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06 November, 2006

Why The Bad Guys Always Win

What do you think empathy is?

The Free Dictionary defines it as the "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives” which is something like what I might have said. Merriam-Webster Online is rather more verbose but essentially similar; “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Psychologists tend to see empathy as an aspect of personality. It doesn’t actually feature as a major ‘personality factor’ in modern personality models, however, the famous Hans Eysenck sort of had it in his own personality models in that his personality dimension of 'psychoticism' was defined as the absence of empathy. Therapists seem to have a higher respect for it and give empathy far more weight as a tool for probing and understanding other people – which is sort of understandable, really.

My own view is that empathy is a major personality trait, and that it’s opposite is not psychoticism in general but psychopathy in particular. Like other human traits, empathy is probably normally distributed – which means that a tiny percentage of us is deeply empathic while an equally tiny percentage is deeply psychotic – unable to comprehend that other people have feelings at all. The great mass of us are in the middle somewhere. However, if empathy is normally distributed, we should expect that half the world has less than an average amount of it and, that for every person who resonates to the suffering of others, there is another one who is indifferent to it.

If I’m right, this is one of the saddest facts about the world that I know. While there are 3.2 billion people with above average empathy, there are also 3.2 billion with below average empathy. Which explains why there are plenty of people quite happy to kill whales, or chimpanzees for food. That’s why there are plenty of people willing to torture other people, or to hack them to death with machetes. That’s why there are bullies in the workplace and the schoolyard, why people are happy to get rich while other people starve, why 'men of faith' will condemn women to unwanted pregnancies and babies to unloving parents. It's also why so many will ignore the future suffering that global-warming will bring in favour of present comforts, and why people cut you up when you’re out driving.

The only bright side is that, for every one of these perfectly sane monsters, there is someone else who joins Amnesty International, gives up their seat on the bus, and weeps for starving children.

Unfortunately, when a person with high empathy confronts their opposite number with low empathy, the guy with the machete is the one with the big advantage.

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