When a “can” ought to mean a “should”: on men and empathy

I got an interesting email from one of my regular commenters who uses the handle “Randomizer”. He sends me a link to this post at Overcoming Bias which references an intriguing study that appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin back in 2001: Gender Differences, Motivation, and Empathic Accuracy: When it Pays to Understand . The abstract:

Two studies of college students investigated the conditions under which women perform better than men on an empathic accuracy task (inferring the thoughts and feelings of a target person). The first study demonstrated that women’s advantage held only when women were given a task assessing their feelings of sympathy toward the target prior to performing the empathic accuracy task. The second study demonstrated that payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances. Together, the results suggest that gender differences in empathic accuracy performance are the result of motivational differences and are not due to simple differences of ability between men and women.

Bold is mine.

For the second week in a row, someone sends me a link to promising research.

In plain English, the studies suggest that the notion that men lack the capacity for empathy — equivalent in degree to that more commonly displayed by women — is simply false. When motivated to put a dormant skill to use, the study suggests men can be every bit as intuitive as women. For a psych journal, the phrase “wiped out any difference” is very strong stuff indeed — it leaves no room for those who insist on men’s diminished capacity to love, to connect, and to care on which to stand.

So this raises the question that gets discussed at the Overcoming Bias site: if men can empathize every bit as well as women, why don’t they? Randomizer points to one of the commenters at OB, a fellow calling himself BD. BD writes:

(In the masculine) value system, empathy is not connected to caring for someone. It’s connected to believing that the person can’t care for themselves Or believing that the person is a threat. “Don’t ask me to treat you like a child. And don’t ask me to treat you like a boss whose volatile ego I have to tip-toe around.”

And there can be a “Golden Rule” thing going here as well. ” He may not want to treat her “like a child” because he doesn’t want to be treated “like a child” either.

With his peers, he can just relax and be himself. Male friendship and peerage is often a rough and tumble thing. It’s not to say that male friendship doesn’t have its own rules. Its just that significant empathy is not part of that. When he is dealing with people he cares about, he tends to default to his most comfortable and peer-like relationship model, which happens to feature minimal empathy…

I think BD is right in one sense, in that I think we do indeed teach men to associate empathy with the burden of managing someone else’s fragile emotions — a boss who needs placating, or a child who can’t yet self-regulate. But if he’s implying that men and women have different but equally valid interpretations of the purpose of empathy, I think that’s much more problematic. In BD’s formulation, men are taught to see empathy as a tool to be used in a certain select set of scenarios, two in particular: first, when a reward is available, such as from a boss (or, in the case of the study we’re citing, cash-for-empathic display); two, when dealing with someone needier and more vulnerable than themselves, such as a child or the victim of a particular tragedy. It is not, in other words, a relationship tool — indeed, in “guyland”, a relationship in which empathy is not required is far more egalitarian than one in which it is needed.

Here’s how culturally constructed masculinity warps us all: for far too many men, empathy gets associated with manipulation and dependency rather than intimacy. The message seems to be: You can have my empathy, or you can have my respect as my equal. But you can’t have both. I don’t think that marks a “healthy difference” between men and women. It’s absurd to imagine that we can sustain healthy relationships when one sex believes empathy is a necessary component of all our interactions and another sex believes it to be an unpleasant tactic, a tool to be employed in a few instances, most of which involve a hierarchy of power and respect.

So the good news: one more bit of evidence that the full spectrum of human emotion is available to every member of the species, regardless of biology. The study reinforces the truth that the reason so many members of each sex utilize less than that full spectrum is attributable to socialization and choice, not to physiology. But we need to do more than say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting”. We need to recognize that this is one of those instances where ability translates to obligation; if men can empathize, than I think it’s fairly clear that they should do so far more often than they do.

Why? Merely to make wives and girlfriends and sisters happier? No, though making relationships better is nothing at which to sneeze. It’s that in the end, all great cruelty is, as Timothy Findley so famously said, a failure of the imagination. And the kind of imagination at which men so often fail is not the ability to imagine alternate universes or other fantastical things — it is the simpler failure to imagine what another person feels. When men regard that kind of imagination as a tool or a burden rather than as a gift and a responsibility, they become the chief architects of human suffering. To refuse to empathize is to be complicit, in a way either large or small, in the ongoing great crime.

I’ve often said that one of my two or three favorite novels ever written is Forster’s “Howard’s End.” I’m hardly alone in my deep love of the book and its world view. And I’m hardly alone in trying to remember, always remember, the simple epigraph of the text: “Only connect.” That is true of prose and passion, it is true of Americans and Haitians, and it is true of husbands and wives.

We can do this. And if there was ever an instant when ability leads inexorably to obligation, I think this is it.

24 thoughts on “When a “can” ought to mean a “should”: on men and empathy

  1. When men regard that kind of imagination as a tool or a burden rather than as a gift and a responsibility, they become the chief architects of human suffering. To refuse to empathize is to be complicit, in a way either large or small, in the ongoing great crime.

    That’s quite an indictment to lay down Hugo. I’ve heard you use that term “great crime” a number of times, in a number of different contexts. What is it that you believe that we are so guilty of?

  2. I just thought that I would add that empathy is always a two-way street: to open oneself up to the feelings of others is in some way to expose oneself as well. My view for the reason that most men learn not to empathize more than very selectively is to avoid vulnerability and protect oneself. The logic of what we are compels as much, and few people, male or female, have very much use for the unlovely creature that is an obviously vulnerable or weak man.

  3. Interesting post. Your concluding paragraphs remind me of a maxim from Nietzsche, which read (and I paraphrase), “the torturer and the tortured do not understand each other.” My interpretation of that cut both ways with respect to empathy. The torturer does not understand the feeling of the pain inflicted and the tortured person believes the torturer to be more malicious than the torturer may in fact be. The tortured, as well as the torturer, do not empathize with each other. Of course, that is an extreme example, but it is worth keeping in mind in our everyday lives. We should not be too quick to judge those that hurt us as evil.

    However, one problem I have with the post is that it seems to avoid an important question, which is, “do women empathize too much?” I think you may be right that men tend to view empathy as a tool, among many, to use in our everyday life. I have not specifically thought about that question, so i am not going to commit to it one way or the other. But, you have not eliminated the possibility that this is the correct view of things. Maybe it is a tool and women use it too much. Thinking about other emotions, such as grief, or anger, I anticipate you would agree that these are perfectly normal and natural (and, perhaps, even healthy) emotions. However, that does not mean that anger should not be controlled or that grief should consume us.

    I agree that men have the capacity for empathy, but I do not think I necessarily agree with your conclusion that is creates an obligation to be empathetic. In your view, are there times when empathy is the wrong response? Or, do you think empathy should always be there as a foundation for other emotions to “float above”? I am not using good language here, but the the question is whether you should be empathetic, even as you are angry with someone Is empathy consistent with all emotions, or are there some emotions from which empathy detracts?

    Thus, leaving men and women out of the equation, is it possible to empathize too much?

    -Jut

  4. I think that there’s a false assumption that empathy incapacitates. The myth, JG is that men need to suppress empathy in order to be decisive — too much feeling, folks like to believe, leads to a kind of paralysis. Totally paraphrasing a line from Jeffers, Judas was a fellow who wept for the hawk killed by the stone, and wept for the dove that the hawk killed in order to eat.

    Empathy isn’t sentimentality. Sentimental people are incapacitated by feelings sometimes. Empathy clarifies, it doesn’t obscure. Sentimentality does the opposite.

    As for the great crime, I think that’s the failure of imagination that allows us to refuse to think about the ways in which we are complicit in suffering, whether it be Germans not thinking about Jewish neighbors or carnivores not wanting to hear about slaughterhouses, or consumers not wanting to think about the sweatshops where their clothes were made, or men not wanting to think about the real reason why their girlfriends let them cum on their faces. Failure of empathy all round.

  5. Coming up on the rule of three here: but I’ll say that I believe that it’s a common fallacy to believe that to empathize with another person, (meaning in my view to be able to understand the world as they see it and to be able to realistically imagine their motivations and emotions as though one were experiencing them oneself) necessarily implies either identification with or goodwill towards them. I’ll concede that empathy may certainly be a precondition to genuine sympathy and goodwill, and that many of the sins we commit against each other probably stem more often from carelessness rather than genuine antipathy. But it’s entirely possible to empathize without sympathizing or agreeing with a person or even wishing them well. Indeed, the capacity to empathize with an enemy makes one much more effective in hurting them: you can know where and how best to target them to do maximum damage. Out of his experience running the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara once touted as a maxim of warfare “Empathize with your enemy”. Whether it’s a stereotype or not, we often regard women as being the more able gender at engaging in deeper levels of psychological cruelty and aggression.

    I’ll tie this back to why I expected that men refuse to empathize as readily. I indicated above that empathy is a two-way street, or that “if the other side is in range, then so are you.” Likewise, empathizing with others, and necessarily allowing them to empathize with you, makes both of your capacities to harm each other greater. It “raises the stakes” across the entire spectrum of your interaction.

  6. I’m not sure this study demonstrates anything at all, actually.

    Analogy: 99% of men and 47% of women are able to lift a loaded 50-lb. suitcase into the back of a car. The researchers then offer the men and women $20 and a backrub if they can successfully do the lift. 100% of men and 99% of women are now able to do it with that incentive. Aha, the researchers say – men and women have the same upper body strength, it’s just a matter of incentive!

    The difficulty with this scenario – and possibly with the scenario in the study linked in the post – is that the test is not a test outside the usual parameter of activity. Most people can lift a suitcase into a car; it is easier for some people than for other people (uses less of their total energy). I’m not terribly empathic, but I bet if you offered me $1000 to go to the hospital and do compassionate active listening, I’d do a bang up job.

    Make the test “lift a 250 pound suitcase into the car”, and have the success rate go from 48%/4% to 60%/60%, and you’ve demonstrated there’s no difference in the genders and it’s all about what people choose. A test within the bounds of normal performance doesn’t tell us a whole lot about difference either way.

  7. I think men often do show empathy to one another, it’s just a different kind from what we see with women.

    They are sensitive to, and are careful not to make serious accusations, against another man’s masculinity. Sure, they jokingly call each other “faggot” or boast about screwing each others’ wives/girlfriends and stuff. But that’s not the same thing.

    How do they know it’s not the same thing when they’re doing it? Empathy. They know how to say it to not be considered seriously.

    If a guy is truly vulnerable (“in range”) about something, and they value their friendship with the guy, they quickly recognize it, and leave him alone about it.

  8. Just as with the “men aren’t more inherently violent than women thread,” I at first had great hope that this was going to be a post that was kind to men, only to be let down shortly thereafter:

    “So this raises the question that gets discussed at the Overcoming Bias site: if men can empathize every bit as well as women, why don’t they?”

    Whoever said that they don’t?

  9. “…the unlovely creature that is an obviously vulnerable or weak man.”
    You make it sound kind of like it’s okay for women to be weak or vulnerable but not men. I don’t like double standards.
    So anyone who wants to be taken seriously has to never be the least bit weak or vulnerable, or at least never ever let it show?
    Who can be strong and invulnerable 100% of the time?
    Oh, and who gets to decide who is “lovely” anyway?
    “The logic of what we are”–can you define/speak for a whole bunch of people you’ve never met, and not just yourself? If you have defined yourself as an invulnerable being, or someone who is trying to be such, I suppose you will try to uphold that, but I have doubts that anyone really is that way all the way through, and constantly supporting a facade can weaken the interior.
    I speak as someone who’s spent decades trying to seem invulnerable, sometimes forgetting to put in the work to be empathetic, and now that circumstances have made me very vulnerable, feel like I am paying the price. Short version, I haven’t made enough friends. I might even suggest that empathy is somehow linked to intelligence, and some people–of all genders–are not putting their brains to full use.
    oldfeminist got it right about how men do have empathy of a different sort than what some think of first when they hear the word. But suggesting to a segment of the population that they may have abilities they didn’t know about, and that developing these might be helpful, to me does not automatically constitute unkindness.
    Does an ability lead inexorably to an obligation? Well, maybe not all the time, but look around, is there enough empathy in play in this country? And as stressful as learning something new can be, doesn’t it feel good when it actually “takes”?
    I’ll let the geniuses among us work out whether a “can” leads right to a “should”. But I recall how I suffered when someone who could protect me did not bother to, because their empathy had gone somewhere, and I still can never fully trust that person. My solution, since revenge has never been feasible, has been to not put myself in situations where I might have to protect someoene else. But if I wound up there anyway, and someone else suffered like I did because I didn’t act, I would not feel very good. Seems to me that “Samaritan laws” make sense, at least where the person helping is not in danger.
    With power comes responsibility. Somebody wants to withdraw from the world, that’s one thing–I will always be a loner–but it seems that if you are going to hang out with other people, your use of whatever empathy you can dig up is needful. Anyway, if you can use it to help others, that just shows that you are indeed strong.

  10. I think men often do show empathy to one another, it’s just a different kind from what we see with women.

    Indeed. What are the Man Code and “bros before hos” if not empathy for one’s fellow man?

  11. Good to see the HS community found this as interesting as I did.

    Based on my own experience, it seems that most of the women I know are just habitually more mindful than men of the changing internal states of the people around them and the experiences that drive these changes.

    The fact that men afford themselves the luxury of not being so mindful speaks of privilege. Men, after all, are not the ones tasked with the lion’s share of the emotional work in any given social setting and so enjoy the privilege of being more obtuse and non-empathic.

    Men are often able to take advantage of low expectations communicated by our culture – “soft bigotry” though they may be.

  12. …the unlovely creature that is an obviously vulnerable or weak man.”
    You make it sound kind of like it’s okay for women to be weak or vulnerable but not men. I don’t like double standards.

    Angi, I think that the same is true of women, though manifested in different ways. A woman who is obviously sensitive, for example, about her weight is probably leaving “unguarded cheek” open in a lot of social settings. Learning how to be, at most, very, very selective about when and among whom one would allow oneself to appear to be vulnerable seems to be a critical life skill in a species that has such a complex and well-developed battery of behaviors for establishing, maintaining and communicating relative position within the social hierarchy.

    With men specifically, I think Hugo’s discussion in the past of the “sturdy oak” and “big wheel” capture most of what we’re expected to be able to be. When I say “unlovely creature”, I mean to point out that a man who cannot (not “does not”, but cannot) show that he can “bring it” within these roles when necessary will find few friends, among men or women, and often a general reaction that he’s done something distasteful in showing vulnerability. We’re all biased against wanting to be associated too closely with someone of low social position. It was from women the first time I ever heard the expressions “man up” or “cowboy up”.

    Men’s empathy between for other can be deep, but is, in my experience, mostly unspoken and strictly bounded. It’s against hegemonic social norms, for example, for heterosexual men to discuss sexual experiences in too much detail and certainly to communicate one’s internal thoughts and feelings about the encounter. On the other hand, I’ve seen great concern and selflessness shown, for example, in the Marines when one of our guys who had newborn twins sat down at a poker game. Not a word had to be said for everyone to understand that there was no way he was going to be getting up from that table with less than he sat down with.

  13. “The second study demonstrated that payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances.”

    While I think your comments about cultural attitudes toward empathy and gender are astute, I’d suggest this study is fatally flawed. As numerous psychological studies have shown (most memorably summarized in Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or more recently Daniel Pink’s Drive) reward systems do significant damage to intrinsic motivation, often having the opposite effect than was desired. One suggestion is that the empathy “drive” gets shunted to the side when financial incentives come into play. A study that offers rewards as a way to gauge potential empathy fails to account for much of what we know about motivation.

  14. Pingback: another gender stereotype is proven wrong « dreaming iris

  15. I don’t think one sex holds a monopoly on empathy–maybe just knowing when making that choice will reward them. In the study above it was money.

    “The second study demonstrated that payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances.”

    In my life I’ve met plenty of women who lack empathy and men who have demonstrated far more, so I don’t feel comfortable with stereotypes. I haven’t met a lot of mindful women. In fact, I’ve encountered far more women than men who have derided me as “too sensitive”, while at the same time who think nothing of imposing their problems on me. The consistent theme that hasn’t changed much is the numbers of people who want, demand and who seem to expect empathy from me, but who don’t reciprocate because they’re needy, clueless and self-absorbed.

    Jut asks, “Thus, leaving men and women out of the equation, is it possible to empathize too much?”

    I’ve asked myself this question many times. I think it possible that for some people the answer is yes, even if you establish good boundaries. Awareness for some can at times become a burden. It’s important to be selective-a good many people don’t merit your time or energy.

    When boundaries don’t work, I’ve cultivated non-empathy and distance as coping tools for dealing with expectant and unreasonable offenders.

    I agree with Tom’s observation about selectivity as a critical life skill. Seems to me a lot of people view sensitivity (awareness) as showing vulnerability and while many of them desire that in the context of relationships they don’t value or respect it–not really to the extent that they say they do. Seems to me a lot of people view that as being in a one-down position.

    Empathy is emotional and internal. Sympathy is intellectual and external. A good many people confuse the two.

    I tend to agree with Tom’s observation about social settings, positions and social hierarchy.

  16. Karen: “Empathy is emotional and internal. Sympathy is intellectual and external. A good many people confuse the two.”

    Karen, I agree with and thank you for your expression of discomfort towards stereotypes, but I usually explain sympathy as feeling sorry for someone even if you can’t relate to his or her problem, whereas empathy requires one to know what it’s like to experience that problem. One can have sympathy for someone whose pet dog dies even if that first person has never experienced it first-hand, but not empathy. Have you heard of this definition?

  17. bmmg39,

    Yes, I’ve heard of it. Empathy involves awareness of your own emotions. If you cannot access your own emotions, you’re not going to be able to read them in others.

    A person who is empathic in the above situation is able to say, “I know how it feels to feel sad at the loss of your dog, and if there is anything I can do, please let me know.”

    Even if you cannot relate to the loss of someone’s love for their dog and its death you could access the emotion of sad and try to relate to that. Likewise if you don’t like dogs, but you own a cat or vice versa and you have experienced loss then you could relate to the sadness one feels at the loss of a pet. You’re embracing that person’s emotional state and offering support from that perspective.

    Feeling sorry for someone is an expression that makes me want to cringe. It’s overused in some situations and it’s become rather bland and meaningless. People tend to say it when they feel nothing and don’t know what to say. It can also be used as a power-up and power-down ploy too. That’s another issue and discussion…

    I tend to feel a lot of discomfort with stereotypes and shy away from them as much as possible. I’m not perfect in that regard either, but I make a conscious effort to avoid them.

  18. “I just thought that I would add that empathy is always a two-way street: to open oneself up to the feelings of others is in some way to expose oneself as well. My view for the reason that most men learn not to empathize more than very selectively is to avoid vulnerability and protect oneself. The logic of what we are compels as much, and few people, male or female, have very much use for the unlovely creature that is an obviously vulnerable or weak man.”

    I have to say that the three men I have known best would all agree with that statement, as to the reasons why they had always avoided empathizing too much. However, all three of them did find that once they allowed themselves to have a truly empathetic relationship with their significant other, they really preferred it to the non-empathetic relationships they had had in the past and from then onward made a point of deliberately seeking it out with a significant other. I don’t know if two of the three of them extended that into relationships with non-significant others, though, and I know the third one did not.

  19. Pingback: To Empathize, Or Not To Empathize « Toy Soldiers

  20. Karen: “Empathy is emotional and internal. Sympathy is intellectual and external. A good many people confuse the two.”

    I was hoping not to get into this distinction, but I do not think I agree with this.

    The way it was characterized by the ancient stoics (and I only bring that up because of the etymology of the words and it seems like a good way to frame it) is that sympathy is “feeling with” somebody and empathy is “feeling for” somebody.

    One who is empathetic can understand and connect with a person who loses a spouse or child or dog, whereas someone who is sympathetic feels the “same” pain as the person who suffered the loss. The stoics encouraged people to understand and connect with people with pain, but not to let someone else’s sorrow affect you. I am sure most of us know people who too easily let the burdens of others affect them.

    Anyway, so I would suggest the opposite: sympathy is emotional and empathy is intellectual. Both can manifest themselves externally, but sympathy is internal.

    For what it’s worth.
    -Jut

  21. Interesting study, but your conclusion Hugo is always the same – more “obligations” and responsibility for men. What with this and your “responsible male traveler” post, and others, I’m reminded for some reason of RoboCop 2, where the main character is rebooted with dozens of do-gooder directives instead of the three that actually mattered in his work (“Protect the Innocent, Serve the Public Trust, Uphold the Law”).

    As a result of all the additional directives he could not function – and I wonder what would happen Hugo if you programmed an “ideal, empathetic man” cyborg as a role model for us all.

    It seems that whenever there is a societal difference in behavior between genders, you thrust all responsibility on the male. Let’s say, for instance, that some study finds that women are less “rational” in relationships _unless_ they are given a financial reward(*). Would you then come out and say that since women are capable of more reason when they want to be, that they have an “obligation” to do so. Or would you instead be telling men that see, we have an “obligation” to pay up and reward women to encourage them to be more rational?

    *(I’m just using this for the sake of illustration, I have no opinion on which gender is more rational, or even if it means anything).

    Finally, as others have noted, if attractive women responded positively to this kind of male empathy – and consequent vulnerability – men would be taking empathy classes, regardless of how gender studies pundits tell them “should” behave.

  22. Finally, as others have noted, if attractive women responded positively to this kind of male empathy – and consequent vulnerability – men would be taking empathy classes

    thank god, at least ugly women get to have normal adult sex and aren’t morally obligated to use fucking as a reward-punishment system. It isn’t much fun to feel like a pederast.

    I’m curious — assuming that you are an attractive man, do you, too, use your sexual activity to train and mold women’s behavior, like a master with a disobedient dog that has to be taught with judicious supply and withholding of sexual treats how to behave indoors? Or is it just men who require such treatment?

    I also like how, even when you construct women’s sexual behavior as an entirely behaviorist training system, you still can’t help but describe everything that we do sexually as “responding.” So, ladies, remember: you’re in charge of men, through sex, but don’t do anything so shocking as acting on tweesdad’s mandates — just respond appropriately. It’s important!

  23. Even if you assume that gender differences in empathy are entirely socialized, this result is *still* kind of odd. If women are more motivated to use empathy, wouldn’t they use it more often, and thus become *better* at it just through practice alone?

  24. To sophonisba –

    I’m not sure where you got the idea I would “mandate” anyone’s behavior. I wrote: “If {some people do this}, I bet that {others will do that), without expressing an opinion on whether “that” is a desirable outcome. (in fact I don’t think it is – men don’t need empathy classes).

    Since I was criticizing Hugo’s posts about how men should be morally obligated (your phrase) to change their behavior, I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that women do so, wouldn’t I?

    I do agree that there are plenty of examples of men and women who use sex as a behaviorist training tool in their relationships (hetero- and homosexual). And that it’s generally a horrible way to behave, which I would recommend steering clear of.

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