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Empathy and Social Failure

ttruong's picture

Empathy, defined by the American Dictionary Heritage as the “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives,” is a capacity that is extremely essential to the development of social relationships between humans.  Empathy is a type of emotional intelligence that not only helps us to build strong, rewarding relationships, but also reduces friction in our social interactions.  When a person is capable of putting herself in someone else’s shoes she is better apt to predict how someone might respond to her actions and words, and thus avoiding unnecessary conflicts.  Besides from enabling us to predict the intentions and emotions behind other’s actions, empathy also allows us to learn vicariously through other’s actions.  In this way we learn the lessons and know the adverse emotional, physical, and mental consequences of certain actions without having to repeat the same mistakes of others.

This ability to mentally teleport into another human’s conscious state seems, at times, almost like an unearthly clairvoyance or mind-reading that someone is either “gifted” with or not.  However, there is substantial evidence suggesting that empathy is more an evolutionary phenomenon than a supernatural one.  Empathy is an evolutionary development that is both naturally and culturally selected for, playing a significant role in survival and fitness; it is an event that can be explained in terms of physiological and neurological processes (Allott, 2002).

Being such a crucial component of human social development, it is not surprising that empathy has been studied extensively by experts in neuroscience, and has been discovered to be the product of activities of mirror neurons.  This specific type of brain cells were discovered to be equally responsive to both the stimuli of perceiving a particular action being performed and the actual performance of that very action.  Mirror neurons were first identified by a team of Italian scientists who observed the same activation of individual neurons in monkeys when they grasp an object and when they observe another primate grasp an object.

Since the process of watching an action and performing an action can activate the very same pathway and neurons, and consequently the same feelings, scientists have come to believe that mirror neurons can physically explain empathy.  They think that mirror neurons not only give us access to the emotions of other humans but also the “Why?” behind their actions.  Thus, mirror neurons can provide the biological connection between the physical traits in the brain and the occurrence of empathy.

As an emotional state that can be directly associated with the physical trait (the quantity of mirror neurons a person has) rather than an incorporeal one, empathy can be described as a naturally selected quality serving to increase our viability and fertility.  Because of the many advantages—ability to predict an opponent’s intentions behind an action, more effective and efficient communication, and emotional intimacy—that empathy equips the person in possession of it with, it is a vital trait for successful social and filial relationships.

Even before science discretely identified the importance of empathy, delineated them in technical, evolutionary terms, and traced it back to its biological roots, literature has always expressed this awareness of the vitality of empathy in complex social systems through its literary characters.  In On Beauty, by Zadie Smith this very same awareness is perpetuated and made particularly prominent through the character Howard Beasley, a man who undergoes a disintegration of almost every relationship in his life.  Through the character Howard, the significance of empathy is made most pronounced.

Throughout the text Smith portrays Howard as someone who can not connect with other people, whether it be his students, children, or wife, due to lack of empathy. One particular event that exemplifies Howard emotional handicap is his encounter with Katie Armstrong. We, the readers, are provided with background information about Katie, her dreams, her hopes, her fears, and her internal intellectual struggle with being in a class that she feels she’s not prepared enough for. The readers can not help but empathize with Katie and root for her. However when she does approach Howard with the intention of seeking help with his class, he is entirely averse to it. Instead Howard deliberately “bent down under his desk to avoid conversation with any other students” when he “got the nasty sensation that someone or another was lingering” (Smith, 255).  We juxtapose the emotions and attachment we feel for Katie after learning about her situation and difficulties with what Howard feels for her, and immediately see the drastic difference in emotional response between the two views.  We are immediately repelled by his actions, and find ourselves disliking Howard. It is with this incident that Smith establishes for us Howard’s inability for empathy and our repulsion to it, and consequently him. 

Smith makes Howard’s inability for empathy even more conspicuous in his short reunion with his father.  He could not empathize with his father’s inability to communicate love in the same manner that he does, through articulate words and witty comedy.  His father’s way of saying “It’s god to see you. It’s been too long. W e’re family.” was to watch TV together in silent companionship.  We see his father’s desperation to reach out to Howard and keep him close for a while longer when he says “I ain’t seen you in so long, just happy to see you, aren’t I, just trying to find something to say, you know…” (299).  Even after Howard’s father begged him to stay a while longer, Howard is completely insensitive to his father’s disappointment in having him leave so soon.  Once again Howard fails to empathize with another human, and the result is further disintegration of the relationship between them.

Smith presents Howard as a person who cannot entertain the emotions and thoughts of the people he interacts with.  As a result of this, Howard gradually loses all the important people in his life, one by one.  At the end of the book, Howard is treated with only tolerance by his own children.  However, even that is not always manageable, since they all give him the finger when he asks whether they needed a ride (440).  Furthermore, his relationship with his wife Kiki deteriorated to the point that she moved out and they signed separation papers.

Howard’s failure in personal relationships and his lack of empathy exemplifies the connection between empathy and social success. As a specimen of evolution, Howard apparently did not receive the trait of empathy that is culturally and naturally selected for among our species. In On Beauty Smith uses the social failures of Howard’s life to magnify the significance of this type of emotional intelligence, empathy, in our survival




Socity can make a better 's picture

Social Ethics

Socity can make a better living place for us if the people of socity do social job ethically. My opinion is that to social people to follow ethics in their social life, then they can live a peacefull life. Social ethics can be like, to look after each other, to help each other, to know each other, give support to socity etc.

Anonymous's picture

lack of empathy

Thank you! I'm very happy to have found this page, it's exactly what I was looking for. I'm involved with someone who lacks empathy, yet without guile, in a way that leads me to think of it as some sort of physiological disorder.

trying to explain how I feel and the urgency of teaching empathy to his child has been like trying to explain red and green to someone color blind. and getting him to counseling would do just as little to help.

yet he's relatively high functioning. I mean, he is with ME but that's not for much longer.

the part I'm trying to grasp is how this person compensates so it appears that he does have empathy...sometimes, but not really....

admin's picture

teaching empathy

You may also want to see these thoughts from a student teacher about everyday ways to teach empathy.
joanna's picture

i think i may be in the same

i think i may be in the same position you are with a partner lacking empathy. He too is highly funtional and appears to have a small amount of empathy also. I recently stopped giving my opinion and advice to him so i didn't have to see the dead look in his eyes showing me he was only tolerating our conversation and waiting for his turn to respond. i am hoping empathy can be taught otherwise i fear my marriage of 19 years won't last after the kids move out. if you have any success in that area i would love to hear about it!

Dee's picture

I think I may be in the same

Oh my gosh, Joanna! I'm in tears reading what you wrote. This is exactly where my husband and I are at and I've been married for 19 years also with 2 teenage sons. I can't tell you how much I resent my husband and have lived with this horrible emptiness all our married lives. I feel so alone, unloved, unvalued. When I talk to him, I get the obligatory "dead eye" stare, and then he's back to watching tv. He's totally alinated our sons. There is no connect what so ever. Please know your not alone.

ken's picture

lack of empathy

I too have known someone for two years in the workplace that presents socially adept. We have established a friendship that is now a worn out process for me. Everything is about him. I have gifted/lent money and gone out of my way for friendship, but nothing is ever reciprocated. A quick thanks and that's that. I have come to find out through counselling that I've been dealing with someone who has histrionic/narcisstic personality disorder and is incapable of any empathy or anything outside of themselves. When trying to relate how I feel about things, it comes back to me that everything is fine. This has created a sense of resentment on my part to the point that I am not willing to want a continued friendship. As of late there are no efforts to reach out and they just continue enjoying schmoozing others and constantly presenting laughter. Since having known this individual, my "self" has become dishoveled and only as of late, have I decided to move on. As someone who does display empathy toward others, I cannot fathom the lack of substance of even caring about others.