Inflated Empathy

In the aftermath of a tragic event, assessing our reactions gives much away as to our biases and calls into evaluation our paths to response.  Ignoring the unfortunately large groups in our communities who are struck down with suffocating apathy, I plan to focus on those that do spare moments contemplation.

The general paths to their reactions, ignoring their final points of view for now, tend to a neat bifurcation: intuitive and deliberative.  This concept, of our minds working in split modes, is nothing new and can be traced back as far as Plato.  Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments distinguished our decision-making capacities into the realm of “the passions” and “the impartial spectator”.

More recently Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist, discerned the possibility of having two systems of decision-making.  System One, where we “respond to the World in a way we are not conscious of, that we don’t control”, and System Two, which is the reasoning system; “it’s conscious, it’s slower, serial, effortful…”

As it happens, neuroscientists have been able to supply some evidence to support Kahneman’s claim in the form of MRI scans. Whereby responses that correspond to System One light up the (much earlier evolved) limbic region of the brain, System Two employs the usage of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is much larger in Humans than in animals.  Interestingly, Kahneman distinguishes between decision-making in Systems One and Two through the amount of effort that is employed in reaching said decision.

Whereas Kahneman and Smith were referring to decision-making within the paradigm of economics (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics and Smith’s Wealth of Nations is practically Economics’ magnum opus) so it seems that the basic tenets can be applied wider, to the way that we process news of potentially great influence.

It seems that when we hear about something that has happened in the news, we almost exclusively react in a way that corresponds to “the passions”.  A decision that is quickly spewed out after little to no contemplation and one that relies almost purely on some baseless empathetic reference point – a preconditioned bias.

Either the person has some emotional bond with the people or the area involved in the news, in which case System One quickly overrides the lethargy of System Two, or they process the information with little more than a shrug.  Either way, thought (slow, conscious, serial, effortful thought) is employed at a minimum in realising our reactions.

The major problem with the over-reliance in emotion in focusing our empathy is that it is a path that relies on little more than arbitrary antecedents.  How is it ever going to be possible to employ equal empathy if we are basing our reactions on something as capricious as bias?

The obvious point here is that our skewed base of knowledge, our prejudice, often results in ways that are out of our hands.  It can depend on the school you went to, which in turn could depend on the income of your family.  It could be a result of anything from the place of your birth, to the religion you were born in to, to the very make-up of your brain.  The ‘nature-nurture’ reasons for your actions are endless, as are your corresponding actions and thoughts.

So when we come to try to understand something of some moral worth, we should not keep ourselves shackled to the lowly floor of fickle preconceptions, but rather employ our logic and reasoning to give our empathy a weight that may make a change, perhaps even demand a change.  However, the current news media model of ‘newsworthiness’ based on numbers is stifling this possibility at inception.

The status quo is such that we are often shepherded into points of view that may not have come about of our own reasoned thought process.  There is a pernicious cycle within the process of information distribution and the ‘demand’ that calls for it.  We have been basing our views, our outrage, our readership and, more recently, our Internet traffic, on topics that catch the fancy.  This feeds back into the editorial rooms and the focus is in turn placed in that general area/topic, be it: celebrity culture, child abuse or terrorism.

As such, what happens is we are told what to think and why to think it (normally through vetted information).  These are extremely pervasive, and perverse, methods and it is far too often the case that someone holds a certain view without having given the slightest consideration to it.  A high and mighty opinion built on a foundation of very little of anything, particularly thought.

We bandy about our views, which we have accepted immediately, and under no scrutiny, from someone else.  From this we create our predisposed biases; our empathetic base points.  We bleed our hearts for certain tragedies and not others.  We misuse our empathetic qualities with such regularity that their worth has depreciated.

There is an argument that could be made, sticking with economics, that with such arbitrarily selfish passions, a large enough number would create a regression to the ‘mean’.  If there were enough of us, and enough diversity within our groups, tragedies would be equally mourned, as there would always be those that have the corresponding preconditioned bias to mourn them.  Of course, when the media plays to a presiding discourse, or when the factors of lobbying and politics come into the sphere of influence, this just isn’t the case (please see, Palestine)

The obvious solution would be to advocate for a greater usage of System Two, the impartial spectator.  The trouble lies in the effort required in this way of digesting information.  It is tiring.  That’s the very thing that Kahneman pointed to in differentiating between Systems One and Two: the effort involved in making a decision.

But this seems such a small price to pay, if you even consider ‘thinking’ a price, for creating grounded and well-focused empathetic release.  An extra minute or two in trying to understand the full ramifications, the externalities, the reasons, if perhaps not justifications, for whatever has happened can supply us with a greater level of understanding and a ‘truer’ empathy than if we were to simply rely on knee-jerk ‘passionate’ reactions.

How is it possible for us to hold, not only our news providers, but our very governments to account, if we allow ourselves to be manipulated and molested by our ‘passions’, our System One form of information processing, our predisposed biases that are themselves a result of lazy information critique.

So while this call for more people to give a damn, a real fucking damn, may fall on deaf or unwanting ears, it seems to me a most obvious point to make nonetheless.  The changes in this World demand better attention, from us, it’s the absolute least that we could do; to take an extra minute or two and really try to stop accepting the typically blunt black/white, us/them discourse that is all too often found in our media.


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Filed under Opinionated, Politics

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