Posts Tagged ‘mentalizing’

Working at Empathy, One Piece at a Time

February 3, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Zaki writes that this book focuses on rebuilding empathy when it’s eroded. By pinpointing different pieces of empathy researchers are able to diagnose what has gone wrong and helps them find the most effective solutions.

Callousness can come from thoughtlessness: we discount the suffering of a homeless person because we don’t consider their experiences. In this case, interventions might focus on mentalizing through perspective-taking exercises on virtual reality.

When faced with conflict, we might think a great deal about our enemies, but not care about their well-being. We might even hope for them to suffer. Contact, and especially friendships across group lines, can change that. For instance, burnout among medical professionals—often is the result of too much experience sharing. Contemplative techniques can help people shift themselves toward concern instead. Zaki concludes that in all these cases, understanding what to do with empathy requires first understanding exactly what it is.

Thinking

February 1, 2020

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Thinking is one of the three components of empathy, the other two being sharing and caring. Thinking is the active part of the theory of mind. We need to try to figure out what another person, or even species, is thinking about and planning to do. To answer these questions we need to think like a detective, gathering evidence from the behavior and situation to deduce how that individual feels. This cognitive piece of empathy is referred to as “mentalizing,” or explicitly considering someone else’s perspective. Mentalizing is like an everyday form of mind reading and it’s more sophisticated than experience sharing. It requires cognitive firepower that most, but not all, animals don’t have. So mentalizing arrived later in evolution. Though children pick up experience sharing early, it takes them a long time to sharpen their mentalizing skills.

Mentalizing is an extremely important skill, one that good salespeople need. And mentalizing is a skill, like many skills, that can be used for good or evil. Effective confidence men need to be highly skilled at mentalizing, so that they can con and defraud people.

HM saw a documentary film about Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple computer. When Jobs was in high school he made many visits to a Zen Buddhist Priest. Mindfulness, which obviously involves mentalizing, is an important part of Buddhism and their meditations. According to the documentary, Jobs was considering becoming a Buddhist priest. This priest wisely discouraged Jobs from pursuing this career.

HM thinks that Jobs was good at mentalizing, and that this might account for part of his success. Jobs was good at manipulating people to his own ends. His mentalizing skills helped him do this, but the result was that the lives and marriages of these people were ruined so that Jobs could pursue his ends. Jobs would travel to Japan to meditate in Buddhist monasteries, but he stayed at five star hotels during these visits.

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