Saturday, 9 October 2010

How far does empathy extend?

Frans de Waal has a new book out, about empathy. De Waal is a primatologist (head of the primate behaviour department at Emory University, Atlanta) and has published widely on primate behaviour and on what we can learn from primates about our human peculiarities. The Age of Empathy: nature’s lessons for a kinder society is out now, published by Souvenir Press (part of Random House).

De Waal believes that the success of Homo sapiens rests primarily on our capacity for empathy and our urge to understand and appreciate others. We possess an innate sensitivity to the emotional states of other members of our species. De Waal shows that this understanding is possessed by most mammals, particularly primates (and also dolphins and elephants), but especially by humans. We are a social species, and we have thrived because empathy as has enabled us to be kind. The dark side of this is, of course, that it is precisely our empathy, distorted, that also enables certain people to devise punishments and torture – they know very well the effect that such actions will have on the victims.

But in evolutionary terms, our empathy has hard-wired us for co-operation and altruism. Empathy creates a strong and effective social group that gives its members a survival advantage. It seems that empathy arrived with the evolution of maternal care in mammals. A female needs to be in touch with her offspring and understand when they are in danger or trouble. That probably explains why women tend to be more empathetic than men, a fact that has a biochemical basis. The female mammalian hormone oxytocin is the key. If you study cooperative and competitive behaviour among a group of men and women, and then you administer a nasal spray of oxytocin, you get an increase in trust and empathy within both kinds of behaviours.

However, more complex mammals go beyond the limits of a chemical prompt. They try to understand why another animal is feeling sad or frightened, say. Mice don't do this but primates, dolphins and elephants, for example, do. In humans, this emotional perspective appears around the age of two, at the same time as the infant develops self-awareness; and this link is displayed across other species as well. The more self-aware an animal is, the more empathetic it tends to be.

Empathy has been crucial to the development of human society. It holds our societies together and drives us to care for the sick and the elderly for example. It also allows us to get along in cities. Chimpanzees – which can be very tolerant of others – would simply not put up with being surrounded by strangers of their own species and would start killing one another. Humans – on the whole! – do not do this. We put up with masses of strangers around us. In that sense, we are very strange: we can tolerate others in huge numbers.

It is important that we understand this. Mainstream economic models are based on the idea that everything in nature is competitive and that we should set up a society which is competitive to reflect that. If some people can’t keep up, that’s just hard luck on them. De Waal believes that this is a total misinterpretation of the facts. The individual is not all-important – we are deeply social animals. We can be selfish but we are also highly empathetic and supportive. These features define us and should be built into society.

You can watch De Waal talking about the book and listen to him taking in a US radio interview.

But empathy can produce some surprising effects – remember that it evolved in its human form when we were living as hunter-gatherers in small tribal groups. Our relationships to others were face-to-face and immediate, and there weren’t very many of those others. And although de Waal argues that it is our empathy that enables us to live in crowded cities, there are other ways in which we fail to extend it to wider groups. For example, if people are asked to donate money either ‘to help save the life of a sick child’, or ‘to help save the lives of a group of sick children’, the amount of money given is consistently higher when the request is for one child. Aid charities have realised this and the increasing number of opportunities to ‘sponsor a child’ (one named child) are testament to its effectiveness in fundraising.

In both experimental and real life situations a criminal who has seriously defrauded one person will be sentenced more severely than one who has defrauded many. It’s as if we empathise more with the imagined one person than with the group or crowd.

We can see this in media reactions and public interest in world events. I wonder if you remember the incident in 1981 when a little Italian boy fell down an artesian well. The attempted rescue was long and arduous (and eventually failed). For three days, round the clock, the world’s media reporters were at that well-head. News bulletins updated viewers and listeners throughout the day. Well, you might think, what’s so strange about this? What is interesting is that, at the same time as this, an earthquake in Iran had caused devastation, and many dead children (as well as adults, of course) were being dug out of the rubble . . . but the news focus remained on this one boy. I know Iran wasn’t one of the West’s favourite countries, even then; but more than that – somehow it’s easier to focus on one human tragedy than many.

We have an analogous situation now with the Chilean miners and the victims of the floods in India and Pakistan. Ordinary British people have given very generously to the flood appeal but the story is fading from the media. What can one continue to say about millions of people displaced? It’s a human tragedy on a vast scale – almost too big to think about, too difficult to contemplate. But the drama of the group of miners remains a news item – and, as in Italy 29 years ago, there is a permanent vigil at the head of the mine. So there is not only the human drama of the miners, but also of their families waiting for them. There are individuals, personalities, life stories we can relate to. We can perhaps imagine being trapped underground. And there is a progressing news story – how well the drilling is going, what items are being sent down the supply shaft, what the cage looks like (we can all imagine standing in it) . . . and so on. Empathy is an emotional response, and our emotional selves respond to such stories.

How can we extend our empathy? We have a situation in Britain at the moment where we are facing draconian cuts to public services (the government spending review comes on 20 October), with the NHS and overseas aid being the only two areas of expenditure that are protected. The government must be given credit for not reneging on Britain’s promises to the world’s poor, but their stance is not widely supported by the British public, and may become even more controversial as public sector cuts really start to bite.

As the world continues to warm in response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, those who suffer first and suffer the most will be the poor in the developing world – the Pakistan floods are a taste of things to come. Can we learn to extend our empathy to millions of faceless other humans? Can we fend off ‘compassion fatigue’

We can practise empathy, and we can tell stories - a process that appeals to the heart more than the head. A US pastor in Illinois gives us this checklist (for more details on the list, click the link):
1. Listen more, talk less.
2. Stop interrupting.
3. Don't finish others’ sentences.
4. Don't give advice.
5. Ask good questions.
6. Give focused attention.
7. Slow down.
8. Acknowledge your own feelings.
9. Genuinely care about others.
10. Read good fiction.
11. Visit other cultures.
12. Ask people about their feelings.
13. Care for pets and babies.
14. Participate in theatre

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  1. Today (12 Oct) George Monbiot's column in The Guardian is making analogous points:

    (sorry the comments box doesn't do live links!)

  2. Today (14 Oct) Zoe Williams' column in The Guardian is making similar points about empathy:

    (sorry the comments box doesn't do live links!)