The relationship between friendship and altruism as well as empathy

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.

Elements of an ideal intimate relationship (for me)

Clearly, the following thoughts are truly “idealistic” in the sense that I have by no means the answer to the question whether this would be possible or whether it would actually turn out to be idyllic, but I strongly feel that the following elements would, from my current perspective, make a relationship more enjoyable and fruitful, in the sense that it fulfills the purpose I think it has.

So, let’s start with that… Why would I want to be in an exclusive relationship to begin with? And please keep in mind that all I’m trying to say is that this applies to me, and only potentially to (some) other people!

This initial question leads me to what it is that I need in life to find contentment and happiness. Overall, I must say that I believe I can find these things through the experiences of learning and reaching goals, and of sharing those with other people, who then reflect back to me that I “got it”. For me the critical aspect of learning is that my mental representation of the world around me becomes more accurate. I have the subjective experience of mastery, of being able to successfully navigate the world. It’s like a child that finds joy in finally being able to stand and take the first few steps; and getting there is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.

Which brings me to the second one: reaching goals. I believe the way my brain–and I think brains in general–conceptualizes the path through life is by placing value on certain experiences and to then improve the chance of making more valuable experiences it sets up goals. To allow complex action sequences, I think it is necessary to also place value on possibly counter-intuitive actions. Sometimes I have to first move away from something that is the primary source of value in order to obtain it, and when I am able to successfully follow this more complex path, the brain also generates a signal of “success” for intermediate steps, even though I did not yet get to the point of actually experiencing what I am after in the first place.

Unfortunately, my brain also produces a lot of noise signals and sometimes loses focus. Goals can be increasingly complex and in certain situations it might be almost impossible for me to see, from an “inside perspective”, how to possibly navigate a complex situation where the reward is visible but can only be obtained through a long series of complicated steps. For one, my brain may become tired and, over time, may lose the potential to keep sending those necessary intermediate signals to “keep me going”.

My foremost response then would be that having a single individual whom I feel most closely connected to–and I will go into detail about what this connection should entail in a bit–is a very intuitively appealing thought. For one, if this connection is genuine, that is to say without pretense and thoroughly honest, it can work as an external source of validation for one’s perceptions, thoughts, and decisions. Very often in life I have felt confusion about whether or not I see things “objectively enough”, followed by doubts about whether a decision I was about to make is truly the best I can do to reach a goal. If I know someone in my life who knows my goals, and who also cares about me reaching those goals, that person seems to be an invaluable source of information.

And here is where I would say nature has implemented an awesome mechanism: romantic love. While I would argue that until fairly recently in human history the concept of romantic love has only been professed by a few rather than by the many, the fact that in a lot of modern cultures the idea that two people joining in an exclusive union should be “in love” seems to suggest that there at least *may* be value in this concept.

Personally I think that the two main advantages of experiencing romantic love are putting the brain into a state of hyper-updating by providing increased levels of certain neurotransmitters that allow new pathways to form. This in turn lets us adapt to given circumstances with much less “resistance” offered by existing cognitive patterns. The other advantage seems to be a pain dampening effect, whereas negative experiences seem much less relevant in the presence of “love” (which I believe is also more persistent, even if the immediate effects of “being in love” have worn off).

Naturally, there are risks involved. First, if the person we fall in love with actually does not care about us in return–or at least to a much lesser degree–we may find ourselves in a position where the signals we are looking for become inconsistent or completely absent, or even worse they may also lead us entirely astray, away from our actual goals because our brains simply “believe” the sender. In that sense I do think that love does make blind to a certain degree.

So, why do I think that, for me, a single individual is possibly better than, say, a group of people we trust? In part I would say this comes from my perception that different people I know, people who I trust, and who I believe to have my best interest at heart, still do not necessarily agree upon what the best course of action is. And while in the greater context of politics and strategic decision making a “democracy”, that is to say the incorporation of several voices and opinions with a majority vote for decision making, has become the de facto standard, I don’t think that this approach is very practical on a personal level. For me at least, the idea of residual doubts and confusion about decisions already taken would be extremely difficult to reconcile with the idea of being able to resolutely move forward through life. Equally as I think that a “commander in chief” of, say, a nation should rather be someone who can make a decision and then not waver than be someone in whom people constantly perceive doubts about whether taken decisions are “good”.

And now, finally, I would come to the qualities of the person I would want to be with 🙂

First, I would want to experience an intuitive sense of understanding. While everything can be potentially explained in good time, and given enough motivation, I believe that it makes much more sense for me to be with someone where the need for explanations of my feelings and thoughts, my needs and goals, are the exception rather than the norm. I would want to experience that this person almost knows me better than I know myself–and to some degree that may then actually be correct, given their outside perspective. Misunderstandings can be extremely costly, particularly in the presence of life-altering decisions.

Second, I think I want to find someone perceptive and open-minded, someone who can think “outside of the box”, someone who allows thoughts to pass through potential barriers from the past. Given that I believe that the most rewarding experiences usually are achieved through somewhat more complex actions, it would seem necessary to be able to step back from the immediate problem and almost rotate it mentally into a different perspective. And to do so, I think it is necessary to be able to leave “known ground” and allow the brain to experience the unknown outside of chartered territory.

Next, I would want someone who is selfless enough to prioritize common goals, particularly the well-being of the relationship itself. Hopefully, the ideal relationship will only require minimal amount of “work”–that is to say maintenance effort to sustain a good standing–but at times that effort may be necessary, and then I would want to be with someone who can use his perceptiveness and cognitive abilities to detect potential issues and then find smart and effective ways to address them, even if that means temporarily cutting back elsewhere.

Finally, I would want to be with someone who has a gift for empathy and inter-personal warmth. In short, someone who cares. Human lives are never straight or easy. At times we experience great depressions and woes. And, then, having this one person around who understands what I’m going through, who perceives the issue and is able to provide both comfort and a fresh perspective that I may not be able to attain given my current state seems like the best chance I have to get out of the depths again.

So, what about physical qualities? Well, I do have a strong preference–for those who know me: silence is golden! I do think that for the brain to be “switched” into this initial state of attraction, physical parameters matter. But from personal experience I would say, the longer I know someone, the less those matter. In short, for me to decide that someone is “worth investigating”, the brain uses (obviously not entirely reliable) heuristics and then sets up a few mechanisms that, if things go well, are set into full motion for me to experience romance. Is it possible to get there without this initial setup? I believe so. I would however say that it’s also more “fun” to experience this first step 😉

And that’s it for now. I may revisit this topic again later though and “improve” on the list…