5
$\begingroup$

I understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, but not the emboldened sentence. Please expound?

Empathy vs. Sympathy | Psychology Today Canada

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to ensnare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

The theory, apparently backed up by some experiments, is that psychopaths can make use of empathy at will, which is what allows them to employ emotional manipulation. As related in a popsci account:

For example, consider one particularly fascinating experiment by Dr. Christian Keysers, Professor of Social Neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam.

In one study, Keysers and his team analyzed the brain activity of 21 convicted violent psychopathic offenders, comparing the results with 26 men of similar age and IQ. The participants were shown movies of people hurting each other while brain activity was measured. Later, a doctoral student would slap the patients on their hands to localize brain regions connected with feeling touch and pain. The goal was to see if patients' brains activated a feeling of pain in their own brain when viewing the pain of others.

"The vicarious activation of motor, somatosensory and emotional brain regions was much lower in the patients with psychopathy than in the normal subjects," writes Keysers. "The theory seemed right: their empathy was reduced, and this could explain why they committed such terrible crimes without feeling guilt."

But one question still plagued Keysers.

How could these same individuals prove to be so charming at times?

"I remember chatting with one of the patients...a particularly severe psychopath (he had scored the full 40 points on the psychopathy checklist)," writes Keysers. "Surrounded by the guards, he seemed a most pleasant person. He was smiling, engaging, and seemed to feel exactly what we wanted from him."

So Keysers and his partner decided to let the patients watch the movies again, this time asking them to try and empathize with the victims in the movies.

"What we found was that this simple instruction sufficed to boost the empathic activation in their brain to a level that was hard to distinguish from that of the healthy controls," writes Keysers. "Suddenly, the psychopaths seemed as empathic as the next guy. Their empathy was switched on."

Keysers' conclusion:

"Psychopathic individuals do not simply lack empathy. Instead, it seems as though for most of us, empathy is the default mode. If we see a victim, we share her pain. For the psychopathic criminals of our study, empathy seemed to be a voluntary activity. If they want to, they can empathize, and that explains how they can be so charming, and maybe so manipulative. Once they have seduced you into doing what serves their purpose, the effortful empathy would probably disappear again."

I'm not sure how well accepted this is... The BBC also ran a story on this with some additional more sketpical comments

Essi Viding from University College London, who was not involved with the study, said it was an extremely interesting finding, but that it remained unclear whether the psychopathic criminals' experience of empathy felt the same as that of the controls.

"It's dangerous to look at brain activation and say that it means they're empathising. They are able to generate a typical neural response, but that doesn't mean they have the same empathetic experience," Prof Viding told BBC News.

"We know they can generate the same response but they do that in an active and effortful way. Under free-viewing conditions they don't seem to. [...]"

There's also a newer study that seems to confirm the "empathy switch" in a larger class of "dark triad" personalities. (Also posci story on that.)

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ My question with these studies is whether the empathy is real or not. As in my previous comment, are they just pretending to empathize based on how they have learnt they should act/feel regarding a given scenario? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Feb 3 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers: I think that's impossible to tell based on the current level of research. $\endgroup$ – SX welcomes ageist gossip Feb 3 at 13:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That is what makes the OP question very interesting. Keysers pointed out "He was smiling, engaging, and seemed to feel exactly what we wanted from him." Is the psychopath in this instance displaying real empathy or was it learnt acting? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Feb 3 at 13:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.