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This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with feelings, experiences or sensations of other (the empathee). Surely, infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, result of conditioning.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves object-independent nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects. It is communicated to empathee-other by empathor but communication and resulting agreement ("I know how you feel therefore we agree on how you feel") is rendered meaningless by absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.
"An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased subjects' inclination to sympathize or provide help.
Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people - SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children."
If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good luck, for instance) - then it has little to do with its objects and a lot to do with person in whom it is provoked.
ADDENDUM - Interview granted to National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003
Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?
A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy - for instance in Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders - predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.
But existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.
Q. How is empathy developed?
A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with pain - or happiness - of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware infant is of his or her emotional states, more he explores his limitations and capabilities - more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of process of socialization.
But, as American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.
Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?
A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, closely-knit extended clan, village, neighborhood, Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value of empathy is on decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse - than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from contemporary curriculum of socialization.
In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of social fabric.
Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?
Empathy cannot be measured directly - but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate effects of deterrence from effects of empathy. If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal - is it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail? Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration - as well as ageing of population - have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across United States in last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy. The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that last century has been most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on rise, charity giving on wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In last two decades, mental health disorders were added to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and media.
Empathy - supposedly a spontaneous reaction to plight of our fellow humans - is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com