Two research studies on the nature or empathy have caught my attention recently. One has found a genetic basis for empathy or at least the appearance of being kind and friendly. In this experience people watched the interaction of couples who they did not know for a brief period of time and then rated each individual’s empathy. Those with the highest rating for showing that they were able to understand other’s emotions had a statistically higher percentage of particular combination of oxytocin receptors which allowed more of this hormone to enter their nervous system.
The other study showed that people who had higher levels of oxytocin showed tendency to take sides with people in need and while becoming more harsher in their treatment of the person competing with the one in need. The competitor did not have to do anything wrong. Apparently the presence of oxytocin creates an empathy that is one-sided, spurring sympathy for one party and dislike of the other.
Research about oxytocin as a hormone determining level of affection has brought to light its increase as a person takes joy in another’s pain. Evidently increase in oxytocin occurs when a person takes pleasure in some social interaction, not just empathy for others but also Schadenfreude.
This reinforces my suspicion most wonderful new “discoveries” such as a hormone that makes us more loving and affectionate, are actually two-sided. Our tendency is to avoid considering the dark side. We want to bask in our feeling of empathy towards the abused and our hatred of the abuser. However as such we may become willing followers of feed on our empathy coupled with rage. According to columnist Paul Bloom:
“There is a history of this sort of thing. Lynchings in the American South were often sparked by stories of white women who were assaulted by blacks, and anti-Semitic attacks prior to the Holocaust were often motivated by tales of Jews preying on innocent German children. Who isn’t enraged by someone who hurts a child? Similar sentiments are used to start wars. As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, newspapers and the Internet presented lurid tales of the abuses committed by Saddam Hussein and his sons.”
Finally as there is a dark side to empathy, is there a converse bright side to being cold hearted?