What is empathy?
What do we really mean when we use the word? I know what I mean, but does somebody else understand it in the same way? There is a lot of on-going discussion about whether autistic people can have empathy, and I am wondering whether everybody is working from the same definition.
Simon Baron-Cohen defined empathy in his 2003 book The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. He wrote, “Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings.” He goes on to describe the cognitive component (“understanding the other’s feelings and the ability to take their perspective”) and the affective component (“an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state”).
Frans de Waal defined empathy this way in his 2008 paper Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy: “The capacity to (a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective…. [T]he term ’empathy’…applies even if only criterion (a) is met.”
These definitions appear very similar to me. So how can it be that the two people behind the definitions reach such different conclusions? Primate social behaviourist Frans de Waal concludes that there exists a spectrum of empathy, saying “I’ve argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules.” But clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes autistic people as having “zero degrees of empathy,” a description at odds with his comments in a July Q & A session, in which he said, “I have met many adults with Asperger Syndrome who can display their excellent empathy… when there is less time pressure creating demands to respond in real time.”
I find myself unable to see why there should be any requirement for an empathic response to happen “in real time.” This seems to imply that there is an unwritten component in the definition of empathy that differs depending on who is using the term — at which point we are in Humpty Dumpty territory: “When I use a word it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.” Now, I am well aware that language is an imprecise tool, and that the meaning an author intends is not always the one interpreted by the reader. But the subject of autism and empathy is such an emotive one for so many of us on the spectrum that I believe greater transparency is essential.
And so to my question that started this essay: Can I feel empathy? I score low on the Empathy Quotient (EQ) test — around the mean for people with Asperger’s. But what does this test actually measure? Is my interpretation of the questions the meaning the author intended? For example, consider the statement “It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.” I have to agree with this statement, because it was hard for me to see why someone ended up in tears because of a trivial event. With the incident I am thinking of, it was hard for a lot of neurotypical people to see as well. But would they interpret that statement in a more general sense? For me, one example is enough to make the statement true.
And then there is “Seeing people cry doesn’t really upset me.” That’s absolutely, literally correct. It doesn’t. Knowing that people are upset does upset me, but not just seeing them cry. I need more context. There must be more than the isolated fact of them crying to indicate to me that they are upset. Chopping onions makes my wife cry. It doesn’t mean that she’s upset, or that it would upset me.
Is there something about the literal way that Asperger’s people interpret language that skews the results of this type of test? Remember that it was written by neurotypical researchers looking to demonstrate differences between neurotypical and Asperger’s minds. You will have to pardon my scepticism but while I have to agree that there is a statistical correlation between EQ scores and autism, I am not convinced that a causal link has been demonstrated. I am not satisfied that the hypothesis that autistic people have low empathy is correct. I need to be convinced that social and communication factors have been adequately considered as alternative explanations.
Finally, in answer to my original question: Yes, I can feel empathy. It doesn’t matter how I arrive at that empathy, or how long it might take me to get there. No, it’s not intuitive to me. No, it’s not particularly rapid. But that doesn’t matter. Those aren’t defining characteristics of empathy. I do get affected by and share the emotional state of other people, particularly those whom I know well. Sometimes, it’s because they simply tell me how they feel. Does it matter whether they communicate their feelings verbally or non-verbally? The end result for me is the same. Like they say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… it’s a duck!
About the Author: Ben is a man in his thirties with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on his blog, Married with Asperger’s, and is reprinted here by permission.