An innovative empathy test suggests right-wingers may not be as coldhearted as they think.
An innovative empathy test suggests right-wingers may not be as cold-hearted as they think.
actor Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t well known by name (because he’s assumed a few), he certainly will be by face. He was Ali G, Borat and Admiral General Aladeen, among others. I wouldn’t class myself as a fan of his in those roles, but I thought he was good in Les Misérables.
What will be less well known is that his older cousin Simon has made a big impact in a smaller domain. He is a University of Cambridge professor and an authority on autism.
The American Psychiatric Association defines autism spectrum disorder as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social communication and relationships, and repetitive behaviours. Such behaviours often include a “special interest” – or what from the outside looks like an obsession.
Among the social impairments, it’s common to find reference to problems understanding what is going on in other people’s heads – empathising. It’s a spectrum because some people have a little of it and some people a lot. Asperger syndrome used to be a formal diagnosis of high-functioning autism, but it died a death in 2015 as an acknowledgement that it was better understood as just one train station along the railway line of the autism spectrum.
For a long time, all I knew about the professor was that he seemed to like the work of one of my colleagues, Gina Grimshaw, because he had cited her work a fair bit. But then, at a conference, a talk by Stanley Feldman, a political psychology professor at New York’s Stony Brook University, expanded my horizons.
The orthodoxy, Feldman said, is that political conservatives are less empathic. We know this, or think we do, because people who identify as conservative or right wing tell us in surveys that they’re less likely to get distressed when they witness bad things happening to other people, or to imagine what it’s like being in their shoes. These are common types of questions in “self-report” measures of empathy.
But maybe we shouldn’t rely on self-reports too much, he suggested. In many places, being conservative means being less supportive of such things as welfare or greater distribution of wealth. Wouldn’t it make sense that people who are politically conservative might imagine themselves as less empathic? Or maybe, when they answer these empathy questions, they’re imagining an empathic target that they really are less likely to identify with?
What happens, he speculated, if we look at empathy differently – not by asking people how empathic they subjectively think they are, but rather how they perform on some kind of “objective” test of empathy?
This is where Baron-Cohen comes in, because he has proposed one such tool. Called the Mind in the Eyes task, it involves presenting a person with photos of just people’s eyes and asking them to pick which of four different emotional states the eyes are experiencing. If you pick the same emotional state that the majority of the large group of people who were used to “norm” the photos picked, your empathy score goes up.
You don’t ask a question like this at a conference unless you already know the answer, because the audience would just run away and test your idea without giving you the credit. Sure enough, Feldman had found that political conservatives selfreported less empathy when asked to fill out standard empathy questions, but did no worse than political liberals on the Mind in the Eyes task. Effectively, conservatives may be self-stereotyping, imagining themselves to be heartless bastards.
What followed was that conference attendees went back to their hotel rooms and did the Eyes tasks online. At breakfast the next morning, you could tell who hadn’t done so well. Me? I’m not telling.
Conservatives may be self-stereotyping, imagining themselves to be heartless bastards.
Below, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen: his Mind in the Eyes task is revealing.