I’ve blogged about the nature of humanity repeatedly in this blog, most recently in The fabulous Fake-o-meter™ (regarding our unique lie-detector capabilities) and previously in The core of creativity and Sexy monkey. Continuing on this subject, I’ve now come to compassion and empathy.
In the past I’ve touched on what traits make us unique – what makes us different from other animal - and come to the conclusion that we don’t really have any unique traits as such, but rather a unique combination of traits developed far beyond that of other animals. Compassion is one of those traits. We’re not alone in displaying compassion; elephants do it, for instance, as do most apes. We do however possess the ability to show compassion and empathy far beyond the norm.
As mentioned in my previous post, due to our need to detect lies we developed a theory of mind which gave us the ability to understand what other creatures are thinking and experiencing. So, is our compassion just a side effect of us being able to read each others minds? No, not really. It’s a prerequisite, for sure, but we can still understand each other without necessarily feel for them. That kind of detachment is frowned upon however, and in extreme cases even grounds to declare someone technically insane*.
As a rule, though, humans tend to feel for other beings; not seldom to the degree where they anthropomorphise animals and objects and bestow them human emotions and thoughts. We read in our own experiences into the behaviour of pets and wild animals alike, and get angry at machinery for being obstinate.
Our well-developed theory of mind has a dangerous side effect however. With our eerie ability of mind reading we not only become able to empathise with others, we also become able to predict their moves and strategies, making us incredibly dangerous as enemies. So when we do go bad, we become all but invincible.
We’ve all seen films and television shows where a psychopath is out to get some innocent people. They are usually exaggerated for effect, and usually end with the psycho-killer getting killed - not once but twice (after the obligatory ‘return from the dead’). The reality is somewhat different.
Less than a year ago I was working as usual, with TweetDeck tracking the twitter feed in the background. Suddenly odd statements of some kind of terror attack in Norway started showing up. A bomb had gone off in Oslo, destroying parts of the government buildings. A little later, people started tweeting about someone shooting people on Utøya, northwest of Oslo.
Although shocked, I didn’t fully understand the extent of the attack until later. For more than 90 minutes, the perpetrator Anders Breivik, carrying assault rifles, had been walking the small island, shooting hundreds of people and leaving 69 people dead. After the massacre, survivors testified of Breivik’s apparent lack of compassion and empathy as he calmly executed adults and children alike. He did however, for reasons yet unknown, spare two of the people who begged for their lives.
As the police arrived on the scene and arrested Breivik, they also mistakenly arrested one of the victims: 17-year-old Anzor Djoukaev. The reason seems to have been that Anzor didn’t show the same level of hysteria as the other victims, due to him having witnessed mass murders as a child in his native Chechnya. The apparent lack of empathy was seen as grounds for his arrest as he was viewed as a possible accomplice.
The burning question in the current court case against Breivik is if he is criminally insane or if he should be tried as a sane person. Is the inhuman behaviours shown by him on Utøya signs of psychopathy? Or is it possible for sane people to be that cruel and heartless? I don’t know the answer regarding Breivik, but I fear that even a sane person might be capable of horrendous actions like this. Our brains have a cold logic to them that, if left unchecked, could justify almost any act. It would require us to supress our compassion, however, and I don’t know how easy it would be to get it back. Perhaps it’s lost for good?
The underdog syndrome
Luckily, for the most part we do remain empathic. We identify with each other and want to help, especially people who are exposed or vulnerable in some way. We almost always root for the underdog, the disadvantaged, the outsider.
Why do we do this? What could possibly be the point in supporting the losing team? Surely that is guaranteed to result in our own political suicide? Well, yes. There’s a price to pay: the powers that be won’t appreciate that the outcasts get support, and might well end up penalising you for doing so. Nevertheless, it’s like we are compelled to do it. And if we don’t, we’re hit with a bad conscience and “If only”-thoughts.
I believe the reason for this apparently counter-logical behaviour is our compassion, our ability to feel what others feel. This is more than just understanding what others might feel; it is actually feeling what they feel. It hurts us, literally, to watch someone else suffer. We seem to possess an emotional feedback mechanism that mimics the emotions we see in others**. This gives us an emotional bond with other people, something that promotes cooperation and group health by lending a helping hand to the less fortunate in order to bring them back on their feet.
A recent example of this would be the viral video of Karen Klein, a bus monitor in New York. Karen was filmed being bullied by a group of boys, where they called her names and claimed that her family had all killed themselves because they didn’t want to be near her (incidentally, her son had taken his own life some years prior). The video went viral and Karen ended up receiving a huge amount of money in the form of donations from countless strangers who strongly identified and empathised with her.
The down-side of being an empathic ape is that it can be quite painful at times. I’m a bit on the over-empathic side, so any horrible story I hear or awful picture or footage I watch is etched into my memory for good. After that, my mind will relentlessly repeat the same story over and over again. My only defense is to either avoid hearing about horrible things in the first place or to somehow distance myself emotionally.
Interestingly, it is now believed this is what could be the cause of the apparent lack of empathy in people with autism spectrum disorder. The emotional feedback might become too painful, resulting in the construction of an internal shield-mechanism in order to shut out the pain. They suppress the result of being empathic rather than lacking the ability to empathise.
Ok, this has turned out to be quite a long post (sorry about that), but I do have a point to make: we are compassionate, empathic creatures. Not all of us perhaps (and not from birth certainly!), but most of us. This often leads us to do extraordinary things, heroic things and self-sacrificing things no other animals have been known to do. You could call that stupid or pointless, but in my view it’s more profound than that: it’s what makes us truly human.
* One of the main symptoms of a psychopathy is the highly developed skill in reading other people paired with a complete lack of empathy.
** We do in fact possess so-called mirror neurons that fire not only when we experience something ourselves, but also when we watch someone else experience a similar situation.