We mourn for Oregon shooting, but gloss over bombing a hospital: The brain science behind empathy

A psychologist explains why Americans grieve more intensely over the Oregon college shooting than foreign crises

Published October 8, 2015 2:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
(AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

e cThe last week or so has seen a number of painful events: The shooting at a community college in Oregon, which has drawn an enormous amount of grief and empathy. We’ve also seen global tragedies, including the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan and the latest chapter of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, neither of which has received the same amount of attention in the United States.

Is there a way of making sense of the disparate ways we -- especially if “we” are American, or other members of the First World -- connect with these things? Why do we, whoever we are, respond more intensely to some tragedies than others?

Salon spoke to Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Markman is the author of “Smart Thinking” and host of the KUT radio show “Two Guys on Your Head.”

We caught up with Markman outside of Austin. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Let’s start with the week’s news. Why do we respond so differently to various tragedies? What summons our empathy? What makes Americans connect with some events and not with others?

The thing to remember is the way we understand people around us is by trying to simulate what it would be like to be in that situation ourselves. A lot of times that’s our best way of trying to predict the reaction someone’s going to have when we’re interacting with them. And so, the power of these stories, which in some ways is like the power of movies and other [narrative] is that we are projecting ourselves into that situation… The position of a mother or a father or a person who is there – and feeling those emotions. Feeling the fear or someone trapped by a gunman, feeling the sorrow of someone who has lost a child. That mechanism, which helps us to navigate our social relationships, plays a huge role in our ability to understand these situations. And that’s where empathy comes in.

That’s why Stalin is reported to have said that one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic. And the reason that works is that you can’t empathize with a million people. But if you can look into the eyes of someone, and project yourself into their situation, you can feel what they are feeling.

So in the simplest sense, what you’re saying is that more Americans – especially middle-class Americans – can imagine being a college student, or being related to a college student – in a way that we can’t as easily imagine being a refugee fleeing a war-torn country.

The interesting thing is that if we are given enough of the details, we can even sympathize or empathize with the Syrian refugee – as long as we’re able to simulate what it would be like to be in that situation. I think where we have more trouble is if you see videos of say, a homicide bomber giving an impassioned speech before blowing themselves up and taking a whole market with them… We can’t put ourselves in a mindset where that makes any sense.

But to watch people who’ve lost everything, trudging with all of their worldly possessions on their back, and if you’re a parent and you realize they are trying desperately to protect their children, you can empathize with that situation even though it is so distant from your own experience.

Do we have a sense of where empathy comes from in human history, or pre-history? What did it allow the human race to do?

In a cooperative species, one of the things we have to be able to do is predict the actions of other people. For a variety of reasons, if we are going to cooperate in the hunt, we can’t all do the same thing. So I have to know: If I was in your position, I would go this way, and try to force the animal we’re hunting this way, and then I need to be here. For the cooperative work we need to do, I need to be able to take your vantage point. It turns out that that’s valuable to do not just logistically in space, but for me to be able to predict your reaction to things. It’s useful for me to know, Am I going to do something that’s going to make you angry? If so, I need to prepare for that.

We’re able to use the part of our brain that allows us to understand our own mind, to help us to understand others.

Several studies recently have said that narrative, especially the novel, but also television shows with recurring characters, can generate empathy. Do these seem credible to you?

Oh, absolutely. The power of stories in all of their forms – movies, television, books – comes from our ability to project ourselves into this situation. We bring to bear all of the mechanisms we use to understand what’s going on in these stories. From the brain’s standpoint, it doesn’t know that you are reading words that [describe] a situation, or watching people on a screen – not really in life. While you’re engaged in understanding, your brain isn’t really making that distinction. There are parts of your brain that knows this is just a story, which allows you to disengage if you get too uncomfortable. But the part of your brain that’s making that prediction – they’re not making that distinction. They’re just trying to understand the situation as it’s been presented.

What does empathy typically lead us to do? Does it motivate us to action? Does it just make us feel bad? Closer to other people? What are the consequences?

There are several bits to this. Remember that the system is designed in part as a prediction system. One of its primary values is to help us predict what’s going to happen, and we use that strategically all the time in our interactions. That’s what enables us when we see someone who’s sad to comfort them, the way we’ve been comforted in the past, knowing that that kind of action has helped us feel better before. So we can use this to make predictions to the effect of our actions on the world.

When you can establish an emotional connection with someone else, it allows you to feel psychologically closer to them. There’s this interesting two-way relationship between distance and abstraction. The farther you are from someone in time, space, or social distance, the more abstractly you think about them. The closer you are, the more specifically you think about them.

But it also works in the opposite direction. Meaning, the more I think specifically about someone, the closer I feel to them. That closeness can increase my willingness to want to help them. So if you’re raising money for starving children in Africa, you don’t put a bunch of statistics on a page of your brochure. You put a picture of a kid, with big eyes. [People] look at that kid, feel that emotional reaction – that makes you feel psychologically close in a way that makes you feel like you should take action to help.

Finally, how has the digital world changed the way empathy works? Pick any aspect of that – don’t feel the need to answer the whole thing.

Digital media give us more opportunities to have more specific opportunities with a wider range of humanity. Think of what’s happened with police-victim relations. Those videos, which tend to be things people take on their cellphones, have transformed events that had generally been hearsay into things you can experience first-hand. Which creates more psychological closeness. Movements like Black Lives Matter have been helped by the fact that people can be brought psychologically close.

And I think the same thing is true world-wide: There are cameras and digital video in more places, in a way that is giving more people access. The question is whether it gets to be too much: Will people begin to react against watching this? Because they get tired of having their heartstrings tugged at 24-hours a day?



By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Empathy Human Psychology Oregon Shooting Syrian Refugees