EMPATHY is often confused with sympathy in Washington and derided as a trait of bleeding-heart liberals. But whereas sympathy can be uninformed—”I could never imagine what she is going through”—empathy is the ability to identify with the experiences and feelings of another person. And, in general, we humans are pretty bad at it.
Study after study has shown what has come to be known as an “empathy gap” in people. In its simplest form, this means that when we are happy we have trouble identifying with someone who is sad, or when we’re angry we have difficulty understanding why someone is content. Basically, our ability to empathise with another person is dependent on the state we ourselves are in, and this has some interesting implications for public policy.
A recent study (published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science) by Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, examined the empathy gap with regard to torture policy. Man’s propensity to turn monster has long been of interest to behaviourists and psychologists. Witness Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, or Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment. Both of those studies, along with many others, support the idea that our actions depend as much on context as on any inherent disposition. (Or, as others would say, that evil is banal.) This new study moves in a similar direction, but examines how a person’s decisions are affected by his ability to relate to the consequences.
Read the whole story: The Economist