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Arrested Empathy: Instinctual, Emotional Cognitive, and Cold Empathy

Uploaded 12/11/2014, approx. 19 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.


Today, I would like to discuss a model of empathy.

In my work, I suggest that empathy is three-partite, as three parts, roughly corresponding to Freud's postulated ego and superego.

In this model, normal empathy is comprised of three components, instinctual, emotional and cognitive. Children develop empathy in three phases, which correspond to these three components. Children construct the emotional and cognitive tiers upon an instinctual firmament.

In adults, cognitive empathy always goes hand in hand with the instinctual element and with the emotional correlate or component.

But what is this empathy that I am talking about? What is empathy?

Normal people use a variety of abstract concepts and psychological constructs to relate to other people. Emotions are such modes of interrelatedness.

Narcissists and psychopaths are different. Their equipment is lacking. They understand only one language, self-interest. Their inner dialogue and private language revolve around the constant measurement of utility. They regard others as mere objects, instruments of gratification and representations of functions.

This deficiency in the narcissist and psychopath renders them rigid and socially dysfunctional. They don't bold. They become dependent on narcissistic supply, on drugs, on adrenaline rushes, on money, on power. They seek pleasure by manipulating their dearest and nearest or even by destroying them, the way a child interacts with his stories.

And like autists, people for instance with Asperger's syndrome, narcissists and psychopaths fail to properly interpret or even grasp social cues. Their interlocutors' body language, the subtleties of speech, social etiquette, they are all lost to them.

Narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy.

Empathy requires both a suspension of disbelief by assuming someone else's identity, same way actors do, and the surrender of control by allowing other people to dictate how one feels. Both things, both feats, go against the grain of narcissists, let alone psychopaths.

They are unable to suspend disbelief and they definitely are not about to hand control to anyone or anything.

It is safe to say that the same applies to such patients who are co-diagnosed, co-morbid, with other personality disorders, notably schizoid, paranoid, borderline avoidant, and schizotypal.

Empathy lubricates the wheels of interpersonal relationships.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines empathy as the ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas and actions.

It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühle and modelled on sympathy.

The term is used with special but not exclusive reference to aesthetic experience.

The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator made by a kind of introjection feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates.

The use of empathy is an important part of the counseling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers. And this is how empathy is defined in Psychology and Introduction by Charles G. Morris. He says empathy is closely related to the ability to read other people's emotions.

The arousal of an emotion in an observer is a vicarious response to other people's situation.

Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify someone else's emotions, but also on one's capacity to put oneself in the other person's place and to experience an appropriate emotional response.

Just as sensitivity to nonverbal cues increases with age, so does empathy.

The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures.

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner's feelings before responding to them.

The empathy technique focuses the couple's attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal.

Empathy is also a cornerstone of morality. Again, the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of amoral sense. Morality embraces a person's beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels.

Childhood is the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood.

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people's development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels.

At the third level, that of post-conventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards and principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid regardless of society's opinion.

He is aware of the arbitrary subjective nature of social standards and rules which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus, says the Britannica, the basis for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination.

The person's moral reasoning also moves towards increasingly greater social scope.

In other words, including more people in institutions and greater abstraction.

In other words, from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit conflicts.

The Britannica proceeds, others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behavior arises from this moral effect rather than from the mere dissipation of punishment.

Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy and therefore some children are more sensitive to moral provisions than others. Young children's growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy.

In other words, the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others.

Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense.

Another important aspect of children's emotional development is the formation of their self-concept or identity, their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipp's concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person's reaction by a projection of the self onto the other.

In his aesthetic book, Lipp made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object.

And so these are the views about empathy.

But is empathy a social conditioning, a result of social conditioning, or is it inbred? Is it an instinct? A reflexive?

Well, this question may well be the key to all our deliberations.

Empathy has little to do with a person with whom we empathize with empathy. It may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization.

In other words, when we hurt someone, we don't actually experience his or her pain. We experience our pain.

Hurting somebody hurts us. The reaction of pain is provoked in us by our own actions.

We have been taught a learned response to feel pain when we inflict pain. We attribute feelings, sensations, and experiences to the object of our actions. It is a psychological defense mechanism of projection.

Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves, we displace the source of the pain. It is the other's pain that we are feeling.

We keep telling ourselves. It is not our pain. We did not do it to ourselves.

Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings. This is what we call guilt.

So we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be ambushed. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition. We feel somehow responsible or accountable, even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair.

In sum, we use the example of pain when we see someone hurting because we experience pain for two reasons. We feel guilty or somehow responsible for his or her condition, and it is a learned response.

We experience our own pain and project it onto the empathy, the person we empathize with.

We communicate our reaction to the other person and agree that we both are sharing the same feeling of being hurt, of being in pain, for example.

This unwritten and unspoken agreement is what we call empathy.


Back to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Perhaps the most important aspect of children's emotional development is the growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern, interpret the emotions of others.

The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action.

This phenomenon is called self-awareness, coupled with strong narcissistic behaviors and traits.

The Britannica says this growing awareness and ability to recall one's own emotional states leads to empathy or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others.

The young children's dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct or otherwise affect the behaviors of others.

With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective or point of view of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of other people's emotions.

One major factor underlying these changes is the child's increasing cognitive sophistication.

For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard.

The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one's own behavior requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and therefore the emotion of guilt cannot appear until the competence, that competence, that cognitive competence is attained.

Still, empathy may be an instinctual reaction to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empath or the person who empathizes, and then projected onto the empathy the person he empathizes with.

This is clearly demonstrated by inborn empathy. It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behavior in response to facial expressions.

Even newborns react this way to their mother's facial expression of sadness or distress.

And this serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with feelings, experiences, or sensations of the other, the empathy.

Surely the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad, and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad.

In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction.

A reflex, later on empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The Britannica quoted some fascinating research that supports the model that I propose.

An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion, feelings, enhanced empathy, and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologistAlice M. Eisen, that relatively small favors or beats of good luck like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift, induced positive emotion in people, and that such emotion regularly increased the subject's inclination to empathize or to provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enables subjects to name more users for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhances creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects, and therefore among people, I say. Such relations would otherwise go unnoticed.

A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, on memory, and action in preschool and older children.

If empathy increases with positive emotion, then it has little to do with the empathy, the person we empathize with, the recipient or object of empathy, and everything to do with the empathor, the person who does the empathizing.

As Paul Bloom notes in his contrarian essay, The Baby in the Well, published in The New Yorker, empathy is a blunt, biased, and stereotypical tool, ill-suited for guiding the design of public policy, which ought to be partial to justice and constructive outcomes.

We bestow our empathy on those who must resemble us, and on identifiable victims who garner the most media attention.

Empathy for individual sufferers blinds us to the overall features, and provokes in us the base instincts of retribution and vengeance. It distorts decision-making, thinking with one's heart, rather than with one's mind, is bound to yield catastrophic consequences.

And this is precisely why we delegate the weighing of empathy, and its implementation, to faceless, bureaucratic institutions.

They are less likely to be swayed by prejudice and preconception, they are more likely to optimize resources.

In the long run, such institutions benefit the many, not the few.


But back to the very beginning.

I said that narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy, but that's not precisely true.

Contrary to widely held views, narcissists and psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims. They may be endowed with what I call a penetrating x-ray vision.

Psychopaths and narcissists tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, for the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals.

They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal.

There are two possible pathological reactions to childhood abuse and trauma, codependence and narcissism. Both involve fantasy as a defense mechanism.

The codependent has a pretty realistic assessment of herself, but her view of others is fantastic. The narcissist's self-image and self-perception are delusional and grandiose, but his penetrating view of others is blood-curdingly accurate.

And so therefore I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath's version of empathy cold empathy, akin to the cold emotions felt by psychopaths.

The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not its emotional correlate. It is consequently a barren, detached and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze devoid of compassion and of a feeling of affinity with one's fellow humans.

Cold empathy is not the same as merely cognitive empathy. It is intuitive. It is the residual instinctual component coupled with cognitive empathy, but divorced from and leapfrogging the emotional constituent.

So cold empathy equals instinctual empathy plus cognitive empathy minus emotional empathy. Cold empathy is the ossified consequence of arrested empathy.

It is a predator's empathy. It is all about resilience, not about putting yourself in other people's shoes.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be empathizing with their possessions, for instance, objects, pets, the sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits. It may be their nearest and dearest, significant others, friends or associates, but it may be us as well.

This is not real empathy. It is a mere projection of the narcissist or psychopath's own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities.

This kind of display, sometimes ostentatious on empathy, usually vanishes. The minute the subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist or psychopath's life and his psychodynamic processes, the minute the source of supply, for instance, ceases to provide the narcissist or narcissistic supply, all vestiges of empathy vanish.

Cold empathy evokes the concept of uncanny valley, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids, human-like robots, for as long as these androids differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways.

But the minute these contraptions, these gadgets, these devices come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion and other negative emotions, including fear.

And the same applies to psychopathic narcissists. They are near-perfect limitations of human beings.

But lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there.

Psychopaths and narcissists strive their interlocutors as being some kind of alien lifeforms or artificial intelligence, in short, akin to humanoid robots, to androids.

When people come across narcissists or psychopaths, the uncanny valley reaction kicks in. People feel ill at ease, revolted, scared, repelled. They can't put their finger on what it is that bothers them, what it is that provokes these negative reactions.

But after a few initial encounters, they tend to shy away and to keep their distance.

But how important is empathy to proper psychological functioning? Why can't the narcissists and psychopaths be normal despite the fact that they don't have empathy?

Well, empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically.

The absence of empathy, for instance, as I said in the narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder, the absence of empathy predisposes people to exploit and abuse others.

Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth and self-love in the positive sense. It's absence denotes emotional and cognitive deficits or immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect other people's boundaries, to accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices and preferences as autonomous entities.

How is empathy developed?

Empathy may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain or happiness of others, such as their caregivers.

Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept, an identity. The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities, the more prone he is to projecting this newfound knowledge onto others.

But attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself? By doing so, the child develops a moral sense and inhibits his empty social impulses.

The development of empathy is therefore a part of the process of socialization and self-identity.

But as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering with another person.

Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.


Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today?

Well, the social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the church, have all unraveled.

The society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of anti-social behavior, both criminal and legitimate.

The survival value of empathy is on the decline.

It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive and to abuse, than to be empathic.

Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on the lack of empathy have been pathologized and medicalized.

The sad truth is that narcissistic or anti-social conduct is both normative and rational in contemporary society. No amount of diagnosis, treatment and medication can hide or reverse this fact.

Ours is a cultural malaise which pervades every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

But is there any empirical evidence that we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence and anti-social behavior, related mental health disorders, abuse. It is also extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.

If I don't battle my wife, if I don't torture animals, I don't steal, is it because I'm empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail?

No one knows.

Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance and skyrocketing rates of incarceration, as well as the aging of a population, has sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States at least in the last decade.

But this benevolent decline has nothing to do with increasing empathy, has to do with demographic creatures.

The statistics are open to interpretation, but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane, leisureless percentage of national wealth. Welfare policies are being abolished, Darwinian models of capitalism are spreading, income inequality is gaping.

In the last two decades mental health disorders were added to the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association, whose hallmark is the lack of empathy.

The violence is reflected in our popular culture, movies, video games and media.

Empathy, supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans, is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outlets with great tax praise.

The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state lodges.

Picking, nursing, the elation of giving are all tax deductible and it is a sorry sight indeed.

We live in the narcissist world.

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