The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Humility and Helpfulness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 22, 2012

From the University of Maine Press Office:

Helping one another in times of need is a cornerstone of quality human relationships, according to a University of Maine psychology researcher who has determined that humility trumps arrogance when it comes to offering assistance.

In a three-part research project involving 310 students at Baylor University in Texas, UMaine psychology lecturer Jordan LaBouff and colleagues found that people determined to be humble were more willing to donate time and resources to a hypothetical student in need. The results held true even when researchers controlled the study for potential influencers like empathy, agreeableness and other personality traits.

“The finding is particularly surprising since nearly 30 years of research on helping have demonstrated that the situation, not the person, tends to predict whether someone in need will receive help,” says LaBouff, who also is a UMaine Honors College preceptor.

“This research builds upon a growing body of evidence that humility is an important trait that results in a variety of pro-social and positive outcomes,” says LaBouff, the lead author of an article on the study with Baylor researchers Wade Rowatt, Megan Johnson and Jo-Ann Tsang in Texas. “It also suggests that if we can encourage humility in our communities, people may be more helpful to those in need.”

The researchers believe the study is one of the first laboratory studies to document a correlation between a personality dimension like humility or narcissism with willingness to help others. Humility could be a personality trait that is linked with altruistically motivated acts of helping, according to LaBouff.

Researchers reached their conclusions by measuring participant humility through self-reporting, or answering questions about their perceived sense of humility, in addition to gauging reaction time on tasks designed to measure implicit humility, LaBouff says. Participants were then introduced to a fictitious classmate who had suffered a personal tragedy and was requesting help to overcome the tragedy with time and resources from each participant.

“Participants who were more humble were most likely to help their peers, even when social pressure to do so was lowest,” says LaBouff. “That is, humble people were most likely to help even when they had the fewest external pressures to do so.”

The study results are reported in the January 2012 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology.

More.

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Frans De Waal on Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 12, 2012

Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity — caring about the well-being of others seems like a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

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Botoxifying Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 28, 2012

From The Guardian (by Ian Tucker):

Tanya L Chartrand is a pro­fessor of psychology and neu­ro­science at the Duke Uni­versity Fuqua School of Busi­ness in North Car­olina. With David T Neal from the Uni­versity of South­ern California she re­cently pub­lished a paper enti­tled “Embod­ied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Damp­ening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotional Perception Accuracy”, which found that us­ing Botox – a neu­rotoxin injected into muscles to reduce frown lines – reduces a per­son’s ability to empathise with oth­ers.

It wouldn’t surprise people to hear that it’s diffi­cult to tell what the Botoxed are feel­ing, but your study found that the Botoxed have lit­tle idea what we are feel­ing?

Yes, we always as­sume that you can’t tell what the Botoxed people are feel­ing because their faces are somewhat par­alyzed and can appear frozen, but what is less intuitive is that be­ing injected with Botox impairs their ability to under­stand what oth­er people around you are feel­ing.

To demonstrate this you asked women to look at photographs of people’s eyes and match them to human emotions…

Yes, it’s called the “Reading the mind in the eyes test“, and it’s sometimes giv­en to people on the autism spectrum. The people who had a Botox treat­ment in the pre­vi­ous two weeks were not as accurate as our con­trol group, who had been treated with Restylane – a skin filler – whose results were similar to untreated adults.

Why did you choose a con­trol group who had used filler, rather than a random group?

We wanted to match the two groups on ev­ery­thing we could except that one had the paralys­ing agent and the oth­er hadn’t. The Restylane group are demo­graph­ically similar to the Botox group – in terms of age and gender, socio-eco­nom­ic status, and had the same concerns with looking good. So if we got a random group of people who would nev­er have one of these cosmet­ic procedures then they could differ in a lot of oth­er ways. This way we made sure that we were just isolating the fact that Botox is

the cause.

The study talks about “embod­ied cog­nition” – could you explain?

This is the idea that the way we think and feel is grounded in our bod­ies. The way we under­stand oth­ers’ emotions is to expe­ri­ence those emotions our­selves. We do this with facial micro-mimicry. So if you are winc­ing in pain I im­me­diately do a micro-wince, and that sends signals to my brain that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain, and by expe­ri­enc­ing it my­self I now under­stand what you are go­ing through.

So Botox messes with our embod­ied cog­nition?

Yes, it’s interfering with that first step, which is mimicking facial ex­pres­sions and that’s what sets the whole thing off. If you can’t mimic some­one’s wince, your brain isn’t go­ing to be sent the same message – that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain – so you end up not be­ing as accurate and not re­ally under­standing the emotion.

If your empa­thy skills are inhib­ited by Botox what out­comes might that have for your day-to-day life?

My collab­orator, David Neal, was initially inter­ested in looking at the consequences for romantic relation­ships. Say if you’re married, you get Botox and then if you are not able to under­stand whatyour partner is feel­ing any more, it could lead to romantic dissatisfaction. We needed to see the ba­sic ef­fect before looking at some downstream consequences for marital satisfaction. This is maybe what we will study next.

So some­one could have Botox to look better, say for go­ing on dates, but then they find there’s no “connection”…

Absolutely. The irony is that having Botox to look better and be more attractive may make you less attractive in some ways, because you’re not empathis­ing with oth­ers so well.

So are the ben­efits of Botox overrated?

I know there’s been some research showing that Botox can help people who are de­pressed feel better. So I wouldn’t want to say there aren’t some pos­itive ben­efits people gain from feel­ing better about them­selves, feel­ing more attractive, feel­ing younger, but this is one neg­ative to point out to people. Some people will think, “Fine, I’d rather not empathise.” It’s not like Botox makes you completely un­able to under­stand any emotions in oth­ers, but it def­i­nitely reduces your capacity to under­stand those emotions.

The idea for the study came from a paper that said long and happily married couples began to resemble

Related Situationist posts:

The Financial Situation of Empathy

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The Financial Situation of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 24, 2011

From UC Berkeley News Center:

Emotional differences between the rich and poor, as depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” may have a scientific basis. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that people in the lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion than their more affluent counterparts.

By comparison, the UC Berkeley study found that individuals in the upper middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others. Overall, the results indicate that socio-economic status correlates with the level of empathy and compassion that people show in the face of emotionally charged situations.

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study published online on Dec. 12 in the journal, Emotion. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

Stellar and her colleagues’ findings challenge previous studies that have characterized lower-class people as being more prone to anxiety and hostility in the face of adversity.

“These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their wellbeing,” Stellar said.

It has not escaped the researchers’ attention that the findings come at a time of rising class tension, expressed in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Rather than widen the class divide, Stellar said she would like to see the findings promote understanding of different class cultures. For example, the findings suggest that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds may thrive better in cooperative settings than their upper-class counterparts.

“Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy,” she said. “They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”

More than 300 ethnically diverse young adults were recruited for the UC Berkeley study, which was divided into three experiments that used three separate groups of participants. Because all the volunteers were college undergraduates, their class identification – lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class or upper class – was based on parental income and education.

In the first experiment, 148 young adults were rated on how frequently and intensely they experience such emotions as joy, contentment, pride, love, compassion, amusement and awe. In addition, they reported how much they agreed with such statements as “When I see someone hurt or in need, I feel a powerful urge to take care of them,” and “I often notice people who need help.” Compassion was the only positive emotion reported at greater levels by lower-class participants, the study found.

In the second experiment, a new group of 64 participants viewed two videos: an instructional video on construction and an emotionally charged video about families who are coping with the challenges of having a child with cancer. Participants showed no differences while watching the “neutral” instructional video, and all reported feeling sad in response to the video about families of cancer patients. However, members of the lower class reported higher levels of compassion and empathy as distinct from sorrow.

The researchers also monitored the heart rates of participants as they watched the neutral and emotionally charged videos. Lower-class participants showed greater decreases in heart rate as they watched the cancer family video than upper-class participants.

“One might assume that watching someone suffering would cause stress and raise the heart rate,” Stellar said. “But we have found that, during compassion, the heart rate lowers as if the body is calming itself to take care of another person.”

Finally, a new set of 106 participants was randomly divided into pairs and pitted against one another in mock interviews for a lab manager position. To further raise the stress level in interviews, those who performed best were to win a cash prize. Post-interview reports from the participants showed that the lower-class interviewees perceived their rivals to be feeling greater amounts of stress, anxiety and embarrassment and as a result reported more compassion and sympathy for their competitors. Conversely, upper-class participants were less able to detect emotional distress signals in their rivals.

“Recognizing suffering is the first step to responding compassionately. The results suggest that it’s not that upper classes don’t care, it’s that they just aren’t as good at perceiving stress or anxiety,” Stellar said.

More.

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Posted in Abstracts, Altruism, Distribution, Emotions, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Do Doctors Lack Empathy?

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2011

Shortly after I finished Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, I spoke to one of my friends who had just had an extremely bad interaction with a doctor.  The friend had just received a frightening diagnosis and when she went to ask more questions, the doctor was blunt and emotionally-disengaged.  As I spoke to the friend, it occurred to me that, while there were some very important exceptions, I’d actually had a lot of similar experiences with doctors.  Might it be true that doctors have less empathy than other people?

Coincidentally, with the help of the gnomes of the World Wide Web, I found an interesting recent article by Omar Sultan Haque and Adam Waytz in Scientific American, which describes two experiments by Jean Decety and his collaborators at the University of Chicago that shed a bit of light on the answer:

In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others.  The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response.

This finding raised a further question. Perceiving pain in others typically involves two steps. First people engage in the emotional sharing of pain with another person, and then they make a cognitive appraisal of the emotion. Do physicians automatically feel empathy for the pain of others, but then quickly suppress it? Or is the cognitive suppression of empathy even deeper; has it become more automatic? Is it possible that the physicians no longer even experience the first step of empathy for pain that regular people show on their brain scans?

The investigators repeated the same experiment but rather than looking for changes in brain blood-flow by using fMRI, they assessed the brain’s event-related potentials (ERP). Results showed that when viewing the painful needle sticking, the physicians did not even show the early empathy response. The physicians had apparently become so good at empathy suppression that there was no early response to worry about.

Why might these effects exist? It could be that, compared to other professions, the people that gravitate to healthcare tend to be less empathic. This seems unlikely. Furthermore, studies of physicians show that they are often the most empathic and caring towards the beginning of medical school, and that they become steadily less empathetic with more clinical training. The more likely culprits are therefore the nature of medical training and the intrinsic demands of the profession.

Related Situationist posts:

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Students’ Situations Leave Them Less Empathetic (Situationist)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2010

From University of Michigan News Service:

Today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s, a University of Michigan study shows. The study, presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years. “We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

Konrath conducted the meta-analysis, combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009, with U-M graduate student Edward O’Brien and undergraduate student Courtney Hsing. Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

In a related but separate analysis, Konrath found that nationally representative samples of Americans see changes in other people’s kindness and helpfulness over a similar time period. “

Many people see the current group of college students—sometimes called ‘Generation Me’—as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry. “It’s not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others,” O’Brien said.

Why is empathy declining among young adults? Konrath and O’Brien suggest there could be several reasons, which they hope to explore in future research. “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” Konrath said. “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O’Brien. “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” he said. Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity “reality shows,” and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says. “College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of College Education: Why Going for the Money Makes Sense for Some Prep Players,” “Racial bias clouds ability to feel others’ pain,” “The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy,” “The Situation of Morality and Empathy,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Virtual Bias,” “Internet Disinhibition,” Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” and “The Situation of First-Person Shooters.”

Posted in Conflict, Education, Emotions, Life, Morality | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Racial bias clouds ability to feel others’ pain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 2, 2010

From EurekAlert!:

When people witness or imagine the pain of another person, their nervous system responds in essentially the same way it would if they were feeling that pain themselves. Now, researchers reporting online on May 27th in Current Biology, . . . have new evidence to show that that kind of empathy is diminished when people (black or white) who hold racial biases see that pain is being inflicted on those of another race.

The good news is that people continue to respond with empathy when pain is inflicted on people who don’t fit into any preconceived racial category—in this case, those who appear to have violet-colored skin.

“This is quite important because it suggests that humans tend to empathize by default unless prejudice is at play,” said Salvatore Maria Aglioti of Sapienza Università di Roma.

In the study, conducted in Italy with people of Italian and African descent, participants were asked to watch and pay attention to short films depicting needles penetrating a person’s hand or a Q-tip gently touching the same spot while their empathetic response was monitored. (The researchers specifically measured a feature known as sensorimotor contagion, as indicated by changes in the corticospinal reactivity assessed by transcranial magnetic stimulation.) The results showed that people watching the painful episode responded in a way that was specific to the particular muscle they saw being stimulated when the film character was of the same race. But those of a different race didn’t evoke that same sensorimotor response.

In further studies, the researchers tested individuals’ responses to pain inflicted on models with violet hands. Under those circumstances, participants’ empathetic responses were restored.

“This default reactivity of human beings implies empathy with the pain of strangers (i.e., a violet model) if no stereotype can be applied to them,” said Alessio Avenanti of the Università di Bologna. “However, racial bias may suppress this empathic reactivity, leading to a dehumanized perception of others’ experience.”

The new findings expand on previous studies that have primarily looked at the neural underpinnings of racial bias based on facial expressions, thus emphasizing people’s emotional reaction to the pain of others, the researchers said.

“To the best of our knowledge, our study is the only one that has tested the reactivity to hands and thus hints at the existence of general processes for separating the self from the others that may be largely independent from specific emotions,” the researchers explained.

Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that methods designed to restore empathy for people of other races might also help in dealing with racial prejudice.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “It’s Hard to Step into Someone Else’s Shoes,” “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Afraid of Knowing Ourselves,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

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The Situation of Bullying

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 27, 2010

Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered wrote an intriguing article, titled “How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy” in a recent issue of Time Magazine.  Here are some excerpts.

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Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can . . . be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.

Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.

Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species — chimps, for instance, will protest the unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.

The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant’s cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.

But like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece and the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality — enlisting them in boot camp at age 7 and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food, which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.

In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and poetry at age 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture. “Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian — and you can taught to be both,” says Teny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former sergeant in the Israeli army.

What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today. Childhood — as early as infancy — is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy. And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that those who experience such early trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies themselves.

Simple neglect can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the first randomized, controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study, and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth, problems with human attachment and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional development.

Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family’s attention; instead, they are cared for by a rotating staff of workers, which is inherently neglectful. The infants miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.

Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and the minds of young children who have been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to feel or demonstrate love later on. “You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children,” says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, “or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment.”

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You can read the entire article here, including an extended discussion fo the “Roots of Empathy” program, a school-based program designed to foster empathy and compassion and which has been shown to significantly reduce bullying.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Cruelty of Children,” Jane Elliot’s Situationist Pedagogy,” “Examining the Bullying Situation,” The Situation of Bullying,” The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy,” The Situation of Morality and Empathy,” The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” The Situation of Gang Rape,” Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, History, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Neuro-Situation of Violence and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 11, 2010

From EurekaAlert:

“Just as our species could be considered the most violent, since we are capable of serial killings, genocide and other atrocities, we are also the most empathetic species, which would seem to be the other side of the coin”, Luis Moya Albiol, lead author of the study and a researcher at the UV, tells SINC.

This study, published in the most recent issue of the Revista de Neurología, concludes that the prefrontal and temporal cortex, the amygdala and other features of the limbic system (such as insular and cingular cortexcortex) play “a fundamental role in all situations in which empathy appears”.

Moya Albiol says these parts of the brain overlap “in a surprising way” with those that regulate aggression and violence. As a result, the scientific team argues that the cerebral circuits – for both empathy and violence – could be “partially similar”.

“We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one – stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other”, the researcher adds.

This means it is difficult for a “more empathetic” brain to behave in a violent way, at least on a regular basis. “Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace, bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts”, the researcher concludes.

Techniques for measuring the human brain “in vivo”, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, are making it possible to find out more about the structures of the brain that regulate behaviour and psychological processes such as empathy.

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These findings were published in the latest issue of Revista de Neurología.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Morality and Empathy,” The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,”The Case for Obedience,” and “March Madness.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Emotions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Morality and Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2010

Situationist friend and author David Berreby recently conducted a fascinating interview of  primatologist Frans De Waal on BloggingHeads.  A rough table of contents of their discussion is listed just below the video.

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Frans’s latest book, “The Age of Empathy” (04:11)
Empathy as a social contagion (06:54)
A biological basis for morality and soccer hooliganism (18:48)
Does religion have to be at war with science? (12:48)
The fragility of empathy (04:08)
Enron, the selfish gene, and Nazi pseudoscience (08:14)

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To read about Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Age of Empathy, click here. To check out David Berreby’s excellent blog, Mind Matters, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Science of Morality,” “The Situation of Kindness,” The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,”The Case for Obedience,” and “March Madness,”

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The Situation of Caring

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 1, 2009

fall foliageFrom the University of Rochester (press release):

Want to be a better person? Commune with nature.

Paying attention to the natural world not only makes you feel better, it makes you behave better, finds a new study to be published October 1 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Stopping to experience our natural surroundings can have social as well as personal benefits,” says Richard Ryan, coauthor and professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester. While the salubrious effects of nature are well documented, from increasing happiness and physical health to lowering stress, this study shows that the benefits extend to a person’s values and actions. Exposure to natural as opposed to man-made environments leads people to value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money, find Ryan and his team of researchers at the University of Rochester.


The paper includes four experiments in which 370 participants were exposed to either natural or man-made settings. Participants were encouraged to attend to their environments by noticing colors and textures and imagining sounds and smells. In three of the studies, participants were shown a selection of four images on a 19 inch computer screen for two minutes each. Half of the subject viewed buildings, roads, and other cityscapes; the other half observed landscapes, lakes, and deserts. The urban and nature images were matched for color, complexity, layout, and lighting. In a fourth study, participants were simply assigned at random to work in a lab with or without plants. Participants then answered a questionnaire assessing the importance of four life aspirations: wealth and fame (“to be financially successful” and “to be admired by many people”) and connectedness and community (“to have deep enduring relationships” and “to work toward the betterment of society”).

Across all four studies, people exposed to natural elements rated close relationships and community higher than they had previously. The questionnaire also measured how immersed viewers were in their environments and found that the more deeply engaged subjects were with natural settings, the more they valued community and closeness. By contrast, the more intensely participants focused on artificial elements, the higher they rated wealth and fame.

To test generosity, two of the studies gave participants a $5 prize with the instructions that the money could be kept or given to a second anonymous participant, who would then be given an additional $5. The second participant could choose to return the prize money or keep it. Thus, subjects had nothing to gain if they chose to trust the other participant, and risked losing their money.

The result? People who were in contact with nature were more willing to open their wallets and share. As with aspirations, the higher the immersion in nature, the more likely subjects were to be generous with their winnings.

Why should nature make us more charitable and concerned about others? One answer, says coauthor Andrew Przybylski, is that nature helps to connect people to their authentic selves. For example, study participants who focused on landscapes and plants reported a greater sense of personal autonomy (“Right now, I feel like I can be myself”). For humans, says Przybylski, our authentic selves are inherently communal because humans evolved in hunter and gatherer societies that depended on mutuality for survival.

In addition, write the authors, the richness and complexity of natural environments may encourage introspection and the lack of man-made structures provide a safe haven from the man-made pressures of society. “Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another,” says Przybylski.

Lead author Netta Weinstein says that the findings highlight the importance of creating green spaces in cities and have implication for planners and architects. Incorporating parks and other representations of nature into urban environments may help build a stronger sense of community among residents, she explains. By contrast, “to the extent that our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other,” the authors warn. This alienation may help explain other research showing that urban as compared to rural dwellers show more reservation, indifference, and estrangement from others.

On a personal level, Weinstein says the take home message from the research is clear: “We are influenced by our environment in ways that we are not aware of,” she says. Because of the hidden benefits of connecting with nature, people should take advantage of opportunities to get away from built environments and, when inside, they should surround themselves with plants, natural objects, and images of the natural world. “The more you appreciate nature, the more you can benefit,” she says.

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To watch portions of an interview of Richard Ryan, click on the video below.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Well-Being Is a Walk in the Park,” and “Some Situational Sources of Longer Life.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Life, Morality, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Compassion, Law, and Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 17, 2009

SotomayorSituationist contributor Michael McCann has posted on SSRN a draft of his forthcoming law review essay, Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the Relationship between Leagues and Players: Insights and Implications, 42 Connecticut Law Review __ (forthcoming, 2009).

The essay examines two of Judge Sotomayor’s most notable sports law decisions, Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee and Clarett v. National Football.  In doing so, the essay challenges prevailing criticisms of Judge Sotomayor–namely, that her “compassion” distorts her understanding and application of the law.  An excerpt is below.

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Politicians and commentators are vigorously debating the judicial philosophy of federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama has nominated to succeed retiring Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. They are pouring through Judge Sotomayor’s opinions, speeches and other writings, examining and sometimes cherry-picking her words and expressions. Competing sets of beliefs, ideas, and attitudes will gradually be offered to explain Judge Sotomayor’s legal reasoning.

Critics of Judge Sotomayor have already championed an alleged weakness: she crafts her opinions to advance progressive agendas, with wavering adherence to actual law. Proponents of this viewpoint cite President Obama’s comment that he selected Judge Sotomayor partly because of her “compassion,” with the insinuation, in their view, that she bends fixed rules in order to aid disadvantaged litigants. Still others chastise the quality of her logic as overlooking or obscuring substantive legal issues. At their core, these criticisms attempt to impugn Judge Sotomayor as unfit for the Court.

As this Essay explores in Parts I and II, such criticisms are countered by Judge Sotomayor’s role in resolving two notable sports law disputes. In assessing whether Major League Baseball (“MLB”) owners could unilaterally impose new labor conditions on MLB players during the 1994 baseball strike and whether Ohio State University sophomore Maurice Clarett was obligated to wait three years from the completion of high school to become eligible for the National Football League (“NFL”) draft, Judge Sotomayor invoked traditional, arguably inflexible, applications of federal labor law.  In fact, from the lens of each case’s least advantaged party, her opinions may have seemed bereft of “compassion” . . .

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To download a free copy of this essay from SSRN, click here.  For related Situationist pieces, see “It’s Hard to Step into Someone Else’s Shoes,” “Stereotyping Sotomayor,” and The Situation of Judicial Activism.”  For a related op-ed on Maurice Clarett, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “The Psychopathology of Athlete Worship.”

Posted in Ideology, Law | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

It’s Hard to Step into Someone Else’s Shoes

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 25, 2009

Shoes Someone ElseStanley Fish has an interesting new post (over on his New York Times blog) that reflects on a panel discussion at NYU Law School on the question of what kind of Supreme Court justices we want.  Do we actually desire a judge with “empathy”?

Fish gave particular attention to “Judge Sotomayor’s now famous or infamous speculation that a wise Latina might know something an old white guy did not.”

His analysis aligns with op-eds that Jon Hanson and I have written recently for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the anecdote he relates at the end is an excellent demonstration of just how blind we can be to the power of situation and, in particular, how easy it is to become lost in one’s own perspective.

Here is an excerpt of the post

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[If Sotomayor] is being descriptive, if she is saying only that no one can completely divest herself of the experiences life has delivered or function as an actor without a history, she is announcing no method at all. She is merely acknowledging a truth (as she sees it) about the human condition: the influences [Alabama Republican Senator Jeff] Sessions laments are unavoidable, which means that no one can be faulted for viewing things from one or another of the limited perspectives to which we are all (differently) confined.

In fact – and this is what Sotomayor means when she talks about reaching a better conclusion than a white man who hasn’t lived her life – rather than distorting reality, perspectives illuminate it or at least that part of it they make manifest. It follows that no one perspective suffices to capture all aspects of reality and that, therefore, the presence in the interpretive arena of multiple perspectives is a good thing. In a given instance, the “Latina Judge” might reach a better decision not because she was better in some absolute, racial sense, but because she was better acquainted than her brethren with some aspects of the situation they were considering. (As many have observed in the context of the issue of gender differences, among the current justices, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl and might, by virtue of that knowledge, be better able to assess the impact on such a girl of a strip-search.)

Throughout the evening, John Payton [head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund] reminded us that these are not merely theoretical points. He read a chilling sentence from Herbert Wechsler’s influential essay “Toward Neutral Principles.” Wechsler is making the point that laws mandating the separation of the races burden both races equally: “In the days when I was joined with Charles Houston in a litigation in the Supreme Court before the present building was constructed, he did not suffer more than I in knowing that we had to go to Union Station to lunch together during the recess.”

One might wonder whether Houston would equate the lunchtime inconvenience suffered by his colleague with the humiliations he had to endure every day of his life. One might be amazed, as Payton was, by Wechsler’s blindness to what he is saying. He was a great legal mind, but something was missing. You can call it empathy or (as some in the audience suggested) you can call it understanding or imagination. I called it hearkening to the spirit rather than the letter. But whatever you call it, everyone present that evening agreed that it was what we wanted.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “Stereotyping Sotomayor” and The Situation of Judicial Activism,” which contains links to still other related Situationist posts.

Posted in Ideology, Law | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Brooks on the Situation of Judging

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 31, 2009

Michigan Law LibraryNew York Times columnnist David Brooks had a nice op-ed, “The Empathy Issue,” picking up some of the themes in the recent op-ed by Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson.  Here are some excerpts.

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The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It’s based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.

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Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

As [Situationist Contributor] Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has pointed out, many disputes come about because two judges look at the same situation and they have different perceptions about what the most consequential facts are. One judge, with one set of internal models, may look at a case and perceive that the humiliation suffered by a 13-year-old girl during a strip search in a school or airport is the most consequential fact of the case. Another judge, with another set of internal models, may perceive that the security of the school or airport is the most consequential fact. People elevate and savor facts that conform to their pre-existing sensitivities.

The decision-making process gets even murkier once the judge has absorbed the disparate facts of a case. When noodling over some issue — whether it’s a legal case, an essay, a math problem or a marketing strategy — people go foraging about for a unifying solution. This is not a hyper-rational, orderly process of the sort a computer might undertake. It’s a meandering, largely unconscious process of trial and error.

The mind tries on different solutions to see if they fit. Ideas and insights bubble up from some hidden layer of intuitions and heuristics. Sometimes you feel yourself getting closer to a conclusion, and sometimes you feel yourself getting farther away. The emotions serve as guidance signals, like from a GPS, as you feel your way toward a solution.

Then — often while you’re in the shower or after a night’s sleep — the answer comes to you. You experience a fantastic rush of pleasure that feels like a million tiny magnets suddenly clicking into alignment.

Now your conclusion is articulate in your consciousness. You can edit it or reject it. You can go out and find precedents and principles to buttress it. But the way you get there was not a cool, rational process. It was complex, unconscious and emotional.

The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so. . . .

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To read the entire op-ed, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “The News Situation of Judge Sotomayor’s Nomination” and The Situation of Judicial Activism,” which contains links to still more related posts.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Emotions, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2008

Michael Craig Miller, M.D. has a helpful article, “Sad Brain, Happy Brain,” in this week’s Newsweek.  Here are some excerpts.

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The brain is the mind is the brain. One hundred billion nerve cells, give or take, none of which individually has the capacity to feel or to reason, yet together generating consciousness. For about 400 years, following the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes, those who thought about its nature considered the mind related to the body, but separate from it. In this model—often called “dualism” or the mind-body problem—the mind was “immaterial,” not anchored in anything physical. Today neuroscientists are finding abundant evidence . . . that separating mind from brain makes no sense. Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist-neuroscientist Eric Kandel stated it directly in a watershed paper published in 1998: “All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain.”

Neuroscientists consider it settled that the mind arises from the cooperation of billions of interconnected cells that, individually, are no smarter than amoebae. But it’s a shocking idea to some that the human mind could arise out of such an array of mindlessness. Many express amazement that emotions, pain, sexual feelings or religious belief could be a product of brain function. They are put off by the notion that such rich experiences could be reduced to mechanical or chemical bits. Or they worry that scientific explanations may seduce people into a kind of moral laziness that provides a ready excuse for any human failing: “My brain made me do it.” Our brains indeed do make us do it, but that is nonetheless consistent with meaningful lives and moral choices. Writing for the President’s Council on Bioethics earlier this year, philosopher Daniel Dennett made the point that building knowledge about the biology of mental life may improve our decision making, even our moral decision making. And it could enhance our chances of survival as a species, too.

. . . . The brain is responsible for most of what you care about—language, creativity, imagination, empathy and morality. And it is the repository of all that you feel. The endeavor to discovery the biological basis for these complex human experiences has given rise to a relatively new discipline: cognitive neuroscience. . . .

. . . .Neuroscientists . . . have a rapidly growing appreciation of the emotional brain and are beginning to look closely at these subjective states, which were formerly the province of philosophers and poets. It is complex science that holds great promise for improving the quality of life. Fortunately, understanding basic principles does not require an advanced degree.

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Fear is a good place to start, because it is one of the emotions that cognitive neuroscientists understand well. It is an unpleasant feeling, but necessary to our survival; humans would not have lasted very long in the wilderness without it. Two deep brain structures called the amygdalae manage the important task of learning and remembering what you should be afraid of.

Each amygdala, a cluster of nerve cells named after its almond shape (from the Greek amugdale), sits under its corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Like a network hub, it coordinates information from several sources. It collects input from the environment, registers emotional significance and—when necessary—mobilizes a proper response. It gets information about the body’s response to the environment (for example, heart rate and blood pressure) from the hypothalamus. It communicates with the reasoning areas in the front of the brain. And it connects with the hippocampus, an important memory center.

The fear system is extraordinarily efficient. It is so efficient that you don’t need to consciously register what is happening for the brain to kick off a response. If a car swerves into your lane of traffic, you will feel the fear before you understand it. Signals travel between the amygdala and your crisis system before the visual part of your brain has a chance to “see.” Organisms with slower responses probably did not get the opportunity to pass their genetic material along.

Fear is contagious because the amygdala helps people not only recognize fear in the faces of others, but also to automatically scan for it. People or animals with damage to the amygdala lose these skills. Not only is the world more dangerous for them, the texture of life is ironed out; the world seems less compelling to them because their “excitement” anatomy is impaired.

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[We've excluded, here, interesting overviews of how the brain experiences with anger, happiness, sadness, and empathy.]

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But empathy depends on more than an ability to mirror actions or sensations. It also requires what some cognitive neuroscientists call mentalizing, or a “theory of mind.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading researcher in the study of autism, has identified the inability to generate a theory of mind as a central deficit in that illness. He has coined the term “mindblindness” to designate that problem. The corollary, “mindsightedness,” requires healthy function in several areas of the brain. The processing and remembering of subtle language cues take place toward the ends of the temporal lobes. At the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, the brain handles memory for events, moral judgment and biological motion (what we might call body language). And the prefrontal cortex handles many complex reasoning functions involved in feelings of empathy.

Not surprisingly, love also engages a whole lot of brain. Areas that are deeply involved include the insula, anterior cingulate, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens—in other words, parts of the brain that involve body and emotional perception, memory and reward. There is also an increase in neurotransmitter activity along circuits governing attachment and bonding, as well as reward (there’s that word again). And there’s scientific evidence that love really is blind; romantic love turns down or shuts off activity in the reasoning part of the brain and the amygdala. In the context of passion, the brain’s judgment and fear centers are on leave. Love also shuts down the centers necessary to mentalize or sustain a theory of mind. Lovers stop differentiating you from me.

Faith is also being studied. Earlier this year the Annals of Neurology published an article by Sam Harris and colleagues exploring what happens in the brain when people are in the act of either believing or disbelieving. In an accompanying editorial, Oliver Sachs and Joy Hirsch underscored the significance of what the researchers found. Belief and disbelief activated different regions of the brain. But in the brain, all belief reactions looked the same, whether the stimulus was relatively neutral: an equation like (2+6)+8=16, or emotionally charged: “A Personal God exists, just as the Bible describes.”

By putting a big religious idea next to a small math equation, some readers might think the researchers intend to glibly dismiss it. But a discovery about brain function does not imply a value judgment. And understanding the reality of the natural world—how the brain works—shouldn’t muddle the big questions about human experience. It should help us answer them.

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a collection of related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Neuroscience, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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