Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Empathy & Evil

Humanistic psychology has been around for a long time. As good luck (certainly not good management on my part) would have it, I was entering graduate school just about the time that the particular university I was attending was implementing a relatively new emphasis in training clinical psychologists. In fact our ‘branch’ even got a new label: counselling psychology. Nothing wrong with the long-established psychoanalytic approaches of Freud and Jung or, indeed with the ‘new’ behavioural techniques that had grown up over the preceding three or four decades, under the watchful eye of B. F. Skinner. The former with its emphasis on the unconscious, presenting concerns generally being seen as surface ‘symptoms’ of long-buried neuroses; and the latter with its mechanistic, push button ‘A’ and observe response ‘B’ explanations of human behaviour were being supplanted with what one of the leading theorists in the area chose to call ‘client centered therapy’. A cornerstone of Carl Rogers’ approach was that of demonstrating ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the client. In place of ‘interpreting’ one’s complaints, making ‘conscious’ the hidden villains or alternately, manipulating one’s environment to promote superficially altered behaviour (in the hope that it would attach to deeper, sustainable change), Rogers chose to listen to his clients, endeavouring to develop a sense of what it was like to experience the world as they did, validating their experience – not interpreting it, pathologizing it, or manipulating it. Empathy had entered the realm of psychotherapy – as an ‘intervention’, a therapeutic tool.

I and my fellow classmates spent endless hours dissecting, deconstructing this vague, marvelous concept; cultivating ‘verbal attends’, open-ended queries, reflections, and summarizations as feedback to our ‘clients’ (happily not live bodies – well I guess other grad students were technically live bodies!), conveying that ‘I feel your pain’ and that ‘I hear what you’re saying’ – all in the name of empathizing. Rating scales were developed to track our progress in the acquisition of ‘core skills’; budding careers turned on one’s ability to draw out the client; and the ‘cherry on top’ was the client exclamation: ‘that’s exactly how I feel’ – proof positive that therapist and client were indeed, on the same page! Two underlying assumptions: empathy does not reside, in equal measure, in all of us, needing in some cases to be learned; and more critically, that empathy can indeed be taught.

Somewhere along the line, since those heady school days, I became interested in, let’s call it the ‘flip side’ of empathy – academically and professionally, of course! Not to put too fine a point on it, that would be evil. Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist with a truly international reputation, has fashioned a very productive and hugely valuable career around the study of evil; or more properly, the study of individuals who do evil. His Hare Psychopathy Checklist, since its conception in the early 1980’s, stands now as the central point of reference and primary assessment instrument used in the quantifying of evil (doers). Simple in construction – consisting of twenty defining aspects of psychopathy* – it produces a ‘number’, somewhere between 0 and 40, that, if we can play a bit fast and loose with current acronyms, represents an individual’s ‘EQ’ – Evil Quotient (forgive me, Bob). Right there, nestled comfortably between ‘Parasitic Lifestyle’ and ‘Shallowness of Emotion’ is ‘Lack of Empathy’ on Hare’s top 20 list of beahviours of the evil ones amongst us. While happily it occupies a relatively small part of my practice, I am able to indulge my ‘two-sided’ interest (that would be empathy and its ‘evil’ twin) in the assessment of a tiny population of individuals who are, by court or related agency, under scrutiny for their past behaviour and are deemed at risk of repeating said behaviours in the future. And Hare’s Checklist is right there on the top shelf of my tool box.

So when a review appeared of a new book by Cambridge researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, it definitely caught my attention. Baron-Cohen contends, and I think correctly so, that evil, as an explanatory concept in accounting for horrific acts of cruelty, is somewhat limited. Not to say that Hitler or Norway’s Breivik are not aptly described as ‘evil’ – but, in helping us understand (to the extent that that is even possible) the individual, or indeed ‘what’s wrong with them’, it’s not very enlightening. Baron-Cohen finds, as does Hare, a ‘lack of empathy’ a more useful avenue, as it focuses more on the individual, his personality, history, style, and interpersonal relations; and less on the acts of the individual – which, may in fact be mitigated or aggravated by any number of external influences.

While Baron-Cohen is most interested in elucidating the brain-based contributors to empathy, he notes that they are only a part of the story. Genetic and social variables occupy central roles as well. The ‘hard-wired’ view, the brain or physiologically-based origins of empathy (or a shortage of same), suggests that evil-doers are born, not made; and by extension, are therefore open to little in the way of change, rehabilitation (short of a lobotomy!). The genetic contribution, the ‘bred in the bone’ part, suggests a similar, cast-in-stone immutability. Hare’s research and portions cited by Baron-Cohen would seem to support the view that certain individuals definitely respond in ways that indicate (without hugely oversimplifying) they are less ‘moved’ by emotionally-charged material (both negative and positive). In short, that they lack the ability (read, wiring) to process information that should influence their choices, should trigger sympathy, understanding, compassion. They are lacking empathy, in some cases, utterly so.

But then there’s the social piece and a very complicated one it is. Consider not the commandant of a concentration camp, but the guard, the foot-soldier assigned to duties at an Auschwitz or a Buchenwald. Or indeed consider the behaviour of any soldier whose tour takes him/her into a war zone. It is unlikely that all such individuals have self-selected for placement in situations that endorse ‘evil’, inhuman behaviour; indeed unfair, to see all such individuals as empathy-challenged, psychopathic – but who are nonetheless the perpetrators of such acts. Baron-Cohen is quick to point out that, under such circumstances, it is more likely ‘group membership’ (acting in concert with a group of ‘like-minded’ individuals, perhaps under orders and at personal risk of disciplinary action) that somehow ‘switches off’ or mutes their more ‘human’ wiring. It is in that conflicted moment where acting on one’s instincts, in accord with one’s values, morality collides with simply acting, that we lose our way.

Back to the assumptions underpinning my grad school training: that empathy, in some cases may not be present in the individual in any great measure; and secondly, that it may be taught. I would now add a third and fourth consideration: that empathy needs room in which to manifest and that it must be an intentional, considered option, not necessarily available on some automatic, intuitive basis. And that is where mindfulness becomes a necessary element in the equation. Mindfulness practice invites a slowing down (hitting the pause button rather than acting impulsively), an acting with awareness and intention (not relying on a quite possibly deficient store of ‘pre-wired’ empathy), a consideration (right speech, right action), a compassion (Metta). I do not consider myself an instinctively empathic individual, not evil, just not spontaneously empathic. I have learned to listen, to attend to cues, verbal and non-verbal, from those in front of me, to provide feedback and response to those cues enabling a deeper consideration of presenting issues. I would like to think that I’ve ‘learned’ – and perhaps more importantly, am able to provide the necessary room and to make the choice that puts me in someone else’s shoes – for the moment.

*Psychopathy: characterized by the inability to form human attachment and an abnormal lack of empathy, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal (online definition).

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