The identifiable victim effect - Deepstash

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The surprising downsides of empathy

The identifiable victim effect

Psychologists point out that defining empathy as the act of stepping into someone's mind to experience their feeling can lead to some tricky moral dilemmas.

  • We are moved to open our hearts (or wallet) when presented with a case such as a charity campaign where a single story of a named, suffering child is showcased to the exclusion of other suffering children. Psychologists call it the "identifiable victim effect."
  • This can also help explain why many people become numb to the deaths of strangers, but be up in arms about the minor loss of personal freedoms they more directly experience.

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Sympathy vs. empathy
Sympathy vs. empathy

Although many people tend to confuse the notions of empathy and sympathy, these two are quite different.

While sympathy implies only the fact of feeling concerned about someone, empathy goes way beyond that and it might result in harming the person who is displaying and feeling it.

The three types of empathy

Empathy is the ability to share another person's emotions after having reached a good understanding of their suffering. There are three main types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy, which is defined as the ability to understand and to share someone else's emotions by imagining one's self in their shoes
  • Emotional empathy, which is based on shared feelings
  • Compassionate empathy, which is characterized by the need to actually help the other.
The threats of being emphatic

While empathy can make both you and the ones around feel better at times, there are also important dangers worth taking into account:

  • Empathy can often lead to unjustified anger
  • It can cause guilt and thinking that your own happiness has come at the cost or may have even caused another person's misery.
  • it can result in a great amount of fatigue.
The Compassion Collapse

We all see suffering around us, whether it is the inhumane treatment of migrants or minority groups, or any depressing news of diseases, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

As the number of people needing help reaches epic proportions, it becomes less likely for us to initiate any help. This paradox is known as the compassion collapse and is a feeling of jadedness mixed with helplessness to the enormity of the situation.

Just Sympathy is Useless

Tragic stories and imagery make us sympathetic and wanting to help.

But a recent study reveals that the feeling of sympathy is not proportional to the help given by the person. A desire to help, or to contribute is more valuable for any tangible or fruitful result.

Feelings of sympathy do not necessarily lead to any action to end the suffering - they may cause a feeling of helplessness.

First-hand Knowledge

When people have the first-hand experience of pain and suffering, the desire to help arises from deep within, as they know the intricate details, and are motivated to help others who are in peril. This is called the Altruism born of suffering.

People who haven't experienced similar hardships themselves will find it hard to relate to others suffering. However, the desire to help can be invoked by showing them the effectiveness of the method, as well as the larger picture.

Love sets the stage
Love sets the stage

When a loving mother holds the newborn baby in her arms for the first time, she intuitively knows to care for the child. A relationship is formed, a bond created. The child will emerge in abilities, babbling, creating imaginary scenarios, the capacity to collaborate, feel pain, understand emotions, discuss differing positions, argue convictions, until the child grows up and can meet the mother in an adult relationship of empathy, intimacy, and perspective-taking.

The mother-infant dance will shape the child's affiliative bonds throughout life.

The neurobiology of bonding

The neurobiology of affiliation is the new scientific field that describes the neural, endocrine, and behavioral systems sustaining our capacity to love. There are three factors in the neurobiology of bonding:

  • Oxytocin that drives both care and prejudice
  • The affiliative brain
  • Synchrony.
Oxytocin and attachment

Oxytocin - a large molecule produced by neurons in the hypothalamus - is known for coordinating bonding, sociality, and group living. Oxytocin targets mainly the amygdala, a center for fear and vigilance, the hippocampus, and the striatum, a locus of motivation and reward.

Oxytocin is released through the central part of the neuron as well as its extensions, called dendrites. The dendrites increase oxytocin release whenever attachment memories are used and prime us for a lifetime. Early attachment memories help us move without fear. It imprints the infant's brain with distinct social patterns.