Monday, April 21, 2008

Disposing of the myth of reliable empathizing skills in normal people

Yesterday I read an article in New Scientist that confirmed what I have explicitly believed and asserted for many years now, and have implicitly understood for as long as I can remember. The article suggests that Baron-Cohen’s “Theory of Mind” theory (TOM) is an oversimplification with regard to understanding how normal adult minds think about other minds. The article goes on to discuss research that has uncovered the ways that normal people really reason about the mental states of others, and the flaws and pitfalls in the different strategies that people unconsciously use in this type of thinking. Neurotypical/normal/non-autistic people are not the innately caring and socially skilled empathizers that the professor has made them out to be many times in his writings. This will not be news to the many autistic people who have been bullied and victimized and discriminated against by their neurotypical “peers” since they were little kids. Unconscious “empathizing” as a way of thinking used by normal people, by way of TOM or recognition of facial expressions, is in fact an unreliable way of thinking about the objective realities of other minds, and can lead to delusion. It also appears that TOM thinking is not one simple thing with one corresponding part of the brain that “does it”. It appears that here are different types of TOM thinking which happen in different parts of the brain.

As one would expect from any pop science article that mentions “empathy” or “Theory of Mind”, some research about recognizing facial expressions is discussed, but instead of celebrating the wonders of reading emotions in faces, this article exposes a sinister aspect to this very social form of perception. One as yet unpublished study discussed in the article has results that indicate that the recognition of facial expressions is associated with a particular type of “distortion of reality”.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Egocentrism seems to be a natural part of being human.”

“When we judge others’ behaviours, attitudes, values and beliefs, we anchor on ourselves and extrapolate – we assume other people like what we like, want what we want and believe what we believe, …”

“Another common approach is to fall back on stereotypes ….”

“It’s only engaged when you think about the minds of people who are similar to you.”

“These delusions serve the practical purpose of smoothing our social interactions, …”

In this article we can find sufficient explanation as to why neurotypical people, with all of their super-powers of “empathy” and TOM, nevertheless generally have not the faintest clue about the psychology of autistic people (unless they have spent time reading a textbook on autism, and even then the information very likely is not reliable).

At the end of the day, the most sensible way to find out what another person thinks or feels is to ASK THEM, and then hope for an honest and full answer. And if you do not receive a full and honest answer, you didn’t really have a relationship going anyway.

The article discussed:

In print:
“You’re so vain” by Ada Brunstein in New Scientist March 22nd 2008, number 2648, pages 30-33.

On the internet:
“Being self-centred is the key to empathy” by Ada Brunstein

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008.