Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another persons place. Those who walk among us who are incapable, through neurological damage or deficit, of putting themselves in the place of another are usually referred to as sociopaths. They are easy to detect, but, we refrain from any real effort to detect them because we, as a culture, believe that animal torturers and mass murderers (not to mention politicians) have the right to live freely and conduct their lives and business as they see fit right up to the time they are caught in the act of deeds that make us all exclaim… “That person isn’t human.”
Well, they weren’t fully human, in the sense most of us understand it, LONG before the rows of buried bodies show up in their basement. We just don’t want to know it because we believe in that much debated attribute that all humans are supposedly endowed with called free will. To detect a sociopath or a psychopath in Kindergarden throws a monkey wrench into the workings of how we define ourselves. It would mean that we are not totally responsible for our actions. It would diminish us in our own eyes and none of us are up for that. Sitting a 5 year old down to a series of photographic slides while measuring his/her galvanic skin response just can’t be sanctioned. Showing him/her a series of slides that are benign in nature with just a few pictures of someone cutting the tails off puppy dogs, or hurting another person, and noticing that he or she registers no change on the equipment would forever mark that child as “not fully human” and condemn them to a life of perpetual surveillance and scrutiny. We much prefer to keep our claims to free will in tact and learn that “Little Jimmy” was fond of nailing cats to trees long before he embarked on a career of kidnapping children and torturing them to death.
But, there is a lot more to this empathy business than that.
Even those of us with a full compliment of the neurons that make up the place in our brains where empathy is said to reside, it seems, only apply it selectively and even that appears to be done subconsciously. In point of fact hundreds of experiments have been conducted on people to measure the empathy they feel for other humans. What we have learned is that we have no problem putting ourselves in the place of others PROVIDED we see them as agreeing with us and being, as it were, a member of our group.
Scientists have purposely put people together in task orientated, goal directed groups. They have pitted them against other groups made up of other individuals with differing beliefs and goals. They have set up experimental situations where one person asks a question of another and has the ability to direct a mild electric shock to the person answering the questions if their response is incorrect. The level of shock (1 to 10…  being quite painful) is at the total discretion of the questioner.
Time and time again, without fail, scientists have observed that the questioners will deliver a more painful shock to people not of their group and a much milder shock to people that are. Experiments like this have been repeated hundreds of times and always seem to demonstrate our inherent tribal nature when it comes to our dealings with other people. We can, essentially, empathize with people who we perceive as “being and believing” as we do, but, subconsciously, we are simply not pre-wired to grant those we see as “different” the same level of humanness. We may WANT to because we see ourselves as good and compassionate people, but, our neurology betrays us in little ways and, sometimes, in very big ways.
For reasons I feel no desire to explain I thought, in the light of this being an election year and the horrible things we all read about, or see in the news, it might be a good idea for us all to dwell upon the concept of empathy. It might be wise to understand that those we perceive as different from ourselves also must see us as different. We can expect them to subconsciously deal with us as humans do. What I’m trying to say is…. It shouldn’t come as a shock.