The Situationist

Sam McFarland Interview on The Situation of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 13, 2012

From WKU Public Radio:

WKU Psychology professor Sam McFarland has long been fascinated by individuals who put their lives–and the lives of loved ones–at risk in order to save people of a different race, ethnicity, or religious group. Dr. McFarland has an article that’s set to be published in a social psychology journal called “All Humanity is My Ingroup: A Measure and Studies of ‘Identification with All Humanity.’”

In his paper, Dr. McFarland describes the idea of “identification with all humanity” as the ability to view all peoples of the world as part of a sort of extended family, and value the lives of those from different backgrounds equally as those from your own background.

Dr. McFarland recently sat down with WKU Public Radio to talk about his research. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

WKU Public Radio: How did you become interested in the subject of having empathy for people who are different from yourself?

Sam McFarland: “First of all, I became familiar with a number of very heroic examples of people who, during the Holocaust, went out of their way to save Jews from the Nazis. When my wife and I were on an anniversary trip, I read a very interesting book by Kristen Monroe called Heart of Altruism, and she was trying to identify the critical characteristics were of those who risked their own lives and sometimes the lives of their family members to save Jews who were in danger of being killed.

“When she did interviews with those people and interview with others, she discovered the critical characteristics seem to be that they had a sense that all humanity is one family. The feelings transcended nationality, religion, ethnic group, and every other distinction we make about human beings.

“Then I became aware that their were psychologists who had talked about that, such as Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow. They thought that fully mature human beings transcend the ethnocentrisms that are around them. They care about all humanity–past, present, and future.

“But then I realized that psychology had never really studied this, it had never been measured. So I wanted to see if we could build a rational measure of it, and see if that measure predicts the kinds of things we think it ought to predict. “

Your research paper makes reference to a set of interviews that had been previously done with “Holocaust rescuers”–people who had risked their lives to save Jews during WWII. The interviews found a quality present in the rescuers that became known as “extensivity.” What is that, and how does it factor into what you were researching?

“The particular study you’re referring to was done by a man named Sam Oliner, and his wife, Pearl Oliner. They had been longtime professors at Humboldt State University in California.

“Sam was a 10-year-old Jewish child in Poland during the war. And when the Nazis came to his town, his step-mother told him to run away from the Germans. And Sam ran away, and he was taken in by a Christian family who taught him how to act as a Christian, and say the catechism, for example.

“He survived the war. When he tried to find his parents afterwards, he found out they both had died.

“A number of years later, Sam and his wife decided to go back to Poland and interview a large number of people who had been rescuers like the woman who had saved him. They tried to do comparison studies with those who, you might say, just stood by and watched things happen without doing anything.

“He found that those who had rescued Jews felt a sense of responsibility towards all people, and a sense of empathy towards all people. The feelings transcended whether they were Catholic, or atheist, or communist, or any other thing. It was just part of a sense of who they were.”

Are the characteristics you’re talking about, the empathy towards all peopleare those innate characteristics? In other words, is this a matter of something you’re either born with, or you’re not? Can a grown person be taught these sorts of things?

“Those are great questions that we do not have answers to. That’s the sort of thing we need to explore and understand.

“Why is it that some people develop a sense of “all humanity is my ingroup”, whereas perhaps the majority of people do not? We don’t really know.

“I think we can point to certain kinds of pre-cursors. For example, excessive punitiveness and excessive parental neglect are things we know can make a person what Alfred Adler called “self-bound”, and much more difficult for that person to care about other people.

“So there are certain things that happen in early childhood that can facilitate (empathy), things like parental affection.

“You raised the question if part of it is possibly just genetics. That’s certainly possible. We just simply don’t know at this point.”

Sam McFarland’s article is to be published in a forthcoming edition of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Listen to the interview here.

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One Response to “Sam McFarland Interview on The Situation of Empathy”

  1. [...] The Situation of Empathy – via thesituationist.wordpress.com – WKU Psychology professor Sam McFarland has long [...]

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