Empathy as a choice 2: Autism and psychopathy | The Moral Universe, Scientific American Blog Network

Last week, I wrote about a simple idea: far from being an automatic reflex, empathy often requires a choice to engage with others’ emotions.  Moreover, people often refuse this choice, because empathy can be challenging, painful, costly, or all three.  Instead of meeting these challenges, we often keep our distance from others’ suffering, tune out the opinions of people with whom we disagree, and generally empathize only when it is convenient….


Scientists long shared Roddenberry’s assumption that empathy is (1) automatic, and (2) stable.  Increasingly, I believe that a more important trait is not how good a person is at empathizing, but how motivated they are to engage with others in the first place.


One important message to not take away from this work is that the deficits associated with ASD and psychopathy are in some way these individuals’ fault.  Both conditions clearly involve early-developing differences in people’s responses to social cues.  However, broadly abandoning the idea of empathy as an automatic ability that people either have or don’t have—and instead viewing it as a choice—can change the way we can see these disorders, and the ways we think about treating them.


by Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University,

Culture of Empathy Builder Page: Jamil Zaki