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How Universal Is Empathy?

Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands (1918 – source). Pro-social behavior seems to be a human universal, but is the same true for full empathy?

What is empathy? It has at least three components:

– pro-social behavior, i.e., actions of compassion to help others

– cognitive empathy, i.e., capacity to understand another person’s mental state

– affective or emotional empathy, i.e., capacity to respond with the appropriate emotion to another person’s mental state (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013)

In their review of the literature, Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen (2013) conclude that all three components are moderately to highly heritable, although the affective component seems to show the highest heritability (68%). This is in line with Davis et al. (1994), who found significant heritability for the affective facets of empathy (empathic concern and personal distress) but not for non-affective perspective taking.

All three components can vary from one individual to another, although studies to date have focused on pathological variation:

For example, it is suggested that people with psychopathic personality disorder may have intact cognitive empathy (hence being able to deceive others), but impaired affective empathy (hence being able to hurt others), whilst people with autism may show the opposite profile (hence finding the social world confusing because of their deficit in cognitive empathy, but not being over-represented among criminal offenders, having no wish to hurt others, suggesting their affective empathy may be intact) (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013)

People with depression may suffer from too much empathy, i.e., being too sensitive to the needs or distress of others (O’Connor et al., 2007). In short, these disorders seem to be the tail ends of a normal distribution. By focusing on these extremes, we forget that most of the genetic variability in empathy occurs among healthy individuals (Gillberg, 2007).
Using research findings on autism and Asperger syndrome, Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen (2013) have identified nine candidate genes that seem to promote empathy. They fall into three functional categories: sex-steroid synthesis and metabolism; neural development and connectivity; and social-emotional responsivity. The first category includes the degree to which a fetus is androgenized or estrogenized before birth, as shown by digit ratio.

Variation among human populations

If the genes associated with empathy vary among healthy individuals, do they also vary among human populations? This would be expected because populations have differed in their needs for different components of empathy, particularly since hunting and gathering gave way to farming some 10,000 years ago—when genetic change speeded up over a hundred-fold. At that time, humans were no longer adapting to new physical environments. They were adapting to new cultural environments that differed in social structure, in division of labor, in means of subsistence, in norms of conduct, in future time orientation, in degree of sedentary living, and so on. Our ancestors were now reshaping their environments, and these human-made environments were now reshaping them—in other words, gene-culture co-evolution (Hawks et al., 2007).

Humans have been transformed especially by the shift from small bands of hunter-gatherers to larger and more complex groups of farmers and townsfolk. With social relations expanding beyond the circle of close kin, kinship obligations were no longer enough to ensure mutual assistance and stop free riding. There was thus selection for pro-social behavior, i.e., a spontaneous willingness to help not only kin but also non-kin.

Pro-social behavior is attested across a wide range of cultures. It is the subject of a recent book about the nature and limits of empathy in Oceanic cultures. The Banabans of Fiji for instance express the idea of pro-sociality through the term nanoanga, which they normally translate into English by “compassion” or “pity.”

[…] compassion is the basis for their capacity to bond socially with others, even compassion to the point of readiness to take strangers into their community. Their empathy therefore relates causally to how they act socially toward others. Here compassion or pity embraces both understanding and fellow feeling: the islanders understand that the stranded mariner is at the end of his strength, which is why they succor him and treat him as one of their own. They understand him because he, like them, is a human being, a person. […] Thus, for example, when someone passing by a house does not belong to the immediate family of those inside, it is customary to welcome the passer-by by calling out the words mai rin! (Come in!), which carry the implication that food and drink will not be found wanting inside. (Hermann, 2011, p. 31)

This desire to help non-kin is not unconditional. The author notes that prior experiences with an individual in distress can determine whether compassion will be given or withheld. Moreover, Barnabans can “proceed strategically when deciding whether to extend trust to others or to keep thoughts and feelings to themselves” (Hermann, 2011, p. 31). This is not the affective empathy of entering another person’s mind to feel his or her pain.

When the Barnabans compare themselves with others, and when by their behavior toward the stranger they show that they understand him and feel with him, they do not, however, equate themselves fully and entirely with him. (Hermann, 2011, p. 32)

Another contributor to the same book writes similarly about the inhabitants of Vanatinai, in the Trobriand Islands.

On the island of Vanatinai, when someone, including an ethnographer, privately asks a trusted confidant, “Why did she/he act like that?” “What was she/he thinking?” the common answer, often uttered in tones of puzzlement and despair, or anxiety and fear, expresses one of the islanders’ core epistemological principles: “We cannot know their renuanga.” Renuanga is a word that refers to a person’s inner experiences, both and inseparably thought and emotion.

[…] And their psychic states, their inner thought and feelings, are inherently unknowable. It may never be clear why they were angry or sympathetic, and what caused them to act and influence an event in someone’s life […] (Lepowsky, 2011, p. 44)

In short, Oceanic cultures display hospitality but not full empathy, which would be considered undesirable anyway:

The philosophical principle of personal opacity, the interiority of others’ thoughts/feelings (renuanga), is closely bound to the islanders’ fierce insistence on personal autonomy, both as cultural ideology and as daily social practice (Lepowsky, 2011, p. 47)

From pro-sociality to full empathy

Whereas pro-sociality is attested across a wide range of cultures, full cognitive/affective empathy is more localized. The difference is like the one we see between shame and guilt. Most cultures primarily use shame to enforce correct behavior, i.e., if other people see you breaking a rule, you feel ashamed and this feeling is reinforced by social disapproval. In contrast, only a minority of cultures—largely those of Northwest Europe—rely primarily on guilt, which operates even when only you see yourself breaking a rule or merely think about breaking a rule (Benedict, 1946; Creighton, 1990).

Northwest Europeans have thus undergone two parallel changes in behavioral control: 1) a shift from pro-sociality to full cognitive/affective empathy; and 2) a shift from shame to guilt. Indeed, full empathy and guilt may be two sides of the same coin. Both are the consequences of a mental model that is used to simulate how another person thinks or feels (an imaginary witness to a wrongful act, a person in distress) and to ensure correct behavior by inducing the appropriate feelings (anguish, pity).

Finally, full empathy and guilt are most adaptive where kinship ties are relatively weak and where rules of correct behavior require a leveling of the playing field between kin and non-kin. This has long been the case in Northwest Europe. There seems to be a longstanding pattern of weak kinship ties west of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg, as shown by several culture traits that are rare or absent elsewhere:

– relatively late marriage for men and women

– many people who never marry

– neolocality (children leave the family household to form new households)

– high circulation of non-kin among different households (typically young people sent out as servants) (Hajnal, 1965)

Commonly called the Western European Marriage Pattern, this geographic zone of relatively weak kinship was thought to have arisen after the Black Death of the 14th century. There is now good evidence for its existence before the Black Death and fragmentary evidence going back to 9th century France and even earlier (Hallam, 1985; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94). Historian Alan Macfarlane likewise sees an English tendency toward weaker kinship ties before the 13th century and even during Anglo-Saxon times (Macfarlane, 2012; Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174).

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (1; 2).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation.

People suffering from depression are looking at both others and themselves with suspicion, often believing whatever they have was obtained by cheating, and that it is more than they deserve. Depressives, burdened by moralistic standards, are harsh evaluators of both themselves and others. The self-punishment meted out by depressives is a common if disturbing symptom; while thinking ‘I deserve this’, they may engage in altruistic punishment turned upon the self. Just as altruistic punishers experience a neuronally based reward from punishing defectors, despite material costs, depressed patients report a sense of relief upon inflicting self-punishment. Patients who are ‘cutters’, describe relief from tension after cutting and depressives with suicidal ideation may describe the relief they felt when on the verge of attempting a suicidal action. (O’Connor et al., 2007, p. 67)

This pathology is progressively less common in populations farther south and east, not so much because each stage is less common but rather because depression is much less likely to result from empathic guilt and much less likely to lead to suicide (Stompe et al., 2001). This 3-stage sequence does not seem to be a human universal, at least not to the same extent as in Northwest Europeans, a reality that Frantz Fanon noted when describing clinical depression in Algerians:

French psychiatrists in Algeria found themselves faced with a difficult problem. When treating a melancholic patient, they were accustomed to being afraid of suicide. The melancholic Algerian kills, however. This disease of the moral conscience that is always accompanied by self-accusation and self-destructive tendencies assumes hetero-destructive forms in the Algerian. The melancholic Algerian does not commit suicide. He kills. (Fanon, 1970, pp. 219-220)