How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?

People are capable of amazing kindness, but also of unbelievable callousness. We go out of our way to help strangers, but we also turn a blind eye to misery. But what if you could make human beings kind all the time? What does science teach us about empathy, and how to create it in people? We decided to ask the experts.

Top image: justasc/Shutterstock.com

We approached some of the top experts in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy with a pretty simple question: "Suppose you were ruler of the world, and you decided to engineer the human race to have more empathy. How would you go about doing this, and what would be the consequences, good or bad?"

The answers we received reveal a lot about not just empathy, but about human nature.

What is empathy?

The first thing we realized was, there's more than one type of empathy and more than one way to have it.

The term "empathic" encompasses a lot of different things, that don't all have the same root, says psych professor Abigail Marsh with Georgetown University. The most common distinction we make is between "cognitive empathy" and "emotional empathy."

People who lack cognitive empathy are usually classified as being on the autism spectrum — it's not that they don't care, they just can't read other people's emotions. "People who are on the autism spectrum are often very compassionate, but they have difficulty in understanding other people's perspectives," says Marsh.

People who lack emotional empathy, meanwhile, don't have compassion and can't understand what other people are feeling. Emotional empathy is what motivates us to try and help other people when we know they're suffering, which happens via a "complicated series of processes," Marsh tells io9.

Extreme Altruists and Extreme Psychopaths

Marsh is studying people at both ends of the "emotional empathy" scale — extreme psychopaths, who are capable of insane violence, and extreme altruists, people who will donate a kidney to a stranger. When Marsh was 20 years old, a stranger saved her life in a freeway accident, and she's devoted her career to studying why we do or don't help others.

And Marsh's research has found that psychopaths have a hard time recognizing fear in other people's faces, and that this appears to be linked to dysfunction in the amygdala, a structure in the brain that is part of the limbic system. By contrast, extreme altruists seem to have a greater sensitivity to fear responses in others. Marsh's work on altruists hasn't been published yet, but she presented a paper last month and she says there are signs the amygdala may be more active in these people.

So is the amygdala the key?

So do we just need to engineer people to have larger or more active amygdalas, and then people will naturally be more altruistic and sensitive to other people's suffering. Right?

Not exactly, says Tony Buchanan with the Cognitive Neuroscience of Stress Lab at St. LouisUniversity. He tells io9, "the amygdala certainly plays a key role in fear recognition," which does have a role in empathy. But at the same time, the size of the amygdala may not actually be the defining factor. And Buchanan's work has shown that a lot of empathy depends on habits of mind, like looking for the signs of fear in others and responding to them. (More on this in a moment.)

A lot of having empathy is choosing to be empathic. As Marsh says, "Even among people who have the capacity for empathy, they don't always use it." Understanding why people who do have empathy "turn it on and turn it off" is "where the real action is," she adds.

How about oxytocin?

There are a lot of myths about oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle chemical," which can create bonding — but there's also some evidence that it does actually increase your capacity for empathy.

"We know that substances like oxytocin make people pay more attention to facial expressions, being altruistic in economic games and generally behave prosocially," says Anders Sandberg, James Martin Research Fellow with the Future of Humanity Institute at OxfordUniversity. "Genetic variations in oxytocin receptors also correlate with empathy levels. So it is not implausible that one could boost empathy chemically, or by selecting for gene variants that increase the chance of being sociable."

Marsh adds that the famous research study about two types of prairie voles — one monogamous, one practicing free love — shows that small changes in the density of oxytocin receptors can cause big differences in social responses.

How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?

Image by Anna Gutermuth.

But using oxytocin could have serious downsides, including negative effects on people's memory, and harmful impact on people who were pregnant or breastfeeding, says Stephanie Preston, a psychology professor with University of Michigan.

And bear in mind that empathy is a complex mental state, not simply a brain state, cautions Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA. "Reductive approaches to empathy are very misleading," he tells io9. "That's why the oxytocin literature is so incoherent."

A matter of training

And as we said before, even people with the capacity for empathy don't necessarily use it. As Sandberg says, "empathy is not just something you have, but something you are skilled at."

And in fact, this is a skill that can be honed — even in people who are starting with a deficit. Buchanan has done research on one person who has amygdala damage, and thus has a hard time "recognizing fear in other people's faces, which I guess you could call an empathic deficit." This is someone who's very sociable, gregarious and "socially adept," says Buchanan — even "socially disinhibited." She just has a problem in this one area, and "it's really most specific to fear."

Buchanan's team asked this patient to focus on people's faces, and in particular on the eye region. "When she did that, she was much better able to recognize facial expressions of fear," he tells io9.

Before, she just wasn't looking at the eye region of the face at all — and Buchanan's research team measured this, using eye-tracking. Most of the information you get about someone's emotional state comes from the eyes, so if you don't even look at someone's eyes to begin with, you're going to miss crucial information. When this person was trained to look for the eyes, she was able to compensate for her amygdala damage.

And similar research by Ralph Adolphs and colleagues has shown that people's behavior can improve immediately when they start looking for the right cues to other people's emotional states, says Preston.

Learning to "simulate" other people's emotions

But it's not just about recognizing the signs of emotions in others, but learning to "simulate" those emotional states inside yourself. True empathy requires being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes, according to Preston.

How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?Famous (and possibly fake) photo of bullfighter overcome with compassion, via Jeff McNeill


Preston has developed the perception-action model of empathy, in which "your ability to empathize with somebody depends on the degree to which you have similar or overlapping neural representations for how they feel, or what situation they're in," she tells io9.

Preston's done an imaging study, where she's examined the brains of people who are imagining another person dealing with a situation that they, personally, have experienced — and the brain response is identical to "imagining your own plight," she says. "You use the exact same neural regions to imagine someone else's and your own pain."

But when people try to imagine someone else in a situation that they haven't actually dealt with themselves, they don't activate the emotional regions of their brain as strongly. Instead, they "over-activate the visual system in the fusiform gyrus," which suggests that they're just trying to visualize the problem, not relate to it emotionally.

When people have more of a personal connection to someone else's problem, they're able to "appreciate it at a more affective level," Preston says. That's why some medical school programs have would-be doctors spend the night in the hospital, to see what it's like to be a patient.

"If you can create a scenario where they would genuinely experience the trauma or the difficulty that that person experiences, you would have a very real empathic response afterwards," says Preston. Even reading a book can help, Sandberg adds.

This ability to "simulate" is especially important in boosting cognitive empathy, or the simple awareness of someone else's distress, notes Bhismadev Chakrabarti with the University of Reading. It doesn't help as much with emotional empathy, or compassion.

"The capacity to understand that someone is in distress seems naturally to lead to the desire to help them," adds Marsh.

Shaped by Childhood

So it's definitely possible to train people to have more empathy as adults — but it's way easier to instill empathy into children, according to Preston and Marsh.

Researchers like Carolyn Zahn-Waxler have found that parenting style, and the way you talk to your children about other people's distress, has an impact on how empathic your children grow up to be, says Preston. It's a matter of how much time you spend explaining "other people's feelings and needs during early development," she adds.

Meanwhile, sociopaths may have an in-born disposition to antisocial behavior, but they also often have problems during their upbringing, such as abuse and neglect, says Preston.

"Culture matters a lot, simply because we are very flexible creatures," says Sandberg. "We can learn to behave in almost any way that is not too contrary to our nature. So the right education might make us very empathic and nice people." Modern Anglo-Germanic cultures emphasize keeping your emotions under wraps, especially for men, which can make it hard to tell if someone is suffering, and also to provide comfort, says Sandberg. But other cultures have less emotional distance.

How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?

Image via Kelsey/Love Fusion Photo

"To be empathic towards others you have to have something in common with them," says Warren H. Meck, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at DukeUniversity. And early life bonding experiences make the biggest impression on your mind. "Most of the world's cultures use cognitive structures to build walls between different groups of people" — for example, the fact that it's harder to learn a new language after a certain age — "and this serves as a barrier for the intermixing of different cultures and/or races," Meck tells io9.

Empathy for the other

In fact, the biggest problem isn't just empathy with people in your own group, but with people in the "out-group." Indeed, dosing people with serotonin could create more empathy with people who are just like you, but less empathy with members of other ethnic or social groups, warns Sandberg.

So how do you increase people's empathy for other people from other races, religions or sexual orientations? One recent study by Chakrabarti and his colleagues could provide some clues: they looked at how much of a reward you're willing to give up now in order to get a bigger reward later. This is known as the "discount curve." For example, if I offered you a choice between a candy bar now, or $100 next week, you'd probably take the $100, even though a week is a long time to wait and you're hungry.

But what if it's $10 now, or $15 next week? In that case, the trade-off between a smaller reward now and a bigger one in the future is less clear-cut. You're further along the curve, in other words.

What Chakrabarti and his colleagues found was that if you were asked whether your best friend should have a candy bar now or $100 next week, you were likely to make a similar choice to the one you'd make for yourself. But if you were trying to decide for a total stranger, especially someone from a different group, you'd be more likely to choose the immediate reward instead of the bigger reward later on. This isn't just because you want the stranger to be ripped off — it's because you have less empathy for the stranger, and thus have a harder time imagining the future reward materializing for him or her.

The steepness of this "discount curve," or how much you are willing to let someone sacrifice now for future gain, depends on your level of "trait empathy," and how much you can identify with the other.

"This suggests that if we can manipulate an individual's idea of another person as belonging to an 'ingroup' rather than an 'outgroup', that should have a flattening effect on the discounting curve," Chakrabarti tells io9. So if you start thinking of someone as similar to yourself, such as having gone to the same school, or listening to the same music, then you're likely to have "a flatter discounting curve for rewards for you, than if you were a complete stranger."

What would happen if you could make everyone empathic?

Would a world of empathic people be unable to function? Would we all be paralyzed with too much awareness of the suffering in the world? Not necessarily.

"We have a picture of empathic people as ineffectual Deanna Trois ('I feel... violent agression'), but there is no reason to think being empathic precludes being a decisive person," says Sandberg in an email.

How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?

Preston uses the example of a negotiator: if you send someone to the negotiating table who has only very crude empathy, then you could be in trouble. If the other side makes a big fuss over how certain concessions might hurt them, your overly-empathic negotiator could be overcome and might give away the store, in a way that will hurt everybody in the end.

But if your negotiator had a highly developed sense of empathy and a sense of emotional intelligence, then they could actually be better at coming up with a good agreement, says Preston. "Being empathic doesn't just mean you feel sorry for people, or you can be taken advantage of. It can also mean that you're more likely to perceive it if the other person is trying to take advantage of you." An empathic negotiator might actually be able to figure out what the other side is really willing to give up.

Similarly, you might think someone who is ruthless and oblivious to the suffering of underlings might be a better CEO — but actually, in a lot of situations, you're better off with a boss who has a degree of emotional intelligence, says Preston. "You can have some degree of benefit in ruling with the iron fist, but actually the benefit is even higher if you're collaborative and emotionally intelligent, because people are naturally more loyal to you and they're more motivated to work their hardest in those situations," she tells io9.

At the same time, it's possible that some people are too empathic and too altruistic, say Preston and Sandberg — if you donate your spare kidney, you could die of a disease later that wouldn't have been such a problem otherwise. And sometimes people who have too much empathy can suffer from burnout. There's a reason why people's scores on empathy tests get lower as they go through medical school, for example.

Plus of course, you could be highly empathic and also be a sadist, enjoying your vicarious experience of someone else's suffering, notes Sandberg.

Sandberg adds that the best goal might not be to make everybody more empathic, but "preventing too many people from becoming non-empaths." Sociopaths, in particular, undermine companies and institutions and cause a huge economic cost as everybody is forced to spend time protecting themselves from being exploited, says Sandberg. "We know high-trust societies do better economically than low-trust societies."

"The system's already titrated to produce empathy in situations where it's normally adaptive to do so," says Preston. And it's natural to have a curve where some people are more empathic than others.

Marsh teaches a class on empathy, and one of the first things she always asks her students is to consider whether empathy is always a good thing. Because not only is empathy a skill that we learn how to use — it's also something that we learn how to use judiciously, in the right situations.