Random disparate podcasts serendipitously interconnected for me this week on the concept of empathy.

At the partiallyexaminedlife the topic was “Bladerunner 2049” (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) – referencing the seven versions of “Bladerunner” (Ridley Scott, 1982) film and the Novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (Philip K Dick, 1967).

All versions have lead character Rick Deckard as a bounty hunter for androids. He has to use a machine and a process called the “Voigt-Kampff test” to measure the emotional responses to questions about harming animals. This measures empathy and is used to distinguish between a real human being and a replicant or android robot.

Empathy is the key to it all; it seems to be the defining human trait that cannot be faked by a sophisticated machine.

I later caught Episode 296: The Psychology and the Research Behind Why Some People are Angry when Athletes Take a Knee podcast from “The Psych Files” where Michael Britt explains that part of the explanation lies in what’s called the “empathy deficit” by people in power. Britt references the article, “Power Causes Brain Damage” (Jerry Useem, The Atlantic, July / August, 2017), that states, “Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place”. Studies of behaviour and of the brain itself support the loss of empathy as a person climbs the social ladder.

Britt’s podcast explains in detail the tests that show clearly how people who feel (or are primed to be made to feel) wealthy, healthy, advantaged and so forth lose their empathic ability to read moods, atmospheres, facial expressions and body language – while those who are feeling disadvantaged, low class, poor, stupid etc scored well in empathy.

NPR’s “Uncovering the Brain of a Psychopath” is an interview with James Fallon – professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain” – who reckons he, himself may be a psychopath!

  • I found out that the term “psychopath” is not accepted in DSM-5, so cannot be diagnosed officially, this is mainly because it overlaps too much with other conditions – yet the term is widely known and popular in use. Mind you, the same document recently moved “Aspergers” too as it’s just covered by the term “autistic spectrum”, and again, the terms continues to be used anyway.

The transcript includes:

FLATOW: There are Asperger’s, people with Asperger’s who don’t – you know, we don’t consider them psychopaths. They have troubles with empathy. Is there a difference there?

FALLON: Yeah. Well, there’s – the empathy circuit connects to other circuits. It connects to the mirror neuron circuit. Now, it appears that in people with – like with Asperger’s, there’s a poor connection between those mirror neuron areas, that is the ability to understand what others are doing, okay, and what the meaning of what they’re seeing is. So they have a problem with that.

But in – the connection to the empathy-related areas like the insula is also, because of that, faulty. But that doesn’t mean they act anything out in violence.


FALLON: Because their amygdala, etc., the other parts that induce this control of violence, there’s not – they’re normal. So, you know, they may not be able to see it or understand it in such a way but they don’t act it out like a psychopath.

FLATOW: What percentage of the population do you think has psychopathic traits?

FALLON: Well, full psychopathy, it’s one to two percent in any population.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

FALLON: And it’s pan-cultural. So it occurs in all cultures. And it’s very interesting that, you know, our genome – that we’ve kept this so close to us. You know, why?

FLATOW: Could this serve – could famous people, you know, leaders, is this something – a positive trait for them to have? If a general, you know, if a general is ordered to go into battle, you know, and he says I’ve got to get the job done and I can’t let my feelings get in the way of it.

FALLON: That’s right. If you’re a surgeon, if you’re a leader, a president, a CEO, you’ve got to do brash things. And it turns out that people with psychopathic traits can – are very successful at taking chances. Somehow they’re able to read things without reference to negative emotion. Right? They don’t sense negative emotion and – or pain that much, really.

But people – if you look at it in a more general way, those sorts of traits – bravado and this manipulativeness and glib – and the willingness to take chances, risks, it’s important. Because most people will not take risks. Most people are safe, so things stay static. And if that’s true, you know, how does a company or how does a country or how does a family protect itself?

Because there’s always others out there that are predators on…


FALLON: …your group or your family or you. And so it’s important, probably, to have people with those traits because they have not only the lack of fear and they’re willing to take chances, but, you know, how many people have the energy to do this? How many people have the energy to be a president or a CEO every day? To go out and say things that they could get nailed on.

So you’ve got to have a healthy dollop of narcissism, you know, to really…


FALLON: …pull this off. So it’s probably important or else you couldn’t do those jobs on a day-to-day basis anyway.

FLATOW: James Fallon, thank you for being with us today. It’s a really interesting book, “The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” And good luck to you.

There is also a good Radiolab podcast on Spindle Cells regarding animal empathy levels, as well as an episode called “Killer Empathy” (2012-02-06) about the article, “The Nature of Violence” (Jeffrey Lockwood, Orion Magazine, and “The Risks and Rewards of Empathy” where Lockwood’s college mentor  always warned him not to slip into a muddled, empathic mood, not to let his emotions sideswipe his objectivity.

  • It is interesting to note that scientists actively suppress empathy and emotion.

Do Animals Have Morals and Show Empathy“, (Kiran Moodley, The Independent, 2014-12-23) explores animal empathy levels – referring to videos of animals showing compassion. Frans de Waal of Emory University – a renowned biologist and primatologist  – says animal empathy is underestimated.

It almost goes without saying that most folks – the masses, ie normal, poor people like us have lots of empathy. Animals may have some empathy too.

But just look at what we have in the lower-or-no-empathy group:

  • autistic,
  • psychopaths,
  • androids,
  • serial killers,
  • scientists, and
  • rich and powerful leaders.

There is not a lot you can do about your empathy levels if you are autistic or a psychopathic serial killer.

Scientists have empathy – it’s just that they try to contain it, to reject it. It’s possible that already having low empathy levels would help in a scientific career – maybe that’s why it’s a career choice for upper-middle-class people.

If we deduct the psychopathic leaders from the rich and powerful group, it may be possible to change empathy levels by grounding (taking them down a peg or two).

PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001.
She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk.
Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it.
“Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned. (The Atlantic)

It’s difficult to maintain empathy levels if you are doing well, feeling happy and secure and all seems right with the world. How do you square contentment and satisfaction with becoming more like a psychopath or robot?

Is it possible that Mr Spock is actually happier suppressing his half-human empathetic self than Dr McCoy’s emotionality? Is it possible that animals are happier the less empathy they have? As our lives merge with all sorts of AI tech, androids and robots – and with our increased leisure time in the future – will we be less empathetic, more selfish and much happier as a result?


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