Radical empathy and lack thereof (Part 2)

Dear President Trump,

When someone gets hurt in your presence of do you involuntarily wince and feel a zing almost as though it was you who was injured? I honestly don’t know whether narcissistic sociopaths have that capacity, but I rather doubt it so maybe you don’t know what it’s like to feel your stomach clench and to experience a flash of pain in your toe when you see Melania or Jared stub theirs.

Then there’s the issue of whether you (or any of us) feel those zings when the person who is experiencing the actual pain is or is not known to us, close to us, someone we readily relate to, or have much experience with. In other words, is this involuntary reaction to another’s pain just reserved for those who are near/dear/familiar/similar to us or does it extend out beyond our usuals?

I think it would be awfully hard to this study systematically. Self-report wouldn’t tell us jack, but there might be experimental paradigms that could kind of get at it. What I’ve come up with so far is that you could have people agree to something that involves videotaping, start the camera rolling, and then systematically vary the similarity of the research assistant who’s prepping them and have the RA pretend to bang their knee on the table leg and exclaim “ow!” The resulting film of the study participants could then be coded for the intensity and timing of their response to the “injured” person by researchers who don’t know how similar or different the RA is from the participant. It would also be cool to vary how long the RA and the participant had been interacting and how personable and engaging the RA was since this could give us a sense of whether having established a connection, even a brief one, increases the likelihood of an involuntary empathetic response.

I just did a quick Google search to see if any studies like this have been done, but all I’m seeing are things about infants and chimpanzees. Not so helpful.

Laura found a paper about a series of studies that evaluates how well white people recognize pain in matched pictures of faces of whites and blacks (two studies also included Asians). The finding that black people’s pain is frequently under-medicated relative to white peoples’ pain was the impetus for the study. The general set-up was that each participant viewed six series of 11 faces ranging from a neutral expression to one that looked like they were in agony and were asked to say whether each face was in pain. The authors found that across all the sub-studies the participants identified pain in the white (or Asian) faces significantly earlier in the series than they identified pain in the black faces. The basic question the authors were attempting to address is whether white people fail to see black people’s pain until it’s extreme; the findings suggest this is the case, which is beyond disturbing for so many reasons.

May we all be safe from one another’s inability to truly see us.
May we all be willing to practice really seeing each other.
May we all respect one another’s experiences of pain and do our best to help take care.
May we understand that real peace requires respect and truly seeing one another.

Tracy Simpson

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