Next week Saturday, June 8, the Helix Center will host a public Roundtable on the topic of Altruism and Empathy. Since I decided to go, I’ve been thinking about both of these concepts and how they relate to friendship and other relationships humans engage in. And as part of a pet project of my own, a neurocomputational model that I’m working on, I would argue that while many people seem to believe that altruism is related to or even based on empathy, I would argue not only that altruism itself is actually different from and unrelated to empathy, but that they are two very different types of concepts:
For me, empathy is the cognitive capability to correctly recognize emotional and motivational states in others. That is to say, someone who is high in empathy is able to correctly assess how someone else is feeling and what motivational components, such as desires, fears, goals, or plans, are in that other person’s mind. As said in the teaser to the roundtable, this capability is thought of to develop more or less naturally during childhood, but the degree to which people are capable of employing this cognitive capacity varies.
On the other hand, altruism for me is what I would call a set of values, desires, wishes, and subsequent goals that allow people to make choices which incorporate other people’s needs and wishes into their decisions to a greater extent. In other words, someone high in altruism will care about other people’s needs more strongly.
Why do I believe these concepts to be unrelated? First, from a theoretical point of view, empathy seems to be an ability or function rather than a value or parameter. I consider the difference roughly that of the ability of driving a car–without accidents, that is to say knowing how to drive safely–and liking old-timers. Both are certainly related to a common theme, cars, but one of them is a capability, the other one is more of a passion or personal value. And equally as I think that some people are damn good drivers but don’t care about old-timers, I would suggest there are people who care about old-timers but haven’t driven a car once.
The same is true I think for empathy and altruism: both are related to social interactions. However, I believe there are people who are high in empathy and low in altruism, and I believe there are people who are low in empathy but high in altruism. The former group I would say might be extremely well suited to be salesmen, spokespeople for corporations, politicians, debaters, attorneys, in short representatives of interests that are not their own and, to a substantial degree, are contrary to the interests of those they argue with. Why? Well, a high degree of empathy will allow someone to correctly identify how I feel, and paired with a high level of intelligence such a person could then make shrewd but potentially highly accurate guesses as to what it is I want to hear to satisfy a need I am currently experiencing. Once this need is satisfied, I will be more willing to engage in a quid pro quo exchange.
The latter group would be more suited to engage in activities that may not require always knowing perfectly well how someone is feeling at the moment, but having a good routine and functional understanding of people’s needs, thus allowing an interaction to be helpful for someone, even if it is not necessarily experienced as friendly. Professions I would put into this category certainly include military personnel, and to a somewhat lower degree also people working in healthcare, particularly those only interacting with patients to a small extent, such as anesthesiologists, radiologists, cardiologists, in short doctors who are highly specialized and usually only see patients in very particular situations. Obviously it would be desirable to be high on both traits for those professions, but I would yet rather be treated by someone who truly cares rather than someone who only seems to care.
Finally, getting to the actual topic of my post, I would say that the way people differ in altruism and empathy has a huge impact on their friendships. My strong hunch–and I will investigate this further–would be that people high in empathy have many, many friends. In fact, I would guess that people high in empathy are extremely popular among their friends, as they seem to always know how someone feels, which really is helpful if I want someone to talk to. They are understanding and can correctly identify my needs and thus help me figure out things. However, I would say that the number of friends does not necessarily translate into the quality or depth of friendships…
On the other hand, I would say that someone high in altruism will have very strong friendships. Those friendships may be very, very few, particularly for people who are also low on empathy, given that it is difficult to develop a friendship without the capability of reading someone’s emotions. It would seem that without empathy others would think of that person as a bit “out of touch” with them, and would have little motivation to share something personal. However, if for some reason an interaction were to happen, it is very likely that after a short while the other person would realize the great amount of care and good-will on the other side and take the scruffiness with a grain of salt but form a solid friendship. And given the willingness to give up personal gain for someone else’s needs, the friendship has a good chance to stand the test of time and deepen.
As a last comment, I do believe that being high in empathy will make someone who is also high in altruism a much more effective care-giver, as it allows this person to correctly identify needs and desires in others. But that simply doesn’t mean the person cares more than someone who is low in empathy or that they know better what needs to be done as part of the caring. It simply means that they know better how to translate their care into actions that are perceived as caring, something that enhances the experience of being cared for.