What is Empathy?

by Lindsay

I’ve thought for a while now that the concept of “empathy” most commonly used when talking about autism is excessively narrow.

Autistics — especially Asperger’s autistics — are often said to lack empathy, which usually means two things: we can’t infer a person’s emotional state from their facial expression, body language, tone of voice or whatever other indirect cues they may be sending out, and we don’t respond emotionally to other people’s emotions, even when they are clear to us.

Here’s Simon Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy, taken from the first chapter of his book The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (I’ve already posted about the problems I have with this theory of autism, so I won’t revisit them here):

Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing does not entail just the cold calculation of what someone else thinks and feels (or what is sometimes called mind reading). Psychopaths can do that much. Empathizing occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion, and it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.

In a later chapter, Baron-Cohen breaks the act of empathizing into two parts: a “cognitive component,” in which you infer another person’s likely mental state, and an “affective component,” in which you feel something in response to what you either perceive or infer another person to be feeling. (Baron-Cohen gives an example of a homeless person standing in the street on a cold day, and people who see him being moved to feel a range of emotions: pity, guilt, or even anger at a political and economic system that allows such poverty to exist within a wealthy nation).

This two-fold conception of empathy grows out of an earlier idea, which Baron-Cohen has also written about: Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind seems to be more or less equivalent to the cognitive component of empathy described above:

A full-fledged theory of mind … requires a representational system. This permits the representational mapping of others’ emotional states in a manner that is different from picking up their emotions directly. For instance, an intention can be mapped onto a representational emotional topology, going from “the fox is chasing the chicken” (goal-directed) through “the fox is trying to catch the chicken” (intentionality) through “the fox wants to eat the chicken” (motivational) to “the fox is chasing the chicken and trying to catch it because it is hungry and wants to eat it” (emotional). Similarly, for the chicken: it is running (goal-directed) away from the fox (intentionality) because it is afraid (emotional) of being eaten (motivational).

As you can see here, there’s a lot of different things feeding into a Theory of Mind. It’s not just answering the question “What are they thinking/feeling?” — that question can be further broken down into a whole string of smaller questions, as with the fox and chicken example above.

I also think that, for each step in that modeling process, there are two very different tasks involved in attributing a motive to another sentient being: first, you have to use your imagination to come up with a range of possible explanations for their action, and then you have to judge which explanation seems most likely. To do that, you draw both on what you actually know about the person and hir circumstances, but also on a general idea of what most people are like, and what most people would do in that person’s shoes. (Or, if it’s an animal whose behavior you hope to explain, you draw on whatever general knowledge you might have about that kind of animal).

It’s in this stage that an alternative explanation for differences in empathizing begins to suggest itself: people from radically differing circumstances are going to have radically differing ideas of what most people would do in a given situation. Class and race are some obvious potential confounds here: middle-class white people are often at a loss to explain the actions of poor people of color, so they fall back on explanations that don’t tax their imaginations too much — i.e., those people are just stupid, lazy, criminal etc.

Gender also enters into it — feminists have addressed this in their calls for a “reasonable woman” standard in law.

Given this, it shouldn’t be too big a leap to suggest that some autistics might have trouble predicting how non-autistic people will react because they’ve figured out that their own responses to things are vastly different from most non-autistic people’s responses. Thus, most of the time just putting oneself in another’s shoes is not enough; one also has to imagine one’s self greatly altered. This is hard to do, and without a whole lot of knowledge of a range of NT personalities and temperaments, you still won’t have anything to put into your mental simulation where you used to be.

Several other autistic bloggers have made this point: that the empathy barrier goes both ways, and arises not from autistic insensitivity to emotion in general, but from the wildly divergent ways in which autistics — and other neurological minorities — and NTs experience emotion in the first place.

As Bev says,

Autistic empathy is different from what the typical person experiences. It is no less real, no less deep or emotional. And I would argue that it’s no less useful to society. Some people give hugs; others get the tissue.

Conversely, autistics are often perfectly adept at reading the emotional or intentional content of other autistics’ “meaningless” behavior, because the mental state of the other autistic is likelier to be one they’ve experienced themselves.

About the Author: Lindsay is a KU graduate with degrees in biochemistry and English literature. She is also on the autism spectrum, having been diagnosed with PDD-NOS at age 5. She writes about many things, which include but are not limited to autism research, psychology, neuroscience, feminism, autism advocacy/neurodiversity, autism in literature, and broad, sweeping cultural critique. She also draws, paints, and takes the occasional random picture.

What is Empathy? first appeared on Lindsay’s blog, Autist’s Corner, and is reprinted here by permission.