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Chapter 3.1

PSYC12H3 Chapter Notes - Chapter 3.1: Hot Sauce, In-Group Favoritism, Blood Transfusion

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Nick Hobson

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Empathy and Discontent
What role does the experience of feeling what you think others are feeling often known as ‘empathy’ – have in moral deliberation and
moral action? Empathy is narrow in its focus, rendering it innumerate and subject to bias. It can motivate cruelty and aggression and lead to
burnout and exhaustion. Compassion is distinct from empathy in its neural instantiation and its behavioral consequences and is a better prod to
moral action, particularly in the modern world we live in.
Challenging Empathy
- In numerous studies Batson and his colleagues put subjects in situations where they have the opportunity to engage in actions that
help others, such as donating money, taking over an unpleasant task, or cooperating at a cost.
- When subjects are encouraged to feel empathy for those who need help, they are more likely to behave prosocially; empathy can
motivate good actions.
- It can be seen as akin to a spotlight, making salient the suffering of others.
- However, some have argued that empathy has a dark side, in both personal relationships and public policy
o Not all identifiable victims are equal.
o Empathy's bias is manifest in the many studies that look for its neural signature usually an activation in brain areas
corresponding to the experience of pain when one observes or imagines another person in pain
o In one such study, subjects were shown videos of people said to be suffering from AIDS.
When the people were described as being infected through intravenous drug use, subjects felt less empathy
as reflected in both self-reports and lowered neural activation in the (ACC) than when they were described
as being infected by a blood transfusion.
Also, the more the subjects explicitly blamed the drug users for their fate, the less empathy they said they had
and the less ACC activation there was [20].
- Empathy is also influenced by ingroup bias.
o One European study tested male soccer fans.
o The fan would receive a shock on the back of his hand and would then watch another man receive the same shock.
o When the other man was described as a fan of the subject's team, there was more of an empathic neural response an
overlap in selfother pain than when he was described as a fan of the opposing team
- In the domain of charitable giving, our choices are often driven by images of adorable, identifiable victims and lovable animals like
polar bears and pandas and not based on the actual impact that our money can have
- When it comes to dealing with concerns about the future, our sentiments render us insensitive to concerns such as climate change
a crisis that, despite its seriousness, has no specific victims that we can think about and empathize with.
- Other cognitive and emotional systems are biased in similar regards if the capacity for empathy were somehow excised from our
brains, we would still be drawn to individual victims, be influenced by race and attractiveness, and so on.
- Empathy is also silent when it comes to statistical concerns such as, as Schelling put it, ‘a barely perceptible increase in preventable
- Most of us believe, that such empathy-driven judgments are mistaken, that it is wrong to give a girl priority for a medical treatment
simply because we are imagining her suffering, that one life is not worth more than eight, and that a crisis that can devastate the
lives of billions of people matters greatly even if there are no immediate identifiable victims.
- To the extent that empathy clashes with these considered moral views, it is a poor guide to moral decision-making.
- We should apply procedures, such as cost benefit analyses of moral principles, that yield judgments we can rationally defend, both
to other disinterested parties and to ourselves
Empathy As Tool
- Given that we can shift our empathic focus, empathy can be used as a tool to encourage all sorts of good actions.
- That is, we can decide the right thing to do based on costbenefit analyses or certain moral principles, but then empathy can step in
and make us actually do it.
- For instance, once I decide that it is morally right for me to give much of my money to starving children in faraway lands, I can
motivate myself by feeling empathy for those children and perhaps go on to motivate others to give to the same cause through
use of empathic appeals.
- Virtually any emotion or sentiment can be exploited to do good not just empathy, but also anger, fear, envy, shame, religious
fervor, and so on.
- Indeed, Prinz has argued that when it comes to positive social change, anger is a more powerful motivator than empathy
- Empathy can be exploited to motivate us to do things that do not help, as when empathic pleas lead people to give billions of dollars
to charitable causes that have few positive benefits, and sometimes make the world worse
- Empathy can also be exploited to motivate people to harm others.
- In one study that illustrates this point, subjects were told about a financially needy student who was entering a competition for a
cash prize
o When motivated to feel empathy for the student, subjects administer a greater dose of hot sauce to her competitor,
although this person did nothing wrong.
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