A new experience of empathy
He was about 6 feet, three inches tall, with shoulders so wide he had to turn sideways to go through a door, chest like a yak, hands that could crush a small tank and a front tooth missing. He was enormously strong.
In short (not that he was), he could be frightfully intimidating. I met him while I was working in a drug rehab.
Obviously, he was there because, along with his conviction for manslaughter, he had quite a nasty drug habit. All up, he fitted pretty well into the drug scene, and also met a bunch of the criteria for psychopathy. Let’s call him, um, I don’t know, Hannibal.
Side note: I was having such fun telling stories I forgot to stick to my usual 1,000 word limit. Better get a coffee for this one – I do go on a bit…
Hannibal’s new kit
So it was thigh-wobblingly funny when, in one of our health education sessions in rehab, a visiting nurse was talking about pregnancy, pulled out the customized personal pregnancy experience empathy kit, and called on Hannibal to give it a go. I wondered what she was doing.
I started looking for the hidden camera.
This was an apron, tied behind the neck and lower back and able to be weighted low in the front, to simulate a little of what it was like to be pregnant. And here’s Hannibal, all 50,000 gorilla pounds of him, tying this thing on. As if that wasn’t funny enough to watch, he then had to undertake a series of tasks.
I’m not kidding. She loaded the apron with 35lbs of sand bags, and off he went. Get the phone from under the table where it had been left, sweep the floor, pick this up, move that, do this, do that.
If you’ve ever seen pregnant women do this you’ll know how uncoordinated and awkward it looks. Watching Hannibal do it? My face hurt. One of my most memorable sessions from working in rehab.
But, and here’s the thing, would this help Hannibal have a better understanding of, and show compassion for, pregnant women, especially if the child was his? Would having some experience of the situation help him? Could one session with an apron trip enough switches for Hannibal to adapt his behavior?
Can we teach some empathy to this man?
The complexity of human empathy
Human empathy though, involves at least three components, and fitting them together is complex. Last post we talked about cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and empathic concern, which includes compassion, and we’re pulling these things together under the general idea of emotional intelligence.
While the capacity for empathy clearly has biological roots, the skills of empathy are a different matter. For starters, they’re mostly learned, and significantly affected by a number of factors.
As parents, there are a number of things that we can do to develop empathy in our kids, and we’ll work through a checklist next time, but there is a key ingredient, a magic sauce as it were.
Similarities with us
For example, if you’re honest, would you say that you are more likely to help someone, or show empathy to someone, if they had the same color skin as you? Despite what we might say publicly, most people find it easier to help someone of the same color. If you think for a brief moment about why this might be, you’ll quickly realize that empathy really is more complicated than we first think.
Then consider the person with different colored skin, but who speaks the same language as you, when you’re in a foreign country. More likely to help them?
What if another person conforms to a stereotype you hold? Let’s say they show off their boxers above their low-riding jeans, have sneakers with no laces, slope along ape-like, swinging their shoulders when they walk, wear their cap sideways, have oversized bling, and prefer cars that have been lowered. Got a good picture of this guy?
Are you more or less likely to feel empathy towards him?
By contrast, a challenge I used to get in rehab from time to time, was not that I wouldn’t, but that I couldn’t help any of the drug users because I hadn’t “been there”. True enough, I hadn’t. Does that mean we should only employ ex-users because they are likely to have the most empathy? Of course, for these guys, good luck finding a doctor with Hepatitis C or some other disease, because, having “been there”, they’ll be able to treat your disease better…
We are much more likely to show empathy when there are similarities in experience, demographics, in the group we both belong to, or some other area, even if they’re imagined.
Race, culture, language, age, personal biases, education, experience, and the list goes on, can all affect empathy. Recognizing that similarities are a powerful force is a great place to start, because it also shows us why, or to whom, we might not have empathy, and so helps us understand ourselves a little better.
But it’s only the first bit. It’s what we do with recognizing the similarities, or creating the similarities, that has the real value.
Hannibal’s new understanding and a lesson in emotional distance
What we didn’t know about Hannibal at the time, was that this simple education session gave him food for thought. While he was happy to make fun of the session at the time, and to play to the crowd, he was also committed to being clean and having kids.
He understood that if he could get his head around this whole pregnancy thing, then the chances of him being involved as a dad were greater, and he was able to draw the link between the lack of a father figure he experienced as a kid, and the different options he wanted for his own kids. By understanding and being considerate to the mother, he recognized he was also showing compassionate concern for the child.
It was a neat trick. He found similarities between the pregnancy and himself (father figure), guaranteeing the likelihood he’d be more empathic. Finding the similarities between her pregnancy and his own situation closed the emotional gap that often prevents us from displaying empathy or engaging in compassionate behaviors.
Conversely, increasing the emotional distance makes us more likely to inflict harm on others. We’ll come to the particular experiments another time, but in here are strong references to famous work by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.
So here’s the take home bit
While Hannibal’s example is simple, it does highlight the immediate capacity we have to decrease the emotional distance between us, and someone experiencing distress, thus increasing the likelihood of empathy and empathic behaviors.
It therefore gives us a great place to start with kids.
From about age three or four, children are able to understand that other people have different opinions from their own, and so not everyone thinks the same way. It’s called developing a theory of mind.
With this ability, they are able to understand that someone else may be in distress, and that they can do something to help, or at least understand what it might be like, especially if, like Hannibal, they can recognize some similarities with their own situation.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Theory of mind, Emotional distance
What do you think?
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