Thursday, 21 August 2008

Research Bulletin: Differences in Empathy

Empathy is feeling with another person. It's important in life, and important in the psychology of fiction because it seems to be a basis for theory of mind and for indentification with fictional characters.

What is its opposite? There are two ideas. The first is that its opposite is interest in things rather than people. The second is that its opposite is contemptuous violence towards others. On both these dimensions, girls and women have, on average, more empathy than boys and men.

Simon Baron-Cohen, Rebecca Knickmeyer and Matthew Belmonte (2005) argue that empathizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to the behavior of people by inferring their mental states and responding to these with an appropriate emotion. Systemizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to inanimate systems by analyzing input-operation-output relations and inferring their rules. On average, females are stronger empathizers and males are stronger systemizers. (The authors further argue that autism is an extreme male pattern.)

These next two studies are about effects of physical abuse in childhood.

Rather shocking individual differences in empathy were found by Mary Main and Carol George (1985). They compared 10 non-abused toddlers at daycare with 10 toddlers who had been physically abused. When non-abused children saw another child in distress, they responded to that child with concern, empathy, or sadness. By contrast, when abused children saw another child in distress, they responded in ways the non-abused children did not: with physical attacks on the distressed child, or with anger, or with fear. The abused children seemed cut off from empathy, and instead felt emotions associated with their own abuse, including emotions of angry retribution.

A study of the effects of abuse was made by Avshalom Caspi et al. (2002) on a cohort of 1037 children, 52% male, assessed every two or three years from age 3 to age 21, and again at age 28, in New Zealand. Arguably, this is one of the most important studies in the whole of psychology of recent times: the researchers found two factors that, in combination, predicted which children would grow up to be violently anti-social. One factor was a gene that produced diminished levels of monoamine oxidase A (which metabolizes a neurotransmiter) and the other was being physically abused in childhood. It was principally those with both factors who became violent. Although those with the gene for low monoamine oxidase who had also suffered maltreatment were only 12% of the boys in the cohort, these boys were responsible for 44% of the whole cohort's convictions for violent crime by age 28. Some 85% of the boys with the low monoamine oxidase gene who were severely maltreated developed some form of antisocial behavior. Only 2% of girls in the sample had convictions for violence. The monoamine oxidase gene is on the X chromosome. Being female, with two X chromosomes, allows effects of a low monoamine oxidase gene on one X chromosome be moderated (in effect cancelled) by a normal monoamine oxidase gene on the other. This confers protection from harmful effects. Males have an X and a Y chromosome. The monoamine oxidase gene on the X chromosome is in a position where, in males, the harmful gene cannot be moderated by a corresponding normal gene because this gene position is missing from the much shorter Y chromosome. Being a male with one unmoderated low monoamine oxidase gene predicts violence, but only if the boy is abused. Those with this gene who were not abused were no different from boys without it.

The genetic difference between males and females, found by Caspi et al. may be a principal reason why, in general, males commit more violent crimes than females. We can speculate that males with the low monoamine oxidase gene who were physically abused in childhood are able to act violently towards others in part because they have far less empathetic concern.

If we consider that identification is important for the enjoyment of fiction, we might expect that those who are low in empathy would not be much interested in reading it. But perhaps fiction might be a way of reaching such people: a way discussed by Jean Trounstine and Robert Waxler (2005, see our list of books by clicking here; see also our post on Changing Lives Through Literature by clicking here).


Baron-Cohen, S., Knickmeyer, R. C., & Belmonte, M. K. (2005). Sex-differences in the brain: Implications for explaining autism. Science, 310, 819-823.

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T., E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297, 851-854.

Main, M., & George, C. (1985). Response of abused and disadvantaged toddlers to distress in playmates: A study in the daycare setting. Developmental Psychology, 21, 407-412.

Trounstine, J. R., & Waxler, R. (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Also see Waxler's recent article in the May 2008 issue of PMLA.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Thank you for noting that article. Interested readers can find the full-text version here:

http://www.mlajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1632/pmla.2008.123.3.678

flit said...

I really appreciate how easy you make it for me to hunt up the references for your articles; thank you!

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