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Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective Taking?

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Are humans hardwired for compassion? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this questions with an enthusiastic “yes.” Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved to care for strangers. It’s just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Read a book about compassion. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to nurture it.

One of the ways we have been taught to nurture empathy is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Before you judge people, walk a mile in their shoes,” we exhort our compassion-challenged friends and family. And we parents regularly encourage our kids to imagine the feelings of the people who might be hurt by their self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are doing something to turn our kids into more better human beings.

But does trying to take the perspective of other people actually lead to empathy? For half a century, experimental psychologists have been working under the assumption that it does. It was back in 1969 that the social psychologist Ezra Stotland first tried to promote empathy in the lab with instructions to take the perspective of another person. And according to Stotland, it worked: “Any interpersonal process, symbolic or overt,” he wrote, “which causes an individual to imagine himself in another’s position would lead him to empathize with the other person.”

Testing under experimental conditions

Following Stotland’s lead, experimental psychologists quickly began using perspective-taking instructions in their efforts to manipulate empathy in the lab, and they’ve continued to do so for fifty years. In the typical experiment, research participants encounter a stranger in the lab who is going through something difficult in his or her personal life; then, the experimenter asks the subjects to do one of several things. To encourage perspective-taking, researchers might instruct
subjects to:

Try to imagine how the person feels about what has happened and how it was affected his or her life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.

In a variant of these standard perspective-taking instructions, researchers might instruct a second set of subjects to imagine how they (rather than the suffering person) might feel in a similar predicament:

Try to imagine how you yourself would feel if you were experiencing what has happened to the person and how this experience would affect your life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.

To encourage still other subjects to remain objective (under the premise that doing so will squelch empathy), researchers instruct a third group of subjects to:

Try to be as objective as possible about what has happened to the person and how it has affected his or her life. To remain objective, do not let yourself get caught up in imagining what this person has been through and how he or she feels as a result. Just try to remain objective and detached.

In the ideal experiment, researchers also assign a fourth group subjects to an experimental condition in which they receive no instructions at all. They just learn about a person in need without any prompting to do anything in particular in response. This fourth group of subjects serve as a control group that enables experimenters to find out both (a) whether perspective-taking increases empathy, and (b) whether remaining objective reduces empathy. Without such a control group, any differences in empathy that arise between the groups cannot be attributed to either condition.

From such a comparison, we can learn whether perspective-taking and remaining objective produce different amounts of empathy, but we cannot know whether perspective-taking increased empathy, or whether remaining objective reduced empathy, or a little of both. This might seem like a subtle distinction in the sorts of conclusions we might draw from experiments on empathy, but as you’ll soon see, it’s a distinction that makes a big difference.

Reviewing the evidence

My colleagues and I, with the psychologist William McAuliffe in charge, recently published a statistical review (called a meta-analysis) of the results of every experiment we could find that compared the effects of these different instructional sets on self-reported empathic emotion toward a needy stranger. (You can read the full paper here).

In all, we found 85 research papers, authored by scores of different psychologists, that had examined these issues experimentally. From those 85 papers, we identified 177 individual tests of whether any two of the four experimental conditions (imagine-other, imagine-self, remain objective, no-instructions) produced different amounts of empathy for a suffering stranger.

In 124 of the tests it was found that empathy levels were much higher in the condition where people were told to imagine the feelings of the needy person when compared to the condition where people were told to remain objective and detached. The difference between these two conditions was large and unambiguous: remaining objective as you consider the plight of a needy person will leave you with less empathy than trying to think about the needy person’s feelings will. So far, so good.

There were surprises in store, however. We also found that subjects who were instructed to imagine how the suffering person might be feeling did not experience more empathy than subjects who received no instructions at all (the control group). Taking the perspective of other people—according to 18 different comparisons of those two conditions—doesn’t actually seem to be better at boosting empathy than doing nothing. On the other hand, actively trying to avoid thoughts about the other person’s suffering by remaining objective—according to the 13 comparisons of those two conditions—is indeed significantly worse than doing nothing. From this pattern of results, it appears that we can reduce people’s empathy by encouraging them to remain objective as they consider a person in need, but we can’t raise their empathy by encouraging them to take the needy person’s perspective.

What should we make of these results? I see a glass-half-empty interpretation and a glass-half-full interpretation. The glass-half-empty interpretation is clear enough: The experimental evidence just doesn’t support the assertion that we can boost our compassion for needy strangers just by trying to imagine how the world looks and feels from their points of view. To be clear, evidence from contrived laboratory experiments shouldn’t be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t true about humans’ behavior and mental processes, but the fact that these experiments contradict our everyday experiences (not to mention the sage advice of professional compassion-activists) should give us pause and leave us with some humility about the reliability of our intuitions.

The glass-half-full interpretation, which is equally true, might actually be more fun to contemplate: The fact that we are better at suppressing our empathy (by trying to remain objective while we consider other people’s plights) than we are at boosting our empathy (by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a needy person) could suggest that we are walking around, out in the wild, with reasonably high amounts of empathy already. Perhaps we take needy people’s perspectives so intuitively that we can’t get any additional empathy-boosting benefits from trying to do it deliberately. This is an interpretation that any compassion-optimist should be able to get behind: However hard it might be for us to become more compassionate than we already are, perhaps we already walking around with quite a lot of it.


Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology and is Director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. He is also author of the forthcoming book The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code (2020, Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @ME_McCullough

Feature image: Consolation (1894) Edvard Munch. 

The post Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective Taking? appeared first on Quillette.

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5 days ago
But how do you measure "empathy"? By how bad you feel for a person? If you try to imagine how they're feeling, you're almost directly *told* to feel bad. It shouldn't be surprising that you then feel bad as a result.

Also, what about the "imagine how you'd feel" experiment? The author didn't say what he learned, if anything, about that from his statistical review.
Wilmington, NC, USA
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The question of how long Python 2 will be available in Linux distributions

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In theory Python 2 is now dead (sort of). In practice we have a significant number of Python 2 scripts and programs (including a Django web app, probably like many other places. Converting these to Python 3 is a make-work project we want to avoid, especially since it risks breaking important things that are working fine. One big and obvious issue for keeping on using Python 2 is that we use Linux (primarily Ubuntu) and normally use the system version of Python 2 in /usr/bin (although we're starting to shift how we invoke it). This obviously only works as long as there is a packaged version installed in /usr/bin, which raises the question of how long this will be available in Linux distributions.

Linux distributions like Debian, Ubuntu, and Fedora want to move away from officially supporting Python 2 because there is no upstream support (RHEL 8 will be supporting their version through 2024 or so). Of these, Debian and by extension Ubuntu have an idea of less-core packages that are built and maintained by interested parties, and I suspect that there will be people interested in packaging Python 2 even past when it stops being a fully supported package. Failing that being accepted, Ubuntu has the idea of PPAs, which people can use to distribute easily usable packages for Ubuntu (we get Certbot through a PPA, for example). Fedora doesn't quite have the packaging split that Debian does, but it has a PPA-like thing in COPR (also). I suspect that there is sufficient interest in Python 2 that people will provide PPAs and COPR repos for it.

(At the extreme end of things, we can and will build our own package of Python 2 if necessary by just re-building the last available version from a previous distribution release. We wouldn't get the ecology of additional Python 2 .debs or RPMs, but we don't need those.)

As far as I can tell, the current state of Python 2 in Fedora 32 is that Python 2.7 has become a legacy package as part of Fedora's plans to retire Python 2. The current Fedora plans have no mention of removing the 2.7 legacy Python package, but given how Fedora moves I wouldn't be surprised to see calls for that to happen in a few years (which would be inconvenient for me; a few years is quite fast here). Alternately, it might linger quietly for half a decade or more if it turns out to require no real work on anyone's part.

I expect Debian and Ubuntu to move more slowly than this but in the same direction. Ubuntu 20.04 may not be able to drop all packages that depend on Python 2.7, but by Ubuntu 22.04 I expect that work to be done and so Python 2 itself could be and probably will be demoted to a similar legacy status. Since 2022 is only two years away and Debian is not the fastest moving organization when it comes to controversial things like removing Python 2 entirely, I suspect that discussion of removing Python 2 itself will start no earlier than for Ubuntu 24.04. However I can't find a Debian or Ubuntu web page that talks about their future plans for Python 2 itself in any detail, so we may get surprised.

PS: In our environment, the issue with Python 2 going away (or /usr/bin/python changing which Python version it points to) isn't just our own system maintenance programs, but whatever Python programs our users may have written and be running. We likely have no real way to chase those down and notify the affected users, so any such shift would be very disruptive, especially because we run multiple versions of Ubuntu at once. With different Ubuntu versions on different machines, what /usr/bin/python gets you could vary from one machine to another. At that point we might be better off removing the name entirely; at least things with '#!/usr/bin/python' would fail immediately and clearly.

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10 days ago
Jeez, at some point doesn't it become easier to just start porting code? We're not miracle workers, us sysadmins, we can only work with what we have. And what we have doesn't include Python 2 anymore. Or rather, it won't two years from now.
Wilmington, NC, USA
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Misleading political ads are the user’s problem to avoid, Facebook says


Following months of criticism for its decision to allow candidates for political office to tell outright lies in advertising, Facebook is trying to correct course not by changing advertiser behavior but by telling users to opt out of being shown certain ads.

Facebook today announced a change to its political ad system that will "expand transparency." Sometime during 2020, users in all countries where political ads feature "paid for by..." disclaimers, including the United States, will gain an account control for seeing "fewer political and social issue ads" on both Facebook and Instagram. US users are expected to get the feature sometime this summer—well into the depths of the 2020 US presidential campaign season.

Facebook said in October that all content posted by politicians and political candidates, including paid advertising, would be exempt from any of the company's fact-checking processes and would not be held to company standards barring intentionally misleading content. That policy, or lack thereof, has continued to come under fire as other key Internet and social media players, including Google and Twitter, amended their policies to limit or ban political advertising on their platforms.

The only major exception to Facebook's otherwise laissez-faire political advertising policy is a ban on content that promotes voter suppression (or tries to suppress responses to the 2020 US Census). Enforcement of the ban on voter suppression, however, appears to be haphazard at best, according to an October report.

"We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion—including much criticism of Facebook's position," the company said as part of its announcement today. "We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections."

One big fan

Facebook's framing of misleading political ads and certain political ad targeting as a user problem generated immediate blowback from politicians, consumer advocates, and government officials.

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub had particularly harsh words for the company. "Facebook's weak plan suggests the company has no idea how seriously it is hurting democracy," she wrote on Twitter. "Here, proposing 'transparency' solutions is window-dressing when Facebook needs to be putting out the housefire it has lit."

She added, "These so-called 'transparency' solutions are neither transparent nor solutions... I am not willing to bet the 2020 elections on the proposition that Facebook has solved its problems with a solution whose chief feature appears to be that it doesn't seriously impact the company's profit margins."

Several contenders running to be the Democratic nominee in the 2020 presidential race also lambasted Facebook over the move, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden.

"Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with transparency and choice," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI)—chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, which is probing Facebook's business practices. "This is about money. Specifically, the $6 billion that will be spent on political ads in 2020 that Facebook will use to continue increasing their profits at the expense of our democracy."

Facebook did gain support from one powerful quarter for its plan, however. A spokesman for the Trump campaign applauded the maneuver, saying , "Our ads are always accurate, so it's good that Facebook won't limit political messages."

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17 days ago
What are they supposed to do? As soon as they say they'll police ads for lies they'll get blowback for perceived partisanship. (By all sides.)
Wilmington, NC, USA
16 days ago
That’s fine? It’s the cost of entry now if they still want to accept certain types of ad dollars, moderating them.
16 days ago
Do we hold newspapers and network tv to the same obligations of reviewing political advertising content? I honestly don't know, but it would seem unfair if it's only Facebook that had to do that and not other forms of media.
17 days ago
I figured out how to avoid misleading political ads on facebook a couple of months ago when I deleted my account.
Nashville, Tennessee
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1 public comment
18 days ago
“We get the money, you get the mess”
Washington, DC

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Policy

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Really, you should just have one half of each country as the control group and half as the experiment group.

Today's News:
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43 days ago
They're not wrong...
Wilmington, NC, USA
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1 public comment
43 days ago
Since most people have a strong opinion before a policy is even tried, shouldn't those be negative seconds?
43 days ago
And since there is no control group, shouldn't the other number be \infty?

Advice to my 20 year old self

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A lovely interactionI had a lovely interaction on Twitter recently where a young person reached out to me over Twitter DM.

She said:

If you could go back and give your 20-something-year-old self some advice, what would you say?

I’m about to graduate and I’m sort of terrified to enter the real world, so I’ve sort of been asking everyone.

What a great question! Off the top of my head - while sitting on the tarmac waiting for takeoff and frantically thumb-typing - I offered this brainstorm.

Avoid drama. In relationships and friends
Discard negative people
There’s 8 billion people out there
You don’t have to be friends with them all
Don’t let anyone hold you back or down
We waste hours and days and years with negative people
Collect awesome people like Pokémon
Network your butt off. Talk to everyone nice
Make sure they aren’t transactional networkers
Nice people don’t keep score
They generously share their network
And ask for nothing in return but your professionalism
Don’t use a credit card and get into debt if you can
Whatever you want to buy you likely don’t need it
Get a laptop and an iPad and buy experiences
Don’t buy things. Avoid wanting things
Molecules are expensive
Electrons are basically free
If you can avoid want now, you’ll be happier later
None of us are getting out of this alive
And we don’t get to take any of the stuff
So ask yourself what do I want
What is happiness for you
And optimize your existence around that thing
Enjoy the simple. street food. Good friends
If you don’t want things then you’ll enjoy people of all types
Use a password system like
and manage your digital shit tightly
Be focused
And it will be ok
Does this help?

What's YOUR advice to your 20 year old self?

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© 2019 Scott Hanselman. All rights reserved.
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51 days ago
"Get evaluated for ADHD and autism." That's what I'd tell myself.
Wilmington, NC, USA
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Four short links: 25 November 2019

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  1. Why “Always use UTC” is Bad Advice — three use cases to consider, only one of which has UTC as the best answer.
  2. Industry Responses to Computational Propaganda and Social Media Manipulation (Oxford Information Labs) — a summary of the responses to the 2016 election tampering. tl;dr: no policy change, a flurry of initiatives, substantial differences between platforms in how they tackle it—which probably reflect the differences in their $ strategies.
  3. A Practical Way to Include an Ethics Review in Your Development Processes — nine questions: Is this work (project) illegal in any country? Does this work respect the dignity of all people? Is this work something that is sustainable? Does this work foster transparency, and honesty? Does this work require people to think about potential harm or good? Can I do this and tell my family about it proudly? Can we describe the balance between good use and harm? Does this protect and respect the moral rights of our customers, users, vendors, or employees? Are we treating everyone fairly?
  4. Massively Multiplayer Hackathon — this is a brilliant idea!
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63 days ago
All three of the date formats are using UTC.
Wilmington, NC, USA
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