Social Success, Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism

by C.S. Wyatt

I’ve been swamped for the last week, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been pondering “big ideas” while working. One of the topics I can’t stop pondering is why so much value is placed on “empathy” and “social skills” when the best of the best at imitating these are often the worst of the worst people.

You don’t believe me? There are numerous studies indicating leaders (think Presidents and the list is long) have narcissistic tendencies, as well as a dash of paranoia. Nationally elected politicians also score high on communications measures of social lying. I located more than 100 unique studies indicating that the ability to manipulate people, well-intentioned or not, corresponds to personal popularity. One study of young children tested their ability to lie and correlated “social lying skills” with popularity.

Empathy is “the ability to understand the feelings and desires or needs of others.”

When tested, narcissists score high on empathy. So, curiously enough, do some sociopaths. In fact, there are sociopaths able to score near-perfect on some empathy instruments — which raises red-flags.

Consider what a narcissist or sociopath wants: control and attention. With a great ability to understand and even anticipate what people want to hear, the master manipulator gains trust and the following he or she wants. Charismatic leaders certainly do this by knowing what a person wants to hear and tailoring words, vocal tone, and even movements to the situation. A narcissist can seem like your best friend, instantly, because he or she knows that later you will be useful.

Yet, we keep claiming that the big problem with high-functioning autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger’s Syndrome is the social impairment. In other words, we don’t make friends easily. Social impairment is part of the diagnostic criteria.

Sympathy is more important than empathy, at least based on most definitions. And most autistic students and adults I’ve met have a surplus of sympathy. In fact, many seem to suffer from overwhelming sensitivity and sympathy for the situations of others. Personally, I am extremely sensitive to the suffering of animals and children. Can I empathize? Not always, but I feel horrible when I see anyone or anything suffering.

The social skill that I lack is the ability to communicate that sympathy effectively. At least in some instances.

Some of the research I find interesting:

UMass Researcher Finds Link Between Lying And Popularity.
University Of Massachusetts At Amherst (1999, December 14).

“We found that convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally,” said Feldman.

Why are Narcissists (Initially) so Popular?
Breaking down the popularity of the narcissist
Published on January 22, 2010 by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in Beautiful Minds

Paulhus (1998) found that after the first meeting, narcissists were rated as more agreeable, conscientious, open, competence, entertaining, and well adjusted by the other members of the group. What a contrast to what the group members thought of the very same narcissistic individuals on the seventh day!

Narcissism and emergent leadership in military cadets
Sampo V. Paunonen, et al
The Leadership Quarterly
Volume 17, Issue 5, October 2006, Pages 475-486

The best rated leaders exemplified the bright side of narcissism while suppressing the dark side — emergent leaders were measured to be high in egotism and self-esteem but low in manipulativeness and impression management.

I’m not claiming empathy isn’t important. I’m suggesting we should focus on sympathy and helping people learn to communicate sympathy effectively.

About the Author: C.S. Wyatt is a freelance writer and editor, and a professor of English and Communication Studies at a private university. He holds a doctorate in Rhetoric, Scientific and Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota, and specializes in the fields of new media, online education, and special needs students. He was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as an adult. Social Success, Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism first appeared on his blog, The Autistic Me, and is reprinted here by permission.



2 thoughts on “Social Success, Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism

  1. Jess says:

    I find that I tend to spring into action when something bad/tragic happens. I am not the one to say oh poor you. I want to do something. Now. That is how I help out.
    I had a job where I encountered people that had been struck by illness and/or severe disability. My work was to determine whether there could be some financial compensation. I was great at it but only later did I understand why I eventually burned myself out. I was empathising ALOT. I couldn’t always “allow” financial compensation due to rules etc., when I really wanted to.
    My autism-diagnosis (asperger) came when I was beyond 30. I didn’t expect the diagnosis but I welcomed it all the same. And stared down at my own sad pre-conceived notion that aspergians/autistics don’t share or display empathy.

  2. Let me see if I have this right.

    If you show empathy, you are a sociopath. If you don’t, you’re autistic?

    If you lie to people, you are socially acceptible. If you don’t, you are a social pariah.

    Empathy is a precursor to ability to control people, and good. Sympathy is for losers.

    Wow, no wonder we’re considered messed up.

    We’re honest, non-manipulative and sympathetic. Do you suppose there is a drug to cure that?

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