Barack Obama:

“I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Yes, Barack Obama said that in a speech he gave on August 11, 2006 (whether he wrote those words or not I cannot say). He was speaking about the federal deficit (yes, hard to believe that the federal deficit was considered an issue back in 2006, especially since Republicans in Congress routinely voted for bigger deficits to fund the defense budget and supplemental bills to cover the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), but chose to remind his audience that a more important deficit exists in our society: the ability to understand and feel the suffering of others.

As we know, in our country we have a significant portion of our population, mainly tea party adherents, fundamentalist Christians and the well-off, that lacks empathy for the plight of others. It would be easy to claim that these people have no ability for empathy, sympathy or any fellow feeling for anyone but themselves. I don’t believe that to be the case however. Let me explain.

We know from scientific studies over many decades that human beings have hardwired predispositions (if I may call them that) for what social scientists call pro-social behavior. Very few individuals do not have the ability to understand or at least feel sympathy for the pain and sorrows of others.

Empathy is considered to be a foundation of human social experience. It allows us to understand others’ feelings, even when they are different from our own, and facilitates prosocial interaction. In fact, decades of social psychological research on empathy has emphasized empathy’s role as a catalyst for prosocial behavior. […]

Behavioral research has suggested that empathy includes two primary components … (1) an affective component that involves sharing the emotional experiences of others, and (2) a cognitive component that involves thinking about and understanding the mental states of others.

So why do so many Americans seemingly lack the ability to relate to the suffering of others, whether that be the result of legal and societal discrimination or economic hardship. It would be easy to say that all of these individuals are sociopaths (the one group of human beings that has no fellow feeling whatsoever for others) but we know that statistically, sociopaths represent a tiny fraction of our entire population.

Some researchers say about one percent of the general population are sociopaths. Others put the figure at three or four percent. The reason the estimates vary is first of all, not everyone has been tested, of course, but also because sociopathy is a sliding scale. A person can be very sociopathic or only slightly, and anywhere in between. It’s a continuum.

So, if altruism, compassion, empathy or “pro-social behavior” is the default position for most human beings, i.e., if the vast majority of people have the capacity for love, for compassion, for acts of kindness toward others, why are we witnessing in our country today a large number of individuals who hold others in contempt, who contend that they are victimized by other people and who vehemently defend policies that are destructive to their own self interests because they perceive that those policies only benefit “others” (however others may be defined)? The answer is that empathy is not a cognitive and emotional process that most people universally apply to everyone they encounter in life.

The best way for me to explain why our natural inclination for empathy is often stunted or subverted is to relate a now famous experiment by the Italian cognitive neuroscientist, Alessio Avenanti, known unofficially as The Purple Hand Experiment.


In this experiment, Avenanti selected two groups of volunteers. One was a group of white Italians and the other was a group of Italians of African descent. Each volunteer watched videos of an anonymous hand that was being pierced by needle. In one instance the hand was of a white person. In other case the hand appeared brown (i.e., the hand of someone from Africa or of African descent) and in the third video the hand was neither white or brown. Instead it appeared purple.

The volunteers were not asked to comment on what they watched because Avenanti was not looking for a subjective response from his experimental subjects. People can lie after all about their emotional responses as I am sure you are well aware. Avenanti knew, based on prior experiments, that the brain of a person watching a video of a hand being pierced by a needle will simulate the pain being observed by exciting neurons in that person’s own hand. So, what he did was attach electrodes to each volunteer’s hand to measure the sensitivity of those neurons, i.e., to see how excited they became while watching the three different hands being pierced. Those measurements would provide an objective measure of the empathic response experienced by the volunteers. Here are his experimental results as described in Discover Magazine:

[Avenanti] found the hallmarks of an empathic response only when the hands in the videos were prodded by a needle rather than a blunt piece of plastic, and only when he took measurements at the same part of the hand. But most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

It would be easy to assume based on those results that empathy for another’s pain is limited to individuals with whom we identify, or that racial prejudice makes us immune to feeling empathy for others unlike ourselves. But the experiment did not just involve white and brown hands. There was another hand that the volunteers watched suffer in pain, the purple hand. So, what did Avenanti’s volunteers, white and black experience when the witnessed the purple hand being pierced by a needle?

He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone.

The purple-hand experiment is a vital part of Avenanti’s study. Other scientists have suggested that people are less responsive to the pain of other ethnic groups, simply because their skin tones are less familiar and harder to identify with. But what could be more unfamiliar and less identifiable than a violet hand? It’s strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases. […]

[O]ther studies have found that racial prejudices can make us dehumanise members of a different ethnic group. But more promisingly, Avenanti’s experiments suggest that things don’t have to be this way. Our default reaction, freed from the shackles of prejudice, is empathy with our fellow people, even if they do have freaky violet hands.

So, what does the purple hand experiment tell us about the current state of American culture and politics? First it suggests that though our prejudices can disable our ability to empathize with others who are different from us, it doesn’t have to be that way. Our natural impulse is towards empathy. In have no doubt that if purple skin was identified with a particular racial group, and that both white and blacks felt prejudice toward people with purple hands, than Avenanti’s experiment would have shown that neither blacks nor whites would have experienced a empathy for purple handed people in pain.

Indeed, isn’t that the case with prejudices that cross racial boundaries? What if Jews or homosexuals all had a distinguishing characteristic that made them immediately identifiable, such as a purple hand? Indeed, the Nazi’s specifically forced Jews and Homosexuals to wear an identifying mark (for Jews a yellow star of David, for homosexuals a pink triangle) to distinguish them from the general population of Germans. They knew that such specific labels were necessary to counter the natural default reaction of empathy Germans might feel toward individuals being persecuted. Unlike Africans, skin tone or other so-called identifiable physical characteristics were not available to distinguish Jews and homosexuals in German society. In order to trigger the prejudices against these groups that Nazi propaganda had exacerbated, the Nazis were forced to use these symbols.

I would argue that what we are witnessing in America today is not an empathy gap, but an information or propaganda gap. Indeed, it has been the standard operating procedure of the conservative movement, the conservative media and the Republican party for many, many years to push a divisive and demonizing message that portrays ethnic and racial minorities, LGBT individuals, non-Christian religious communities (particularly Muslims), atheists, scientists and liberals as different, utterly alien and in many cases even less than human. These messages are filled hate that we’ve often seen expressed with violent rhetoric and imagery.

In short, the conservative movement and their allies have made a conscious and concerted effort to accentuate our differences, whether religious, racial, ethnic, cultural or political to ramp up the level of prejudice in our society and to prevent groups that should be natural allies on may issues from combining to defeat the conservative business agenda.

In many ways, the founders of the conservative movement have succeeded beyond all their expectations in dividing us one from another. They have created a culture in which both left and right attack each other based on a biased and stereotypical view of our “adversaries” whether those on our “own side” or those on the other. You can see that in the debates here on the debt ceiling negotiations, but you can also see it on the right as well, who are in many cases equally as fractured. We have become a nation so chopped. sliced, diced and separated one from another that our obsessions with our differences overcome any effort to find understanding and common ground.

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy answer to overcoming the divisions in our culture and returning our country to a more enlightened and progressive path. However, I believe strongly that an appeal to empathy has to play a prominent role in any effort to reverse the toxic tide of hatred, prejudice and divisiveness in our culture that plays into the hands of those who have used their wealth and political power to manipulate the majority of Americans into fighting each other while these billionaires destroy the “general welfare” of most Americans for their own benefit and in support of their own selfish purposes.

I say that because I recognize that facts will never be enough to change the minds of those whose minds are made up. You can look at almost any “controversial issue” in America today and with few exceptions the facts are heavily loaded on the side of the progressives. Climate change is perhaps the best example I can give though I know there are others that would suit just as well. How did it reach the point that relatively lowly paid climate scientists are perceived as being part of a conspiracy to destroy the American economy or waste precious tax dollars when the evidence of global warming and the climatic changes that are affecting our world so perniciously is so overwhelming? Because facts themselves are not enough to overcome an ingrained prejudice or bias. All the factual arguments we can make with respect to this issue or the issues of health care, financial reform, consumer protection, government regulations, etc. falls on deaf ears for that reason.

I do not expect that our prejudices and biases can be easily swept away merely because so many people are suffering economic hardship. What I do believe however is that we can still make use of the latent empathy among even those who disagree with us politically on many issues to come to adopt progressive positions. The way to do this is through the telling, re-telling and promoting stories of suffering and hardship caused by conservative policies.

Empathy requires two things: understanding and an emotional connection. If you think about it, which diaries here typically attract the most recommendations? Those that speak to us on a personal level with a tale by an individual in distress whose pain and sorrow resonates with us. You know this to be true. To paraphrase Stalin: One person’s suffering is a tragedy. The suffering of millions is a statistic. We have more than enough statistics, facts and numbers that support progressive policies and look at how far that has gotten us. Yet whenever one person’s story of pain or suffering gathers national attention people are moved to respond because of the emotional connection they make with that individual.

The right has built their political strength on a foundation of fear, hatred, prejudice and lies. You don’t have to be genius or a prophet to predict the end result for this nation if we continue down that path. Nations and peoples have lost their freedom, their economic security, many lives and even their collective souls whenever those who promote hatred, the demonization of others and “Big Lies” succeed in capturing political power.

The progressive movement, if it is to effectively counter the past five decades during which the conservatives suborned our political discourse, must rely ion a different infrastructure, one based on facts and truth, yes, but also on individual appeals to the emotions of the people we are attempting to reach. The right has relied on the emotions of fear and anger, but we must, I believe rely on evoking the emotions of empathy and fellow feeling for one another. As our country’s economic prospects worsen, as I believe they will, given the current political climate that tolerates and enables corruption and the influence of what FDR called “economic royalists,” we must discover the means to reach out to those who suffer hardship, or who fear to lose what little they have managed to make of their lives, with individual narratives to which they can connect. Furthermore, those narratives must support a progressive message that cooperation, government regulation of the markets and economic justice are the best ways to make the lives of all Americans better.

Our message must appeal beyond the traditional strongholds of progressive movements in the past: the working poor, minorities, the destitute, labor unions, etc. Even people making “six figures” fear losing their perilous economic security in these times. I know of many individuals themselves who have lost well paying jobs, health insurance for their families and their homes due to layoffs. We seen countless stories here at this blog of people who have suffered radical economic reverses overnight. These are stories that often pass below the national media’s radar, but we all know the strong emotional appeal they have for those who learn of them.

I cannot tell you how we can get our message out to a wider audience, a message of truth but also one which appeals to the emotional base of empathy that resides within the majority of our nation’s citizens. I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to suggest how we could create the infrastructure necessary to sustain a progressive movement that can turn the tide against the dominant and radical conservative ideology that permeates our era’s culture, media and politics.

I do know this, however. If ever we are to succeed in creating a “purple hand” society in which we truly feel that everyone deserves to have their basic human needs met, we must find a way to promote, evoke and advance those empathic, compassionate and altruistic emotions that are hardwired into the genetic code of our species.

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