The Huffington Post:
When the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 teenage girls from a schoolhouse last month, the world responded with an outpouring of undiluted emotion — shock, outrage, fear, and most of all deep sympathy for the victims and their families. It was impossible not to feel the suffering of these innocent, helpless girls in the hands of their cruel jihadist captors.
Well, maybe not impossible. Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter showed not a trace of empathy, as she chose instead to poke fun at a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the victims’ plight. While the world’s heart went out to the hostages, Coulter responded with a display of callous insensitivity.
Many of us find this kind of reaction incomprehensible, but it serves as an important reminder that empathy is not a universal response to others’ pain and suffering. People vary widely in their capacity for compassion, from deeply pained and troubled to indifferent to harsh and even accusatory and hateful.
Why would that be? What is it that makes two minds respond so differently to the same encounter with misfortune? Scientists have spent a lot of effort exploring the emotional, cognitive and neurological underpinnings of human empathy, but much less time studying how our fundamental world views might affect our ability to feel others’ pain. We all hold theories about human nature and the world — whether we articulate them or not. Is it possible that these implicit theories play a role in our ability to empathize and care?
University of Alabama psychological scientist Alexa Tullett has been pursuing this idea.
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