CHOOSING EMPATHY: A Conversation with Jamil Zaki

Jamil Zaki in Edge:

Zaki640I've been thinking an enormous amount about a puzzle concerning how empathy works. Before describing it, I should make sure that we're on the same page about what empathy is. To me, empathy is a useful umbrella term that captures at least three distinct but related processes through which one person responds to another person's emotions. Let's say that I run into you and you are highly distressed. A bunch of things might happen to me. One, I might “catch” your emotion and vicariously take on the same state that I see in you; that's what I would call experience sharing. Two, I might think about how you feel and why you feel the way you do. That type of explicit consideration of the world as someone else sees it is what I would call mentalizing. Three, I might develop concern for your state, and feel motivated to help you feel better; that is what people these days call compassion, also known as empathic concern. It often seems like these processes—sharing someone's emotions, thinking about their emotions, and wanting to improve their emotional state—should always go together, but they split apart in all sorts of interesting ways. For instance, people with psychopathy are often able to understand what you feel, but feel no concern for your emotions, and thus can leverage their understanding to manipulate and even harm you.

I spent several years early in my career thinking about these empathic processes and how they interact with each other, but in the last couple of years, I've zoomed out. I've stopped thinking as much about the “pieces” that make up empathy and started thinking about why and when people empathize in the first place. This is where the puzzle comes in, because there are two different narratives that you might hear about how empathy works. They're both compelling and very well supported, and they're pretty much entirely contradictory with each other, at least at first blush.

More here.