On Empathy

On Empathy

On Fault Lines and Amy Coplan’s Experiential Understanding

You open the window, smell the fresh spring breeze, gaze wistfully outside. Outside, finches gather in that tree you like, somewhere in the distance you see a bunny rabbit hop, and the sun shines so bright you can almost see the kid from Teletubbies hiding in its glare.

Meanwhile, the world is a bit of a mess. At the store, in class, with friends – wherever, really – people seem to manage to get along well enough – yet, go home, switch on the telly and suddenly seemingly intraversable fault lines between social categories appear. Men are from Mars, women from Venus; allochtonen from the outside, autochtonen from the good old polders; never the twain shall meet, never the twain shall understand one another.

I often feel there is an underlying idea behind such a mentality: that the most we can hope for is mutual respect, not mutual empathy or understanding; that, however nice it would be if it were possible, we cannot empathize with someone from another social category simply because they are alien to us. They are alien to us and their experiences are alien to us because – the idea goes – to understand something you must have experienced it yourself first.

There are fault lines, and there is no getting around this.

This idea has a huge influence on the interactions we have on a daily basis – on the things we dare expect, on the things we dare hope for when we approach one another. As such, I thought it would be nice to spend a few articles in this new series, On Empathy, delving into different conceptions of empathy together, reviewing the discussions about them as we go along[i]. In particular, a recurring question for us will be: can we bridge the fault lines?

Today we will be kicking off this series by taking a brief look at the work of a really cool researcher called Amy Coplan. Coplan heavily draws upon philosophy as well as contemporary psychology and neuroscience[ii], and she has written some really interesting thoughts on empathy that will be useful for us as we further explore the concept. In her essay Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects, Coplan begins by noting the incredible breadth with which we commonly use the word:

“So what is it? Depending on whom you ask, empathy can be understood as one or more of several loosely related processes or mental states. Some of the most popular include the following:

(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else’s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another’s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other’s situation
(F) Making inferences about another’s mental states
(G) Some combination of the processes described in (A)–(F)”[iii]

Even merely looking at this list makes me confused about what we mean when we empathize, and it also makes me wonder about the nature and structure of the different mental processes that we capture under the umbrella-term of empathy. To me, this is dazzling, and Coplan herself stresses that we should remain vigilant that we don’t to conflate the broad range of conceptions of empathy that we have and treat them as a monolithic blob; to do research is to be at least somewhat specific, she argues, and as such we should specify the particular conception of empathy we are studying when we are studying it.

“The number of competing conceptualizations circulating the literature has created a serious problem with the study of empathy by making it difficult to keep track of which process or mental state the term is being used to refer to in any given discussion.”[iv]

The particular “narrowed down” approach that Coplan takes in Understanding Empathy examines empathy as an experiential understanding[v] of what it’s like to be another person, all the while retaining a sense of self-identity. Coplan herself states:

“Under my proposed conceptualization, empathy is a complex imaginative process in which an observer simulates another person’s situated psychological states while maintaining clear self-other differentiation”[vi]

This definition includes a lot of different criteria all at once, so let’s take them apart and take a closer look. First, it’s important that there is an affective matching in which the imagined states of the observer are (perhaps nearly) qualitatively the same as the affective states of the other; this is when we feel what another feels:

“Under my proposal, affective matching occurs only if an observer’s affective states are qualitatively identical to a target’s, though they may vary in degree. The observer must therefore experience the same type of emotion (or affect) as the target”[vii]

Secondly, according to Coplan it is important that we remember that empathy is about another. While this may seem self-evident, this is something that often goes wrong in our attempts to empathize. To clarify this, Coplan draws upon Peter Goldie’s useful distinction of self-oriented perspective-taking and other-oriented perspective-taking.

When we attempt to empathize by “placing oneself in the other’s shoes”, we are engaging in self-oriented perspective-taking: that is, we are imagining ourselves in the situation of the other. In other-oriented perspective-taking, we imagine ourselves not “in the shoes” of another but as the other: that is, we attempt to simulate their experiences from their perspective. This is, as we might expect, a significantly more complex and arduous mental project. Coplan points out that even though this distinction may seem like splitting hairs, it is essential for empathizing successfully:

“Rationally and theoretically, most of us understand that most people are very different from us, and yet we make these mistakes all the time. We don’t just fail understand others’ subjective experiences; we often assume that we do understand them, which leads to a new set of problems. I contend that self-oriented perspective-taking leads to a type of pseudo-empathy since people often mistakenly believe that it provides them with access to the other’s point of view when it does not. Most of us have had the experience of disclosing something to a friend, having her respond, ‘I know just how you’re feeling,’ and then realizing within moments that she does not. It’s not that she hasn’t been perspective-taking; she has. But the perspective has been her own; only the circumstances are ours.”[viii]

Stated briefly, it is important to keep in mind that there is a very real difference between stepping into another’s shoes and becoming them in their shoes. Note that it is only in other-oriented perspective-taking – not self-oriented – that affective matching, our first requirement, can take place[ix]. Also note that it is somewhat up for debate whether real, successful other-oriented perspective-taking is possible at all – but this is a question for another article[x].

The third and final component necessary for successful attempts at empathy is clear self-other differentiation. Self-other differentiation is the awareness we can have of the ways in which another is and is not like us; it’s the consciousness that saves our attempts to empathize with others, or even to simply befriend them from icky, undeserved chumminess, and from imagined senses of community. Coplan notes that this is especially important when we attempt to empathize with those who are in many ways unlike us:

“To stay focused on the other and move us beyond our own experiences, perspective-taking requires mental flexibility and relies on regulatory mechanisms to modulate our level of affective arousal and suppress our own perspective […] Fulfilling these conditions is not easy, particularly when the other is someone very different from ourselves, since the more unlike a target we are, the more difficult it is to reconstruct her subjective experiences. As a result, empathy is subject to biases based on one’s familiarity and identification with a target individual; we are more likely to empathize with those we know well and whom we judge to be like ourselves in some important respect […] In order to represent the situation and experiences of those we know less well and with whom we fail to identify, we must work harder, and even then, we will often be unable to simulate their situated psychological states.”[xi]

Should we fail to differentiate between ourselves and the other, we run the risk of “enmeshment”[xii] with the other, or of engaging in self-oriented perspective-taking, neither of which provide us with an intimate knowledge of their inner life.

Let’s sum up what we’ve learned about Coplan’s conception of successful empathy – or as she also calls it, experiential understanding. There must be:

  • affective matching; without this, we are nowhere in the first place
  • other-oriented perspective-taking; without this, we place ourselves in the other’s shoes
  • clear self-other differentiation; without this, we let the lines between ourselves and the other blur, making us forget where they start and we begin

This, then, is empathy according to Amy Coplan. So let’s return to our original question: can we bridge the fault lines? It’s important to note that Coplan’s approach is a lot less sociological (in the sense that it is a lot less group-based) than my question is. Nevertheless, going from her argument the answer seems: yes, but it is very difficult.

We will close this first edition of On Empathy with another quote from Coplan herself, in which she offers a hopeful message against the terrifying threat of solipsism that many people confront from time to time:

“As Gilbert Ryle explained, the longstanding view in Western thought has been that, ‘the mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe.’ I submit that, by providing us with an experiential understanding of other people, however imperfect, empathy promises to rescue us from the island of such a ghostly existence.”[xiii]

I hope you’ve enjoyed my rambling-on about my very favorite subject, and I hope you’ll join me again in next month’s edition of On Empathy!

[i] Also I’m doing my bachelor thesis on theories of empathy and intersubjectivity – which is basically about the ways in which people share the world, and their life in that world, with one another – so there is also that.

[ii] In the interest of keeping things at least somewhat small-ish, we won’t be looking at the neuroscientific aspects of empathy just yet. Helaas pindakaas!

[iii] Coplan, A. (2011), Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects, p.4 in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (eds. Coplan, A., Goldie, P.)

[iv] Ibid., p.4

[v] Ibid., p.17

[vi] Ibid., p.5

[vii] Ibid., p.6

[viii] Ibid., p.10

[ix] Coplan notes that self-oriented perspective-taking is not necessarily a bad thing; it can improve our understanding of others, and it can sometimes even be a path by which we learn to engage in other-oriented perspective-taking. Nevertheless, the process is in many ways too myopically self-centered to be an apt tool for developing a real experiential understanding. (see Ibid.,p.13)

[x] 🙂

[xi] Ibid., p.13-14

[xii] Ibid., p.17

[xiii] Ibid., p.18


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