick, November 19 

Hibbing, J.R., K.B. Smith, and J.R. Alford. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 297-350 

Kanai, R., T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults, Current Biology, 21, 677 - 680. 

Keysers, C. and V. Gazzola. (2014). Dissociating the ability and propensity for empathy, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 163-166. 

Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041. 

Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A.N., Dawes, C.T., Flagan, T., et al. (2013). Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 8(2): e52970.  


Reader said...

Empathy is actually a trait of liberals. I don't understand your claim that "'conservatives' are disproportionately drawn from populations that have, on average, a higher capacity for affective empathy." It's the opposite. Conservatives are those who refuse to feel or relate to the situation of groups like minorities, which is why they are against expanding rights and freedoms. Instead they're driven by justice, duty, discipline, and some other traits.

Luke Lea said...

Excellent. You really know how to write -- and research.

Luke Lea said...

About liberals vs. conservatives on affective empathy, I have a conservative girl friend who cares passionately about animal abuse. One data point.

Anonymous said...

About liberals vs. conservatives on affective empathy, I have a conservative girl friend who cares passionately about animal abuse. One data point.

I think most recreational hunters are conservatives. The point of recreational hunting is to derive pleasure and enjoyment from the activity of violently killing animals. I don't think these or the "I have a conservative friend who cares about animal abuse" are really data points though. I don't think the former are necessarily examples of less affective empathy, and the latter of more.

Juoni said...

If denser population tends to be selective for affective empathy, then how about ancient Near East and Egypt for example? Or Indus and ancient China?

All of those had high population densities for millenia as far as I know.

Sid said...

"Empathy is actually a trait of liberals. I don't understand your claim that "'conservatives' are disproportionately drawn from populations that have, on average, a higher capacity for affective empathy." It's the opposite. Conservatives are those who refuse to feel or relate to the situation of groups like minorities, which is why they are against expanding rights and freedoms. Instead they're driven by justice, duty, discipline, and some other traits."

The data suggest that at least in the United States, white liberals and white conservatives both have similar amounts of empathy. The difference is that white conservatives have similarly strong feelings of loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority. In contrast, white liberals tend to view loyalty to one's family, country and race as being morally suspect, for example.

Peter Frost said...


Terms like "liberal" and "conservative" are problematic. There has always been a dimension of tribal politics in those terms, and that tendency seems to be getting stronger. If I were a cynic, I could say that liberals believe so much in compassion that they want the government to do it for them. This argument was actually made back in the 1960s: individual acts of compassion are ineffectual and create an unfair patchwork of social assistance. Compassion must be "nationalized" so that it can be delivered fairly and equally to everyone.


I'm not sure what I am. I honestly like most people who identify as "liberals" but likeable people can still make mistakes, often costly ones.


As a kid, I knew many hunters. I respect hunters who eat the game animals they kill, and I also respect those that kill animals (like deer) that become too numerous and overgraze their habitat. But killing for pleasure has always seemed wrong to me. I've never hunted in my life.


It's not population density so much as being in a community where most of the people you interact with are nonkin. In India, China, and the Middle East, people tend to congregate with and interact with close kin. In the case of complex hunter-gatherers, like those of the Mesolithic, people congregated on a seasonal basis. They would disperse inland during the winter for hunting and then congregate in large coastal settlements for fishing. This kind of community is difficult to segregate into kin-based neighborhoods, as in a normal urban community. Relations with nonkin have to be developed and made reliable within a short span of time because of the need to coordinate access to the sea and to the limited shoreline space.


In both the U.S. and English study, the data were not broken down by race or ethnicity. The U.S. study was done at the University of California, San Diego, where most "liberals" are probably Hispanic or Asian.