Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Empathy Deficit Disorder

adapted from the Toronto Star (link at the end)

According to Dr. Orlaith Fraser's , modern humankind's collective inability to genuinely identify with others has lead to a new problem: Empathy Deficit Disorder.

Empathy is often misunderstood to be sympathy, but empathy is quite different from sympathy.  The original German term  for empathy means "feeling into" as opposed to "feeling with."  Empathy is not merely realizing that someone else's feeling would be pleasant, or unpleasant.  That's sympathy.  Empathy is understanding what they are feeling, and relating it to times in your life when you may have felt similarly.

In Liverpool, Dr. Orlaith Fraser's fascinating study of chimps and conflict resolution shows that our closest evolutionary ancestors almost certainly are capable of empathy.   The research found that after a display of aggression, other chimps would often console the victimized chimp with hugs or kisses.

"This study removes doubt that consolation really does what the term suggests: provide relief to distressed parties after conflict," Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta told The Associated Press.

"The evidence is compelling and makes it likely that consolation behaviour is an expression of empathy."

So how can humans make each other feel better?

There is an art to empathy.

In his new book Trading Places, Dr. Les Parrott, a clinical psychologist and his wife, Leslie, a family therapist, advise readers on how to build a better marriage (and, no, it doesn't involve marrying someone with the same first name).

Parrott says he's often fantasized about being able to "literally hand out a box of mutual empathy – the revolutionary tool for instantly improving a relationship."

We caught up with him by phone for a game of five questions.

Q: Where has our empathy gone?

A: Any time you're under pressure or stressed or hungry or angry, you're not going to be empathetic. What most people don't understand is that empathy involves both your head and your heart.

And most of us think we're being pretty generous when we do one or the other, when we analyze or sympathize, and that's only halfway there.

Q: What are the signs of Empathy Deficit Disorder?

A: The primary indicator is they just can't seem to recognize your perspective or another person's perspective.

Empathy is that ability to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and imagine what life must be like to be in their skin.

Q: Are women naturally more empathetic beings?

A: Research shows women will fall into sympathizing far more frequently than men and men tend to fall into analyzing far more frequently than women. It's not that either gender is necessarily better at empathy.

Q: Can a person learn empathy?

A: Absolutely. What we discovered in our research is that there are skills that people can pick up on.

There's a school of thought in psychology that says awareness is curative.

Once you become aware of your social style, the more you can do about it.

Q: Is there one social relationship where the empathy deficit is most apparent?

A: Marriage is by far and away the most likely place. We don't work at it very much; that's why people get stuck in ruts.

Research shows 90 per cent of the things we struggle with in marriage would be resolved if we just saw things from the other person's perspective.

Diana Zlomislic


Toronto Star

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