Empaths and Sociopaths

This used to be a staple scene in action films, as I’m sure you know — a scary thing happens, and the woman the hero is in love with screams and freezes in helpless terror. Then the hero, cool as scotch on the rocks, steps in and vanquishes the scary thing and saves her. On to the kissing scene.

Many years ago I read a behavioral study that said, if anything, women are slightly less likely to panic and freeze in the face of danger than men are. And when you consider that men are something like ten times more likely to commit homicides than women — murder most often is an act of rage, I believe — you might suspect that men are at the mercy of their emotions at least as much as women.

But we can’t have hysterical men and brave, cool women in films because it doesn’t take us to the kissing scene nearly as easily, does it?

Also many years ago, I realized that when a man said his views were “logical” and mine were “emotional,” the word logical (used in context) meant “what I want,” or “what I believe,” with the underlying assumption that the wants and beliefs of a man are the correct, standard or default, wants and beliefs, and those of a woman are controversial, subjective and/or alternative. This was true regardless of the merits of the man’s position. The want or belief became “logical” by virtue of maleness. “Logic” was something like a trump card played by a man against a woman whenever he couldn’t think of a better argument.

I don’t see the male/female, logical/emotional dichotomy publicly expressed nearly as much as I used to, and younger women may not have run into it as much as I did. But it hasn’t entirely gone away, has it?

This correlates to the idea that whites favoring other whites is not ethnic bias, because whiteness is a default norm; what Publius calls the “invisible baseline” fallacy. In this view, bias occurs only when one deviates from the default norm.

Since the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, many arguments for and against her have turned on the question of whether a judge should have “empathy.” Yes, say some, because it helps her see how her decisions affect real people in the real world. No, say others, empathy and emotion are biases that blur the cold logic of the law.

But I say that if you step away and look at the question a little more broadly, the truth is that the decisions of every judge who doesn’t happen to be an out-and-out sociopath are being shaped by empathy. The distinction is, to whom is the judge feeling empathetic?

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them.

This week Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the difference between how liberals and conservatives relate to the world, and how much of these differences emanate from our prefrontal cortex, which “has more to do with moralizing than with rationality.” Our “logical” thoughts actually begin with the “moral” impulses. “It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support.”

Human brains seem to be wired in a way that makes us want to join tribes and be part of an “us” that stands against an “other.” But if we get to know an “other” personally, they seem less strange and foreign and may cease to be an “other.”

“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”

Thus persuasion may be most effective when built on human interactions. Gay rights were probably advanced largely by the public’s growing awareness of friends and family members who were gay.

Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games. When John Yoo wrote memos that rationalized torture, he was not being “logical.” He was playing a social game and empathizing with his tribe. When John Roberts makes decisions that are blatantly biased in favor of corporations over individuals, he is playing a social game and empathizing with his tribe.

You see the picture — to some people, empathy is only “empathy” when it’s being shown to people who are not the default norm, or the invisible baseline, or whatever you want to call it. Otherwise, it’s “logical.”

I know my fingers may fall off as I keyboard this, but in his column today David Brooks has a pretty decent description of how the “logical” decision-making process really works. Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not.

So it is that two different and equally intelligent people may look at the same set of facts in a case and apply the same set of laws and come to different conclusions. They are working from different internal models of what the world is supposed to be. From this their judgments about which facts in the case are critical and which are not may be entirely different.

Brooks asks if Sotomayor is able to understand her biases as biases. This I cannot know. I’d like to think that people who have been the victims of bias are more capable of recognizing their own biases, but in my experience that is often not so. However, I do think that people with a healthy appreciation for empathy may also have more appreciation for the genuine messiness of human decision making than those who — foolishly — see themselves as “logical.”

Going back to the hysterical women and cool-headed men in films, and how that is so not like the real world — my observation is that women may tend to be better at processing emotions than men. That is, when a woman is frightened, she is less surprised — caught off guard, if you will — at being frightened than a man might be.

This is a gross generalization that cannot be applied to individuals; lots of men process emotions more skillfully than lots of women. However, I think there is a tendency for men to be less accepting of and intimate with their own emotions, and this may be as much nurture as nature; cultural rather than physiological.

What’s critical about emotions is not whether you have them, but whether you let them jerk you around and make you act in ways that are not in your best interests. And by any objective measure I’d say men self-destruct at least as much as women do. Logical, my ass.

22 thoughts on “Empaths and Sociopaths

  1. But I say that if you step away and look at the question a little more broadly, the truth is that the decisions of every judge who doesn’t happen to be an out-and-out sociopath are being shaped by empathy. The distinction is, to whom is the judge feeling empathetic?


    This idea that cold sterile application of the law shouldn’t, couldn’t or is unable to leave any unanswered questions on some plane or realm devoid of precedence to which a judge would have to rely on a sense of humanity, kindness and empathy is ridiculous. Yet the rightees do seem to be sticking to this fallacy don’t they.

    I’ve always thought that at the end of any honest debate, once all was said and all issues laid bare, that what remained were values. Certainly this “”logic=what-I-want” happens and is a good analogy. Quite often some try to obscure this with legalisms, code words, and flatulently hollow erudite theory that leaves those with basic values and common sense stammering. So does this talk of precedence and even constitutional originalism when based upon some narrow interpretation of founding fathers intent and the will to debate it ad infinitum.

    And conservatives, at least the clever, educated ones, consistently use this charade along with a host of other devices to avoid having the light shined on their decrepit, selfish values which somehow manage to never suit the rest of us very well. As for the other conservatives, the not-so-erudite wankers whose reasoning ends with the code words they speak…well those Fox-watchers are left just to mimic and parrot the lines they’ve been given but can hardly understand themselves.

    So yeah, good analogies. Quite simply, the underlying values give rise to the rationale which is merely the device, not sent from God nor cast in stone. The only thing left to do is to take their words and go past the encodings and doublespeak (“judicial activism” and “legislating from the bench”) to lay their values bare…out on the table for all to see.

    When that is done they don’t stand a chance and more of their mindless repetitive drones will fade into obscurity.

  2. Actually, in reality, men are far more emotional than women. Prisons are filled with far more men than women who have commited violent acts. If you’ve ever been the victim of road rage, it’s usually a man holding a gun to your face. There are no shelters built for men escaping the abuse of their abusive partners. And the biggest piece of evidence that indicts men as being way more emotional than men, that still after thousands and thousands of years, there is still war. I’m sure some will say, well, that’s not emotional, that’s violence. But violence is an emotion. So women are more emotional because they cry at movies. Crying at movies never gto anyone killed.

  3. afterthought…

    I’m also getting really sick of the false either/or which I have heard on 4 news shows in the last two days:

    Would you rather have a SCOTUS nominee of a minority who would make for a diverse court or a highly qualified jurist?

    Why can’t Tweety and others just shut up and think, however briefly. I give them a timeout by turning them off but I hardly think they use that time for any deep or serious thought.

    This kind of cluelessness to shades of gray only sets up the conservative path of fallacy down which they lead the non-thinking….IF she is a minority THEN she must not be brilliant.

    This transparent “what-I-want speak” which you so deftly expose is still the predominant framing as evidenced in the language used by even those in media who seem to be trying to break free of it but who are challenged to come up with anything resembling independent thinking.

    Conjunction in the hands of dyslexics or the cognitively challenged can be quite dangerous and even used by manipulative shapers of public opinion. Add the piping in of “She is not brilliant” and other supporting untruths, as answers to the conjunction’s antecedent, amply amplified by the media add up to a formidable destructiveness that can be difficult to neutralize given the totality and breadth of corporate media which can blancket and smother more enlightened and rational discourse.

  4. Pal Ashford — I don’t entirely buy the argument that men are more emotional because they are more violent. I think men are more likely to act out their unprocessed emotions through violence, because they can. Women are destructive, and self-destruct, in ways that are more subtle and insidious, in part because violence is less of an option for us.

    Just consider that men and women tend to commit suicide in different ways. Men are more likely to pick guns and blow their heads off. Women are more likely to poison themselves, slit their wrists or inhale exhaust fumes. Women are more likely than men to injure themselves in a suicide attempt, but men are far more likely to successfully kill themselves.

  5. I have found in my experience in dealing with both sexes, that men tend more often than women to be emotional than women by a greater degree. That has been my experience. Women are far more likely to try and cope on more equitablyon a social and family level than men. Sure there are always exceptions. Perhaps because men have a sense of entitlement that is built into our culture allows them to assert these emotions, I am not convinced that if women were put in positions of power they would do the same. In fact, some studies have shown women who are in powerful business positions have eschewed the hierarchy positions and ask for feedback far more often than men. Men have accused women of not showing leadership abilities by doing this, others claim, businesses are far more productive when there’s more participation which I think is a hallmark of women’s disposition.

  6. Pal Ashford, the violence arises from the hormone testosterone. I thought that was thoroughly understood by now. Of course, you can argue that emotions in general are a manifestation of the hormones in our brains and bodies, and look at the male/female emotional question in a purely mechanistic way. But when your example is male anger and violence, it only proves that men have more testosterone than women.

  7. Joan and Pal: Yes, the catch is that “emotion” is a lot more than “violence.” Women are more likely than men to have crippling depressions or eating disorders; men are more likely than women to get into bar fights. Men and women cope with their emotions in different ways. You might be able to argue that men are more outwardly destructive and women are more self-destructive — I’d have to see some data first — and certainly testosterone or lack thereof is a big factor.

  8. In films, hysterical men are wusses and brave, cool women the villains, or at least up to momentary no-good. But even in films, there are exceptions. I can’t think of many situations where the male protagonist is hysterical and the female calm and thoughtful, but maybe a Woody Allen film or two?:)

  9. I think the stereo type for women in pop culture has definitely shifted. You still have the occasional helpless female… but there are a lot more strong women in the vein of Lara Croft and Kim Possible.

  10. Tito — yes, I’d say the stereotype has changed a lot. Strong, butt-kicking women are a regular film and television genre now.

  11. Kristoff was indirectly referring to a paper in Science which discussed the underlying basis of left wing and right wing morality. I blogged about it at Daily Kos two years ago. The thrust was the conservatives develop morality based on respect for authority and disgust at impurity while liberals develop morality based on avoiding harm and being fair. Unfortunately for liberals it is much easier to argue about which slice of pie is bigger than whether spiders are icky. Arguments about fairness and harm admit objective data and are subject to argument. Arguments about authority and things that make one’s skin crawl are not.

  12. Also, whether hormonal, environmental or otherwise (the 2 Xs?), she’s more intuitive, perceptive, and resilient than he – in general, of course.

    Love the terms “default norm” and “invisible baseline.” As perfect a description as the language allows.

  13. When right-wing conservative commentators criticize empathy, it’s hard not to notice who’s doing the talking. We’re talking about John Dean’s “conservatives without conscience.” Sociopath is a good reference term for locating some of these characters. A key feature of sociopaths whether they wind up in jail or in positions of power is that they have little or no empathy for others. In fact, many sociopaths find pleasure in harming others. (It’s hard to make such a point without suspecting some of those involved in torture, whether at the policy or operational level.) Unlike many people caught up in the emotions of the moment who commit violence, sociopaths have no remorse (think of Dick Cheney and how it was his friend who was obliged to apologize for being shot; maybe Cheney isn’t truly a sociopath but he certainly is a strange man).

    But the term “sociopath” isn’t as useful as another term: authoritarian social dominator. Not all dominators are sociopaths (and only a certain percentage of sociopaths are effective dominators). But the point about dominators in politics and religion is that they’re good at leading authoritarian followers: the Republican ‘base’ that everyone talks about.

    What worries me is that many progressives, not necessarily here, have trouble distinguishing between followers and dominators. Within their group, followers can often have just as much empathy and compassion as anyone else. What dominators do is make sure there is as little sympathy or compassion outside the group as possible. Demonization, scape-goating and accentuating differences are the tools of the dominators. Left to themselves, and handled by decent leaders, authoritarian followers can have empathy for those outside their group, particularly if similarities are emphasized.

    There’s a further problem. It’s obvious that the hardcore authoritarian followers are easy to crank up. It’s doesn’t take much rhetoric to do the stirring. Sarah Palin showed how easy it is. But the smart dominators, Karl Rove is particularly smart in this area, know how to stir up the authoritarian dynamic in groups outside the hardcore, particularly if there’s some truly external group such as scary and poorly defined Middle Eastern terrorists. Fortunately, Barack Obama seems to have figured out how to crank down some of the authoritarian dynamic. Right-wing Republicans, mainly the usual suspects among the dominators, are desperately hoping they can find something that will crank the dynamic back up.

    As for the cold logic of the law, a lot of old laws that appeal to conservative sensibilities, at least of the hardcore right, are indeed cold and logical. They are the laws of warriors and usurpers who fear other warriors and usurpers and also peasant uprisings. That’s a logic that has little to do with democracy or the modern era. But it’s consistent with the kind of people who currently dominate the Republican Party and fantasize about their importance and warriorness.

  14. joanr16: I have to disagree that men are violent because of testosterone. If that were true, all men would be acting out all the time and that simply isn’t true. Testosterone may give them the urge to be active and also to have a higher sex drive but it does not equate with violence. So to draw the conclusion that you have done is “highly illogical” as Spock would say.

    I once knew of a doctor who gave his wife testosterone shots because he wanted her to have a higher sex drive. I guess it worked and as far as I know she didn’t become more violent.

    Emotions and violence are learned. In this society, it is acceptable for men to give vent to their anger and unacceptable for women. They usually get labeled a bitch if they do.

  15. Maha, the most important lines of poetry I knew at age 14, and still meaningful:

    “I am a part of all that I have met,
    and all experience is an arch wherethrough
    gleams that untravelled world whose margins
    fade forever and forever when I move.”
    Tennyson, ULYSSES

    Anybody who is not aware that everything has background is not very aware. Brooks wrote a good column today. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

  16. Malcom Gladwell talks about some of this in Blink. We are far less in control of our “logic” than we think we are, and those who are most certain of their logic are often the farthest in error.

    I think that this explains a lot of the difference between liberals and conservatives. We are not certain. We challenge each other and ourselves to get better. The Conservative, particularly the Neo- variety, has no need for that. Internal consistency or even an attempt at matching the world is not needed because at that moment everything is right in the internal monologue.

    I saw a criticism of Sotomayor that she was overturned by the SCOTUS many times. It turns out, per Times fact checking (IIRC), that she was upheld twice and overturned three times, with only one of those having no support (the others were 5-4 and 6-3). As I see it, this makes her a more qualified judge than Clarence Thomas or Samual Alito, who are so often on the dissenting side.

  17. And I am telling you that six out of nine supreme court justices who are probig business, pro life, pro government, pro death peanalty, pro insane drug laws and anti democratic, anti union and superstitious catholic lawyers are really not going to do anything for the united states.

    I really don’t think she brings anything worthwhile to the table.

  18. Adam Liptak of the NYTimes in The Waves Minority Judges Always Make makes several good observations on the impact of those not squarely within the good-ole-boy’s-club demographics have on the court. He also observes exceptions, among them Justice Thomas.

    Quite simply it is difficult, even for supposed conservative appointed SCOTUS judges (impartial legal technicians all if you listen to conservatives) to recognize the rights of those from groups which whom they’ve never rubbed elbows. They are limited by their experience. Empathy for their “tribe” is an excellent description.

    Accoding to Liptak the mere presence of Thurgood Marshall had a profound effect on how conservative justices voted on racial issues. Empirical research shows that despite ideological differences Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor tended to vote as a bloc on gender-related issues in stark contrast to O’Connor’s assertion that “wise old men and wse old women reach the same conclusions.

    So where did all the hate go from America’s racist yesteryears? While on the surface we might have seemed to evolve as a society one has to wonder whether some individuals resist being dragged, kicking and screaming, along the high road.

    Aren’t these the ones who claim that an outstanding minority nominee is being selected only on account or race? Their flimsy arguments seem to belie their deep sense that the empirical evidence is no secret, even to them.

    The projection and hypocrisy inherent in conservative pleas to “leave race out of it” while simultaneously calling attention to race and failing to focus on record should raise a few eyebrows.

    More and more we find that people of all races can be profoundly affected by a host of issues common to all. Judgments on corporate liability might even have greater impact on our lives than all the wedge issues stacked end on end. We might still come out ahead in that regard with individuals who have felt the sting of discrimination…of basic rights trampled by a prevailing majority.

  19. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff offers a nice complement to this post with one of his own titled Empathy, Sotomayor, and Democracy: The Conservative Stealth Strategy at Huffpo.

    He asserts that progressives are falling into the trap that involves re-definition of the word empathy and describes how this progressive reaction only lends support to this re-definition. He describes the conservative attempts to define a new form of empathy that has nothing to do with justice:

    Empathy is a matter personal feelings. Personal feelings should not be the basis of a judicial decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, “justice is not about empathy.” Reframe the word “empathy” and it not only disqualifies Sotomayor; it delegitimizes Obama’s central moral principle, his approach to government, his understanding of the nature of our democracy, and progressive politics in general.

    In describing his ideal Supreme Court justice, President Obama cited empathy as a major desideratum. Why? Because that is what our democracy is about. A justice has to take empathy into account because his or her decisions will affect the lives of others. Before making a decision you have to put yourself in the shoes of those whom your decision will affect. Similarly, in judging causation, fairness requires that social causes as well as individual causes be taken into account. Empathy forces you to notice what is crucial in so many Supreme Court cases: systemic and social causes and who a decision can harm. As such, empathy correctly understood is crucial to judgment. A judge without empathy is a judge unfit for a democracy.

    In particular, Lakoff cites Ed Schultz as one who by his arguments denying Sotomayor racism he is calling attention to accusations from the right by arguing within the “frame” that conservatives are attempting to use to control the context of the discussion. Anytime one argues against premises or accusations made within a frame that person acknowledges the frame. He even recommends what he considers to be a more effective response by progressives.

    Good read….let’s not let them re-define empathy. Once they are done with the word it will be synonymous with “weak and unfair.” Empathy is at the heart of justice itself.

  20. OK, two more then I stop. While I agree that it is a particular though not exclusively male affliction to invent the logic to support their emotions, in the end…after shining the light on this we are left with the need to deal with the damage from a few specific men just as we are a bad president, specific members of congress, specific media outlets and specific wingnuts.

    So Time adequately debunks the most blatant fallacy in the current raft of right-wing talking points so freely amplified by corporate media in Myth #4 in a Time piece by Ed Lazarus titled Four Enduring Myths About the Supreme Court. No wonder the myths endure and stand a chance at becoming accepted fact with all the media help they’ve been getting lately.

    A NYTimes editorial also sums the entire matter up very nicely in an editorial titled Judging Sonia Sotomayor.

  21. sorry I was referring to Myth #3 — that the Supreme Court Justices are merely umpires. As the talking point goes, the judgments of conservative justices abide by the precednet (let’s insert “as they see it” after that, ok?) or even reject precedent in the name of some cockamamie interpretation of the intent of the founding fathers… and that those of the liberal justices are “judicial activism” when they do the same.

  22. [Deleted because the commenter has the reading comprehension skills of a gnat. — maha]

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