An in­no­va­tive em­pa­thy test sug­gests right-wingers may not be as cold­hearted as they think.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Marc Wil­son

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.

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