Tag Archives: empathy

Why victim blaming is so common in sexual harassment — study sheds light on perpetrator empathy

The MeToo movement has highlighted the widespread problem of men’s sexual harassment of women, and the common phenomenon of victim blaming. A new research based on two studies reveals the impact of misplaced empathy.

Credit: Pixabay.

The dark side of empathy

Although our society has made some progress, we still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment. It happens disarmingly often, in all environments, and typically gets unpunished.

Women are usually reluctant to make a sexual-harassment complaint — and when they do, they often encounter victim-blaming attitudes, especially from men. To highlight these attitudes and the dark side of the empathy that fuels them, researchers devised two studies.

In the first study, participants responded to a story about a male student’s harassment of a female student. Men blamed the victim more than women, which researchers interpret through a greater empathy for the male perpetrator and not lesser empathy for the female victim (as is the conventional knowledge).

In the second study, participants were asked to focus on either the man’s or the woman’s point of view in the same situation. Both men and women tended to focus on the male perpetrator’s perspective, again indicating greater empathy for men, which suggests greater empathy for the perpetrator. Again, taking the man’s perspective leads to more female blaming.

“It is widely assumed that a lack of empathy for female victims explains why people blame them, but we actually found that empathy for the male sexual harasser was a more consistent explanation of variability in victim blame.

It’s important to note that overall, victim blaming wasn’t high overall — but the fact that it exists at significant levels (something which has also been consistent with past research) is concerning. This is where societal interventions can be carried out, researchers stress.

“Media reports of sexual harassment – especially involving male perpetrators – often focus on their point of view and the potential damage to their lives for being outed as a sexual harasser,” Dr. Bongiorno added.

In addition to policy and media awareness, it’s important that each and every one of us is aware of these effects.

“To improve responding, everyone but especially men, should be mindful that their empathy for a male sexual harasser can increase their likelihood of blaming women for being sexually harassed. And victim-blame continues to make it very difficult for women who are sexually harassed to come forward and get a fair hearing when they do.”

The study “Why Women Are Blamed for Being Sexually Harassed: The Effects of Empathy for Female Victims and Male Perpetrators” has been published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Ravens can transmit negative emotions from one another, just like humans

One of the ravens that participated in the experiments in Austria. Credit: Jessie E.C. Adriaense.

Ravens are some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom, so it’s no wonder to hear about studies that attribute human-like qualities to these birds. According to recent research, ravens may develop a bad mood when exposed to sulky peers — a psychological phenomenon which is known as negative emotional contagion.

The mood virus

Humans represent the most complex social species on the planet, having devoted incredibly sophisticated verbal and non-verbal tools to communicate with other people. To make social interactions more efficient, humans have also developed various means of reading the emotions and thoughts of those around us. Such skills can even mean the difference between life and death — which explains the evolutionary pressure that led to their proliferation. For instance, we can instantly judge whether another person is in pain from their facial expression, which tells us both that person is in need of help as well as that danger may be lurking nearby. What’s more, another person’s emotions can be quickly transmitted to us.

Studies have shown that simply looking at a person’s facial expressions causes us to adopt a similar facial expression, most often without even realizing it. So, it seems like our social interactions are underlined by shared emotions interfaced by an unconscious emotional mimicry. To top it all, there’s such a thing as emotional contagion — the process in which one person catches and feels another’s emotional state without realizing that the emotion is not really their own. Examples of this phenomenon include the excitement rising among fans in a football stadium, panic spreading through a crowd, and laughter spreading through an audience.

In a new study, researchers show that emotional contagion may also be present among ravens (Corvus corax). These birds are considered among the most intelligent animals—they can anticipate the future, pull fishing lines out of ice holes, make tools from memory, and imitate wolves in order to attract and entice them to break open a tough carcass for food. Given their superior intellect and keen social behavior, researchers wondered whether ravens also exhibit emotional contagion.

The team designed a series of experiments which gauged negative emotional contagion, which is more plainly evident than positive emotions. The researchers at the University of Vienna and the University of Zurich paired eight ravens for the experiments, where each pair was given a choice between a box containing nothing and one containing cheese (their favorite treat). After the birds learned which box was either empty or filled with cheese, the birds were presented with a third box.

This third box was intended to gauge optimism or pessimism — a type of experiment commonly known as a cognitive bias test. In the last part of the experiment, the birds were separated and then one of them was given either carrots (not their favorite) or dried dog food (which they love). The other raven could only observe how the other mate was behaving but was not allowed to see the food of choice. A cognitive bias test was given again by the researchers.

When the ravens saw their paired mates behaving in a negative way, they took longer to investigate the third box presented to them. This suggests that the bad ‘mood’ was transferred to the observer. Ravens who observed normal behavior also exhibited normal behavior.

Studies such as these might help unravel the origin of this quirky psychological phenomenon as well as broader behaviors such as empathy. Previously, researchers found evidence of emotional contagion among other non-human animals, such as monkeys and dogs.

“This result critically expands upon observational studies of contagious play in ravens, providing experimental evidence that emotional contagion is present not only in mammalian but also in avian species. Importantly, this finding also acts as a stepping stone toward understanding the evolution of empathy, as this essential social skill may have emerged across these taxa in response to similar socioecological challenges,” the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The origin of empathy might lie in the need to simulate other people’s thoughts

Credit: Pixabay.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Scientists have sought to explain the origin of this defining human psychological ability in relation to cooperation. However, a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute and the Santa Fe Institute makes a convincing case that a broad range of empathetic response is rooted in cognitive simulations which aren’t necessarily geared towards cooperation with other individuals.

We need to read the minds of other people, so empathy was born

Previous efforts to understand the evolutionary origins and underlying mechanisms of empathy focused on coordination and cooperation among individuals. By being able to read the emotions and intentions of other individuals, we were better equipped to meet their needs and navigate complex social strata, or so the theory goes.

Fabrizio Mafessoni, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has a different take on empathy. He and Michael Lachmann, a theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute, propose that empathetic responses could have evolved in the absence of kin selection or other cooperative mechanisms. Examples of empathetic responses that we all use include emotional contagion, contagious yawning, and pathologies like echopraxia (compulsive repetition of others’ movements) and echolalia (compulsive repetition of others’ speech).

The researchers say that the minds of other people can be seen as ‘black boxes‘, in the sense that we cannot read their content. However, seeing how we all own the same type of black boxes, individuals “are constantly running simulations of what other minds might be doing.” This behavior isn’t necessarily geared towards cooperation — although empathy can definitely enhance cooperative behavior — but rather encompasses a broader set of outcomes. It’s just something that members of our species, as well as other animals, do spontaneously.

Biologically speaking, this process may be enabled by mirror neurons — neurons that fire not only when performing a motor action, but when we imagine or see other people performing the same actions a swell.

Mafessoni and Lachmann designed a new model that was mainly rooted in cognitive simulation, and then observed how virtual actors performed when engaged in as-actor simulations. A variety of the systems produced by the simulation can be explained in terms of cooperation and kin-selection. However, the model also produced scenarios where an actor occasionally coordinates with others even when the outcome is not advantageous. This seems to suggest that empathetic reactions and systems did not evolve solely for cooperation and kin-selection — they may also have evolved because animals need to more broadly envision the actions of others.

“We show that these mechanisms are advantageous in complex environments, by allowing an observer to use information about its own behavior to interpret that of others. However, without inhibition of the recruited neural circuits, the observer would perform the corresponding downstream action, rather than produce the appropriate social response. We identify evolutionary trade-offs that could hinder this inhibition, leading to emotional contagion as a by-product of mind-reading. The interaction of this model with kinship is complex,” the reserachers wrote.

According to Mafessoni, “the very origin of empathy may lie in the need to understand other individuals.”

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports

Being empathetic might put you at risk of relapsing as a coping mechanism

Empathy might be the original gateway drug, new research suggests.

Smoke.

Image via Pixabay.

Empathy smooths your way through social situations, but it might also smooth the path to drug addictions, a new paper suggests. The research, carried out at the University of Minnesota (UoM), was carried out using mice models but may carry over to humans as well.

Blue empathy

A research group led by  Dr. Jonathan Gewirtz at the UoM set out to analyze the links between empathy, stress, and drug use. The team’s hypothesis was that empathy (the awareness of another’s feelings and emotions), while very useful in social situations, can also expose one to more stress (as revealed by previous research). This stress, the team explains, can push former drug users into relapsing.

The team started by training a group of male mice to mimic drug-seeking behavior. The animals were placed in a two-sided compartment. Mice going to one side would receive a shot of saline (water and salt) solution, while those going to the other side would get a shot of morphine. Repeated over several days, the mice started associating one side with the drug.

Next, the researchers switched things up: over two weeks, mice going into either compartment would receive only saline injections. This was meant to mimic a period of sobriety. With the mice properly sobered, the team was ready to test the role of empathy in relapse. During this step, one of the sober mice witnessed another mouse in a fearful state, the team reports. This sober mouse was then immediately placed in the dual-sided compartment, and the team tracked their fear response and preference for either compartment.

These mice consistently preferred the compartment they associated with morphine. This, the team reports, suggests they were expressing drug-seeking behavior in response to witnessing another mouse going through a traumatic event. Some mice were afterward treated with oxytocin, a hormone which has been linked with social bonding among other effects. The oxytocin heightened the mice’s fear response, the team adds.

All in all, the team concludes that mice (and people too, potentially) are negatively affected by witnessing a stressful or traumatic event. This negative emotional impact is strong enough to push them to seek drugs, even after a period of sobriety. Oxytocin treatment exacerbates this response, suggesting that social bonding (and empathy, by extension) is a driving force in this behavior.

The researchers say these findings are the first to demonstrate the direct link between empathy and drug relapse, and the first to suggest that oxytocin may play a role in enhancing this response.

The findings have been presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), held December 9-13, 2018, in Hollywood, Florida.

Crystals of Kaydor.

The right video game can help children develop empathy and better emotional control

Empathy is a skill that can be learned, new research shows. The research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping middle schoolers develop it in the most entertaining way possible — with a video game.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Crystals of Kaydor, the Adventures of…. Lettucehead..?
Image credits Center for Healthy Minds / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On a distant planet, one space-braving robot explorer is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Bits and pieces scatter everywhere, and our intrepid explorer is now stranded. Needless to say, it’s not his best day. Luckily for the bot, however, the planet is inhabited. The locals don’t speak his language, but the robot can gather the pieces needed to fix his ship by building emotional rapport with them.

The robot is played by the middle schoolers, and the whole scenario is a video game — one that can help kids become more empathetic, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that study how learning empathy changes the brain.

The game of empathy

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” says co-author Tammi Kral.

The game, named Crystals of Kaydor, was created by the team for this study and it is designed to teach empathy.

The team worked with 150 middle schoolers in two groups. One played Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available game called Bastion. I can attest that this latter is quite an enjoyable adventure game, but it does not target empathy in any way.

Kids rake an average of over 70 minutes of gameplay each day, the team notes. This time tends to increase during adolescence, which coincides with a period of rapid brain development. Teenagers are also highly susceptible to developing feelings of anxiety and depression during this stage of their lives, and they’re also likely to run into bullies. The team’s plan was to see if their game could help them develop emotional finesse during this often confusing period of the children’s lives.

In the game, kids have to interact with the crashlanded alien. However, players can’t understand the character’s language, and must learn to identify the emotions he’s feeling as well as their intensities from his expression — luckily, the alien exhibits the same range of emotions as a human being, and they’re accompanied by humanlike facial expressions. The game is intended to help the kids practice and develop empathy. The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.

Neural connectivity changes.

Training-related increases in neural connectivity after Crystals relative to Bastion. Significant group-wide connectivity changes in red, significant differences per individual participants in blue.
Image credits Tammi A. Kral et al., 2018, npj Science of Learning.

By contrast, kids who played Bastion embarked in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

According to Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds and paper co-author, empathy is the foundation of prosocial behavior, and as such, an important skill for our children to develop.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson.

“Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

Did it work?

The team took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from both groups before and after the gaming phase of the study. Both groups played for two weeks. After the two weeks, the team compared the connections between different areas of the brain, focusing on those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Several screenshots depicting the player-controlled robot, the emotion recognition mechanics — which include selecting an emotion and its intensity — and other game mechanics.

After the two weeks of play, kids in the first group showed greater connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy and perspective thinking, the team reports. Some among them exhibited changes in neural networks linked with emotion regulation as well. The team says this last skill is crucial and begins developing around this age — and their game can help promote healthy development.

Kids that played Bastion also showed more robust neural connectivity in brain areas that underpin empathy — however, the effect was much less pronounced than that seen in the Crystals of Kaydor group. They further report that kids in the first group who showed increase connectivity in brain areas related to emotion regulation also scored better on the empathy test after the two week period.

Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson.

“One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Davidson adds that simply teaching empathy skills to groups that have trouble with them, including individuals on the autism spectrum, may be an accessible way to improve their quality of life.

The game is currently only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public, but it has helped inform other games that are currently being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The paper “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial” has been published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

Empathy might also be part genetic, a new study concludes

Empathy has long been considered to be a matter of upbringing, but a new study has found that genetics also plays a role.

Image credits: William Stitt.

Empathy plays a vital role in our day-to-day interactions, even though we rarely think about it. There are several ways to go about understanding empathy, but most commonly, it is regarded as the ability to understand or feel what another person (or animal) is experiencing, from their own perspective. In other words, it’s your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand what they are experiencing. Of course, not everyone is equally skilled at this.

The most standard way of measuring a person’s empathy is the so-called Empathy Quotient (EQ) — think of it as the emotional analog of IQ. Empathy is typically split into two parts: firstly, the ability to recognize and understand another person’s situation (cognitive empathy), and secondly, the ability to respond to it appropriately (affective empathy). The EQ measures the sum of these parts.

Empathy has been studied from a number of different angles, but no matter how scientists went about it, upbringing was always the central part. Now, a new study led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe suggests that genetics might also play a role — albeit a small one.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 46,000 23andMe customers, finding that we owe a tenth of our empathy to genetic factors. Lead author Varun Warrier said:

“This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”

The team also confirmed what previous studies had already reported, that on average, women are more empathetic than men. However, this difference isn’t genetic — instead, this difference can be explained either by biological differences (such as prenatal hormone influences)  or non-biological factors (such as socialization), both of which also differ between the sexes.

Professor Thomas Bourgeron, who was a co-author of the study, added:

“This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pin-point the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.”

Researchers were also interested in how these genetic differences can be connected to autism. They found that, on average, autistic people score significantly lower on the EQ. Even if their affective empathy was intact, they often struggle with cognitive empathy. In other words, they can react to emotions properly if they recognize them, but this is often challenging for them.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, also a part of the team, comments:

“Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people such as those with autism who struggle to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”

Researchers hope that these new findings will help develop better approaches for dealing with autism. However, there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet. There’s just too much variation from person to person to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion and therapy.

 “First, we have identified only a fraction of the genes associated with autism. Second, no two autistic people are alike. Third, within the spectrum autistic people have different strengths and difficulties. Finally, those with a clinical diagnosis blend seamlessly into those in the population who don’t have a diagnosis but simply have a lot of autistic traits. We all have some autistic traits – this spectrum runs right through the population on a bell curve.”

If you’re curious about your own empathy, researchers at the Autism Research Center (which is also where this team works) have developed several tests related to emotional intelligence and empathy, as well as tests related to autism. You can try them out for free here.

Emotional Intelligence makes better doctors — but bossy doctors lose empathy

Among the qualities that make an excellent physician, emotional intelligence ranks pretty high.

A senior woman receiving a vaccination shot from her doctor — showing empathy towards patients can go a long way towards making them feel better. Image credits: CDC/ Judy Schmidt

Emotional intelligence, a lot of which can be manifested as empathy, revolves around understanding your emotions and the emotions of people around you. According to a new study, emotional intelligence can not only lead to better doctor-patient relationships but also help make physicians more resilient to the stresses of the profession and less likely to experience burnout. But there’s an interesting trade-off.

Scientists from Loyola University Medical Center found that young physicians as a group have a median score of 110, compared to an average score of 100 for the entire population. There were no significant differences between males and females.

For the study, the team recruited 31 pediatric and 16 med-peds residents at Loyola. A resident is a physician who has finished his medical school and currently practicing in a hospital under the supervision of an attending physician. A med-ped doctor combines pediatrics and internal medicine.

Residents in their third and fourth years of training scored higher in assertiveness (109) than residents in their first and second years (100), which can perhaps be attributed to the skills they gathered in the extra training years, as well as the confidence they gained during their training. But interestingly, as assertiveness continued to increase, emotional intelligence started to drop — from 115.5 in the first two years, to 110 in the 3rd and 4th year. This forces a very interesting and difficult question: does assertiveness come at the risk of empathy? Does it mean that the “bossier” we get, the more we lose our ability understand others? If so, then focusing on emotional intelligence for people in leadership positions would be much more important. Or is it simply that medical students lose some of their empathy along the way? Whatever the case is, the implications are intriguing.

The thing is, unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be taught. This study indicates that investing a course or two in emotional intelligence could make a big difference in the well-being of the doctors, as well as the patients. The authors also carried out four workshops on emotional intelligence with study participants and found that even such a short intervention can make a big difference. Perhaps

“Educational interventions to improve resident emotional intelligence scores should focus on the areas of independence, assertiveness and empathy,” authors write. “These interventions should help them become assertive but should ensure they do not lose empathy.”

Journal Reference: Ramzan Shahid, Jerold Stirling, William Adams. Assessment of Emotional Intelligence in Pediatric and Med-Peds Residents. Journal of Contemporary Medical Education, 2016; 4 (4): 153 DOI: 10.5455/jcme.20170116015415

Scientists used brain stimulation to shut off the self-control center

A University of Zurich team found that they can inhibit our impulse control and ability to opt for delayed gratification by disrupting activity in a specific region of the brain. Called the temporoparietal junction, this structure lets us take on the perspective of others — including that of the future self.

Image credits Philip Bump / Flickr.

Ahh, delayed gratification. That anathema of gamers everywhere.

The term refers to someone’s ability to put off a reward until later if it means getting a bigger cash-out. Imagine you can either take a wad of cash now or receive a much larger pile in a few weeks’ time. Which one do you choose? One of the most important factors determining that choice is your level of self-control — which, researchers have found, may be tied to your brain’s ability to take on another person’s perspective, such as that of your future self.

UZ researchers studied the link between a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and this ability. In a new paper, they report that when noninvasive brain stimulation methods were applied to the TPJ, participants appeared less able to take on another person’s or their future selves’ point of view. They were less likely to share money with others, and much more likely to opt for an immediate reward than wait for a larger sum later on.

Linking the parietal and temporal lobes together, the TPJ plays a crucial role in social functioning. It’s known to underpin our ability to understand situations from other people’s perspective, but according to Alexander Soutschek, an economist at the University of Zurich and lead author on the study, it has been largely overlooked in previous studies on self-control and delayed gratification — which usually focus on the prefrontal region.

Buzzing “now” and “me” to the forefront

“When you have a closer look at the literature, you sometimes find in the neuroimaging data that the TPJ is also active during delay of gratification,” he said, “but it’s never interpreted.”

Each participant had a small magnetic coil attached to their skull for 40 seconds, during which it produced small electric currents in their brain to inhibit the TJP — a technique known as disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS). To rule out a placebo effect, a control group received TMS in another area of the brain.

Both groups then spent 30 minutes completing several tasks. In one of them, they were asked to choose between a reward ranging between 75 to 155 Swiss francs for themselves, or one shared between themselves and another person — either someone close to them or a complete stranger. For the second task, they were offered a choice between zero to 160 Swiss francs now, or a guaranteed 160 Swiss francs three to eighteen months later. The final task had subjects attempt to take on the perspective of an avatar and count the number of red dots on a ball that it could see.

Participants who had their TPJ inhibited were less likely to share money, and much more willing to take money up-front than delay gratification for the larger sum. They were also less able to take on the perspective of the avatar.

“The function of perspective-taking is essential to both of these tasks,” says Christian Ruff, a co-author of the paper and an economist at the University of Zurich,  both as “thinking how someone else would feel if you give them money and also how you yourself in the future would feel with that money.”

The findings suggest that this brain area plays a fundamental role in perspective-taking, a “very basic social mechanism” according to Ruff. This means the TPJ is essential not only for helping us figure what others may be thinking or feeling in social contexts (a principal part of emphatic behavior) but also in exercising self-control (as it allows us to understand what our future self wants and needs).

The team says that while their study focused on fundamental science, the findings could have enormous implications for people struggling with self-control, such as addiction. Ruff says that in addition to traditional procedures which aim to improve impulse control, it may be helpful to teach people to consider the perspectives of their future selves to help change their behavior.

“When people think about addiction, it’s often seen as a deficit in impulse control,” Ruff says. “Our results suggest that this other process is also very important—that the afflicted individuals may not be able to take the perspective of their future selves [who have not taken] the drug.”

But, even beyond battling addiction, our level of self-control and our ability to delay gratification play a part in almost every decision we take, from studying, eating healthy and exercising, to saving up for old age — which is why Ruff believes understanding them is key to improving our health and happiness.

The team’s paper titled “Brain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Study ranks 63 countries by empathy, Ecuador tops the list

Michigan State University produced the first empathy-ranking of countries around the world. The team used data from more than a hundred thousand adults from 63 different countries. Ecuador ranked as the most empathetic country.

“Portrait of a Man.”
Work and image credits Gert Germeraad.

How does culture influence empathy? And how readily do people around the world place themselves in the shoes of others? Those are a few of the questions a Michigan State Uni team tried to answer in one of the most comprehensive global empathy distribution studies to date. The team collected data from 104,365 adult participants in 63 countries to measure their compassion for others and their tendency to imagine another’s point of view.

The data was acquired through online surveys, analyzing the links between empathetic feelings and a host of “prosocial” behaviors (such as volunteering or charitable donations) and various personality traits.

“To our knowledge, this study is by far the largest examination of cultural differences in empathy, with respect to both the number of individuals and the number of countries represented,” the researchers write.

So here’s the countries well on the path to empathy:

  1. Ecuador
  2. Saudi Arabia
  3. Peru
  4. Denmark
  5. United Arab Emirates
  6. Korea
  7. United States
  8. Taiwan
  9. Costa Rica
  10. Kuwait

On the other end of the spectrum, Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria ranked the lowest on their Total Empathy scores. The team notes that 7 of the ten lowest-ranking countries are found in Eastern Europe. You can see the full rankings here.

Or here in lower resolution.
Image credits William J. Chopik et al., 2016 / MSU.

The team defined empathy as a tendency to tune in to others’ feelings and perspectives. They asked participants to answer a list of questions drawn from several standardized tests which reflected on personal and cultural qualities. The tests were designed to assess basic personality traits (such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, and personal well-being), prosociality, individualism/collectivism, and personal empathy. It also measured each individual’s self-esteem and feeling of wellbeing. The participants were also asked to rank a series of statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” or “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.” The team also asked how happy the participants felt with their lives, if and how often they donated money to charity or volunteered time to organizations.

After crunching all this data, the team found that ‘collectivistic’ countries — cultures who value tightly knit social groups and interdependence — ranked higher in empathy. Empathy across each country’s volunteers was linked with agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and prosocial behavior.

It’s a test done on a huge scale and it’s the first of its kind we’ve ever seen, so hats off to the researchers. That being said, there are a few issues with it that I’d like to point out.

First of all, the surveys were conducted in English and relied on self-reporting — language barriers and the differences between the perceived and real self could have a big impact on the quality of data. It also didn’t make a distinction between empathy for people in the participants’ own countries vs those in other countries, potentially driving up the score of collectivist societies. Finally, the sample size was unevenly distributed and for the scope of the study remains rather small.

Still, if you take the findings with a bit of salt they’re still valuable to paint a general picture. They give us insight into how empathy is expressed in different cultures, giving future research a solid foundation on which to build.

“Despite the strong influence that culture has on how we relate to others around us, researchers have generally relied on samples of North American college students when studying empathy,” they explain.

“Given the important role of empathy in everyday social life, we hope that the current study will stimulate research examining how empathy is expressed in different cultures and social settings, and help inform future research on the relationship between empathy and culture from a broader and a more representative perspective.”

The team says that their results are just “a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment”, and expect the rankings to shift in the future.

The full paper “Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries” has been published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

dalai lama

Religion and science: is there really a divide ?

Belief in a supernatural deity is associated with a suppression of analytical thinking in favor of empathic networks in the brain, a new study suggests. Conversely, analytical thinking –used to make sense of the physical world– is associated with disbelief in god. What’s interesting is that religious people were found to be more emphatic, meaning they identified more with the feelings and struggles of other people. As such, the perceived divide between science and religion may be rooted in brain wiring.

dalai lama

Image: Pixabay

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University, who led the research. “But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.”

The researchers devised a series of eight experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults. This battery of tests included both self reporting and assessment on the researchers’ part of empathy, moral concern, analytical thinking, mentalizing or crystallized intelligence among others. For instance, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agree with statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”. Critical reasoning was measured using tests that asked questions like “If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”. Religious and spiritual beliefs were measured using a single item measure: “Do you believe in the existence of either God or a universal spirit?” This question was answered on a 7-point Likert scale (1= not at all; 7 = definitely yes).

Consistently, the more religious the person the more moral concern that person showed. In fact, empathic behavior was more strongly associated with religiosity than analytical thinking was with disbelief (perhaps because the two aren’t mutually exclusive as the science/religion debate might suggest at first glance). This correlation seems to be supported by previous studies which found a gender bias among religious belief. Women, who score better at empathy than men, tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. Maybe a reason of concern is that atheists showed less empathy.

It’s important to note that no cause-effect relationship was identified. Empathy and religion were associated only when the participants engaged in prayer, meditation or other spiritual practices. Church attendance or following a predefined dogmatic protocol alone did not predict empathic behavior.

Emotions and number crunching

The research builds upon a hypothesis that suggests the analytical and empathic networks in the brain are antithetical and in constant tension. Here I might add the findings of a previous study I reported for ZME Science, in which University of Kentucky researchers found that persons who rely more on intuition than analytical thinking are more likely to hold a creationist worldview in favor of the theory of evolution. Maybe there’s a connection between intuitive/empathic networks and analytical networks in the brain, though no evidence that I know of is published.

Another interesting study found a clear differences between the ‘skeptical’ and ‘believing’ brain after participants were asked to imagine a scenario while their brain activity was scanned. For example, imagine you just had a job interview. You walk down the street, and see a poster of a business suit. How would that make you feel? What does that poster mean? Those who were supernatural inclined said the poster evoked an omen — a sign that they would get a job! As for the skeptical persons, it didn’t mean anything in particular. One region of the brain (the right inferior frontal gyrus) “was activated more strongly in skeptics than in supernatural believers,” the researchers noted.

“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side,” Jack explained. “And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

One possible outcome of the present study might disturb some: “at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking,” the researchers write in the study’s abstract published in the journal PLOS ONE. Previously, Jack’s lab found that when the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed. The reverse is also true; when we’re presented with a social problem, we use a different brain network than the one use to solve a physics problem, for instance. A CEO who is inclined to see his employees as ‘numbers’, for instance, won’t relate with their feelings and may be inclined to make immoral judgement if these satisfy an analytically valid goal.

Empathy, religion and atheism: what’s the relation?

This begs the question: Is religion making people more empathic or is atheism doing the opposite?

“While we can’t answer this definitively, it is interesting to note that empathy rates, as measured using the same principle measure we use, have fallen off dramatically in college students in the last few decades,” Jack told ZME Science.

College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago, Jack points out, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait, a 2010 study reports.

“We speculate this is due to increased emphasis on technology and less emphasis on religion.  It is notable that many messages present in religion are focused on empathy,” Jack added.

I would argue, however, that this is not the case. It’s about the “me” culture we’re living today — fast times, superficial connections and full blown consumerism. More than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?”, according to Gallup. This is down only slightly from the 1940s, when Gallup first asked this question. Belief in God drops below 90% among younger Americans, liberals, those living in the East, those with postgraduate educations, and political independents. As the study points out, just saying “you believe in (a) god” is not enough to earn you empathy points — you need to mean it: pray, meditate, think of doing good to your community, as well.

But it seems this is true for both sides of the coin. If you use an iPhone or some other advanced tech and are, say, an atheist, that doesn’t make you an analytical thinker — the same way going to church doesn’t necessarily make you religious.

“We are certainly not claiming it is impossible to be an ethical atheist. But it is clear that atheism is linked to reduced empathy. This is a modest correlation. There are certainly ethical atheists, and there are certainly unethical religious individuals,” Jack says.

The present evidence seems to suggest that truly religious folks are more empathic than largely analytical persons. This may be true, but there’s nothing to suggest that analytical thinkers are less ethical. A 2010 study found  those who did not have a religious background still appeared to have intuitive judgments of right and wrong in common with believers.

“For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions,” said Dr Marc Hauser, from Harvard University, one of the co-authors.

Another study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Cologne in Germany, and the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands reached the same conclusion: religion doesn’t make people more moral.

There’s something else I would also like to touch upon: the zeal for science. When a scientist makes a discovery, using all the analytical tools at his or her disposal — among which one’s greatest asset, the intellect — the experience of unraveling a mystery can be highly spiritual for some, without leading to supernatural thinking. Some of them toiled day and night not just to advanced their careers, but out of pure love for mankind: perhaps the noblest testimony to empathy.

Voles show care for and comfort distressed mates

A study from Emory University looking into prairie voles’ consoling behaviors provides new evidence in support of animal empathy. The tests had pairs of voles isolated from each other, one being exposed to mild electric shocks, to study how the rodents react to a distressed mate.

Image via phys

Empathy is often thought of as something that requires a lot of brain power to pull off. That’s why until recently, it was believed that only humans, great apes and other large-brained mammals such as elephants or dolphins are capable of showing concern and consolation for their fellows. The Emory University vole study is the first study to identify this type of behavior in voles, and adds to a growing body of evidence for animal empathy.

The team separated pairs of voles from one another and subjected one of each pair to mild footshocks. When reunited, the un-shocked one would lick their partner’s fur sooner and for longer durations than control pairs — which were separated but did not receive any shocks.

It could come down to the rodents’ mating habits; Prairie voles are known for the monogamous, lifelong partnerships they form with their mate to care for their offspring. This consoling behavior was only observed between voles who were familiar with each other, not between strangers. Researchers Larry Young and James Burkett say this demonstrates that the behavior was not simply a reaction to aversive cues.

“Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.”

That’s…That’s actually true.
Image via thebiocheminist

To confirm this, the team also tried blocking oxytocin receptors in the voles’ brains, as this neurotransmitter is associated with empathy and bonding in humans. This stoped the rodents from engaging in any consolation behavior, but didn’t affect their self-grooming behavior.

Their report, published this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reads:

“Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species. We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”

"Don't worry, buddy! I'll fix this." Image: SATO, N. ET AL., ANIMAL COGNITION (2015)

Rats rescue their friends from drowning out of empathy (and kindness)

We use the word “humane” to describe kind behavior and sympathy towards others, but the term might falsely lend some to believe that this is an exclusive human quality. Far from it. Rats too are kind, sympathetic and as “humane” as any human. For instance, when their peers are in danger of drowning, rats will come to their aid to save them. Even when a tasty treat, like chocolate, is offered instead the rat will most often than not choose to help his dying friend. To hell with chocolate!

"Don't worry, buddy! I'll fix this." Image: SATO, N. ET AL., ANIMAL COGNITION (2015)

“Don’t worry, buddy! I’ll fix this.” Image: SATO, N. ET AL., ANIMAL COGNITION (2015)

In 2011, a study led by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago, found that when rats were trapped inside a plastic narrow tube, friends would work their way until the cage was destroyed and the trapped rat freed. The findings served as a prime example of empathy among rats, but other researchers quickly pointed out that this is not necessarily the case. The rats were merely craving companionship, they argued.

A new study, this time performed at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan, debunks these concerns. The researchers build an experimental compartment divided into to boxes, with a transparent wall in between. One side was flooded with water, while the other was completely dried. In each box, a rat was placed. Rats can swim, but they sure as heck don’t like water. On dry land, the rat had a lever at his disposal which he could pull to open a small, previously blocked enclosure through which the drowning rat could escape.

The researchers report in the journal Animal Cognition that the rats would regularly come to the aid of their soaked peers, and those rats who had previously experienced “the other side” (rats would swap places) were much more quick and apt at opening the enclosure. “Not only does the rat recognize distress, but he is even more moved to act because he remembers being in that situation,” the researchers note.

In the second part of the experiment, the dry rats were offered two alternatives this time: they could open the hatch for their friends or open another door that led to another small enclosure filled with chocolate. Rats love chocolate as much as they hate water. The rodents chose to help their companions instead of going for the chocolate 50% to 80% of the time. This suggests that rats often resist the urge to fill their own belies to help their friends in need. Sometimes, though. Some rats were just jerks and went for the chocolate, but so do humans. Invert chocolate with money and soaked rats with bankrupt friends. Ok, maybe not the best analogy but you get the picture.

Though we’re very much different, rats and humans have a lot in common – in terms of emotions at least. Maybe because we’re both mammals. Most importantly, the findings suggest that empathy is biologically innate, and has less to do with religion, upbringing or schooling.

“Humans are not helping purely because mom taught us to help,” Mason says for Science. “In part—and to what degree remains to be seen—we help because it’s in our biology.”

Stress undermines empathic abilities in men but increases them in women, research claims

When males get more stressed, they tend to become more self centered, losing some of the ability to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. For women the exact opposite is true. However, for you people who only read the first line and skim the rest: Women without stress were on average equally as egocentric as men with stress.

In the modern world, stress is something that haunts us every single day. It’s been shown already that it can undermine not only how we relate to other people, but also our physical health. Interestingly enough, when under stress, women tend to become more “prosocial”, according to a study conducted by Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste.

“There’s a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective — and therefore be empathic — and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically” explains Silani. “To be truly empathic and behave prosocially it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this.”

Stress is a complex mechanism, which encompasses both biological and psychological mechanisms. Its main evolutionary purpose is to allow the individual to gather additional physiological resources when facing a difficult situation. However, this process is straining on the body, and if we do it too much, it starts to take its toll.

At the very basic level, an individual can react to stress in two ways: by trying to reduce the internal load of “extra” resources being used, or, more simply, by seeking external support.

“Our starting hypothesis was that stressed individuals tend to become more egocentric. Taking a self-centred perspective in fact reduces the emotional/cognitive load. We therefore expected that in the experimental conditions people would be less empathic” explains Claus Lamm, from the University of Vienna and one of the authors of the paper.

The first surprise was that this hypothesis held out only for males.

In order to test this out, they devised a series of experiments, creating conditions of moderate stress in the lab. For instance, subjects were asked to perform public speaking or mental arithmetic tasks and then imitate certain movements (motor condition), or recognize their own or other people’s emotions (emotional condition), or make a judgement taking on another person’s perspective (cognitive condition). Half of the participants were male, and the other half was female – and the results were opposite for the two groups.

“What we observed was that stress worsens the performance of men in all three types of tasks. The opposite is true for women” explains Silani.

We’re still pretty far from understanding exactly why this happens, as there could be many causes for this (or a mixture of them):

“Explanations might be sought at several levels,” concludes Silani. “At a psychosocial level, women may have internalized the experience that they receive more external support when they are able to interact better with others. This means that the more they need help — and are thus stressed — the more they apply social strategies. At a physiological level, the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviours and a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.”

Journal Reference:

  1. L. Tomova, B. von Dawans, M. Heinrichs, G. Silani, C. Lamm. Is stress affecting our ability to tune into others? Evidence for gender differences in the effects of stress on self-other distinctionPsychoneuroendocrinology, 2014; 43: 95 DOI:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.006
Nice person

Niceness is in your genes: scientists find pro-social behavior is influenced by genetics

A study performed last year observed that identical twins, who share 100% of the same genetic material and had the same upbringing, expressed a very similar attitude towards civic behavior and care-giving, whilst fraternal twins, who share 50% of their genes and, again, had the same upbringing, did not necessarily share the same pro-social attitude as the identical twins. This caused scientists to claim that there might be some genes that causes people, coupled with a healthy pro-social environment, to be nice.

Nice person University of Buffalo researchers may have found these genes. According to their study, if you possess certain genes which lead to a certain variation of the oxytocin (the love hormone) and vasopressin hormone receptors, then chances are that you’re inherently a nice person. These two hormones are commonly associated with feelings of compassion and empathy, which generally make a person more generous and nicer after they bind to neurons through special molecules called receptors.

The team of scientists, lead by psychologist Michel Poulin, surveyed 711 persons, who were asked various questions destined to assess their degree of niceness, like whether they felt obliged to report crimes, how they feel about paying taxes, whether they engandeged in charitable actions (donating blood, money, social/community servicing etc.), and most importantly what was their view of the world. The subjects had their DNA sampled such that data could be correlated with genetics.

The researchers found that people who view the world as less or not particularly threatning were more likely to be more generous and nice. People who viewed the world as a threatening place, and the people in it as inherently bad, but had the versions of the receptor genes associated with niceness, were also found to be charitable and well intended with those around them.

“The study found that these genes combined with people’s perceptions of the world as a more or less threatening place to predict generosity,” Poulin says.

“Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others — unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness,” he says.

“The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people’s experiences and feelings about the world isn’t surprising,” Poulin says, “because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex.

“So if one of your neighbors seems really generous, caring, civic-minded kind of person, while another seems more selfish, tight-fisted and not as interested in pitching in, their DNA may help explain why one of them is nicer than the other,” he says.

What’s the genetic difference? Well, for oxytoxin, at least, the difference between the inherently nice hormone receptor and the other lies in a single DNA base pair located on the third chromosome – if you have two guanine base pairs (GG) then you get the nice receptor, while if you inherit an adenine base pair (AA or AG) then you get the less nice oxytocin receptor.

Now, the researchers aren’t claiming that these genetic variations are indeed responsible for niceness, however their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, certainly add weight to the claim that genetics make for an important factor.

“We aren’t saying we’ve found the niceness gene,” he said. “But we have found a gene that makes a contribution. What I find so interesting is the fact that it only makes a contribution in the presence of certain feelings people have about the world around them.”

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