The Roots of Empathy

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Empathy builds on self-awareness. The more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings. Empathy comes into play in a vast array of life arenas, from sales and management, to romance and parenting, to compassion and political action. Its lack is seen in criminal psychopaths, rapists, and child molesters.

Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard psychologist, and his students devised a test of empathy, the PONS (Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity), a series of videotapes of a young woman expressing feelings ranging from loathing to motherly love. The scenes range from a jealous rage to asking forgiveness, from a show of gratitude to seduction. The video has been edited so that in each portrayal one or more channels of nonverbal communication are systematically blanked out; in addition to having the words muffled, in some scenes all other cues but the facial expression are blocked. In others, only the body movements are shown, and so on, through the main nonverbal channels of communication, so the viewers have to detect emotion from one or another specific nonverbal cue.

The tests of over seven thousand people in the United States and eighteen other countries, the benefits of being able to read feelings from nonverbal cues included being better adjusted emotionally, more popular, more outgoing, and—perhaps not surprisingly—more sensitive. Generally speaking women are better than men at this kind of empathy. People whose performance improved over the course of the 45 minute test—a sign that they have a talent for picking up empathy skills—had better relationships with the opposite sex. It should be no surprise that empathy helps with romantic life.

Empathy is independent from academic intelligence. In tests with 1,011 children, those who showed an aptitude for reading feelings nonverbally were among the most popular in their schools, and the most emotionally stable. They also did better in school even though on average their IQs were not higher than other students. Apparently high empathic ability smooths the way for classroom (or simply makes teachers like them more).

Developmental psychologists have found that infants feel sympathetic distress even before they fully realize that they exist apart from other people. Just a few months after birth, infants react to disturbances in those around them as though they were their own, crying when they see another child’s tears. After one year or so, they start to realize the misery is not their own, but someone else’s.

Eventually toddlers begin to diverge from one another in their overall sensitivity to other people’s emotional upsets. Research has shown that a large part of the difference in empathic concern had to do with how parents disciplined their children. Children were more empathetic when the discipline included calling strong attention to the distress their misbehaving caused someone else. They also found that children’s empathy is also shaped by seeing how others react when someone else is distressed; by imitating what they see, children develop a repertoire of empathic response, especially in helping other people who are distressed.

Psychiatrist Daniel Stern is fascinated by the small repeated exchanges that take place between parent and child. He believes that the most basic lessons of emotional life are laid down in these intimate moments. Of all such moments, the most critical are those that let the child know her emotions are met with empathy, accepted, and reciprocated, in a process Stern calls attunement.

Prolonged absence of attunement between parent and child takes a tremendous emotional toll on the child. When a parent consistently fails to show any empathy with a particular range of emotions in the child—joys, tears, needing to cuddle—the child begins to avoid expressing, and perhaps even feeling, the same emotions.

The lifetime emotional costs of a lack of attunement in childhood can be great—and not just for the child. A study of criminals who committed the cruelest and most violent crimes found that the one characteristic of their early lives that sent them apart from other criminals was that they had been shuttled from foster home to foster home or raised in orphanages. These life histories suggest emotional neglect and little opportunity for attunement.

The following comes from a section in the chapter titled ‘LIFE WITHOUT EMPATHY:THE MIND OF THE MOLESTER, THE MORALS OF THE SOCIOPATH
“A psychological fault line is common to rapists, child molesters, and many perpetrators of family violence alike; they are incapable of empathy. This inability to feel their victim’s pain allows them to tell themselves lies that encourage their crime. For rapists, the lieu include “Women really want to get raped” or “If she resists, she’s just playing hard to get;” for molesters, “I’m not hurting the child, just showing love” or “This is just another form of affection;” for physically abusive parents, “This is just good discipline.”

On the other hand, empathy provides the roots for altruism and ethics. This underscores research showing that the most important relationship for a child is its relationship with its mother. The mother needs to want and love the child. The absence of this desire and love bodes ill for the future of the child. Delinquency, criminal behavior, drug abuse, and children who live purposeless live are the result. These are lost lives. Rather than pro-life, the goal should be pro-quality life. Unless a loving substitute is found, an abortion is likely beneficial for the child. A merciful God would save the soul of the child for a loving and caring mother.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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