empathy versus systematic thought

For the second day in a row, here’s a response to an opinion piece in The New York Times. The new article, entitled “The Male Condition,” has two distracting features. First, it takes Larry Summers’ side in the argument about women in science. Second, it’s written by someone called Baron-Cohen–not the very funny Sascha, but his distinguished cousin Simon. If you get past Larry and Sascha, the article is as interesting as it is disturbing.

Dr. Baron-Cohen argues that people can be placed on a continuum from systematic to empathetic. “Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.”

Baron-Cohen says that males are statistically more likely to be systematic; females, to be empathetic. Some of this difference may be cultural, but there may also be a biological factor, since (a) the difference shows up very early in childhood; and (b) it may be connected to the fact that prenatal testosterone correlates negatively with socialibility in young children. If the level of prenatal testosterone affects where one falls on the empathetic-systematic spectrum (which has not been shown directly), then males would tend to be more more systematic and females would tend to be more empathetic, although there would be much variation and overlap.

Three thoughts occur to me in response …

1) Even if our degree of empathetic versus systematic thinking is ordained by biology or culture, we can still consider when it is better to be systematic or empathetic. Despite being male, I have spent a lot of time arguing against systematic thinking in ethics. I adopted this position because I was persuaded by certain arguments in favor of empathy and against abstract principles. The same arguments don’t apply to mathematics or engineering; they only concern ethics. Thus it’s possible to be reflective about the role of empathy in various domains and to adjust our thinking accordingly. Which brings me to the second point …

2) Some leaders, and some cultures, have taken very strong positions on one side or the other of the continuum. Calvin, Lenin, and Khomeini were three men who built whole regimes dedicated to the notion that behavior should be guided by a few principles. Maybe they had a lot of testosterone before they were born, but that’s not the point. The point is that historical circumstances favored their vision. In contrast, Aristotle and Hume favored the cultivation of moral sentiments, including empathy. Hume’s culture prized sentiments and refined a curriculum designed to make people empathetic.

Presumably, the quantity of prenatal testosterone per capita is pretty stable. Perhaps the amount of systematic versus empathetic thought is also constant–although I have no idea how to measure this. But one thing varies by culture and can be changed through political action: the role of systematic thought in morality and the law.

3. Baron-Cohen ends with a striking hypothesis. He thinks that autism is an extreme form of systematic thinking, resulting (in part) from the union of two parents who are both quite far over on the systematic side of the spectrum. I don’t know how plausible this theory is. It does occur to me, however, that it could provide an explanation for the rapid increase in autism reported in industrialized democracies. The rate of what Baron-Cohen calls “assortative mating” (similar people mating with each other) has perhaps increased as people have begun to marry members of their own profession. Even forty years ago, an engineer would most likely be a man who would marry a woman of the same social origins but quite different skills. Today, there is a higher probability that he will marry another engineer–perhaps a woman from a very different background, but with similar mental proclivities.

3 thoughts on “empathy versus systematic thought

  1. PW

    I feel as though I’ve lucked out here. I was just coming in to get your url for an interesting discussion going on at the Nation — and did post a link to your website there.

    I drove into the big city yesterday for a day’s worth of chores and came across enough examples of empathy-absence to trigger 2 hour’s worth of thought on the drive home. I’ve often thought autism was about missing empathy. I’ve often thought Bush is autistic as are many of his generation in this country.

    Why are so many of a single generation suffering from the same problem. Systematic thinking is (isn’t it?) linear thinking. Artists, for example, depend a great deal on non-linear thinking. Our political and social education in the US is skewed towards valuing linear thinking while our cultural educations depend on learning non-linear thinking. Unlike Spain and France and Italy and even Britain — most of which being places where I’ve also lived and worked as an artist — America puts artists in some kind of social bubble and has fits when artists express themselves on political or social issues.

    Why are we so either/or? Most societies recognize that the systematic and the emphathetic are necessary in equal measure. They are inseparable for healthy people in healthy nations.

    Please don’t say “versus.” Many men float between the two extremes, as do are many women. You’ll find we change with each decade. Women grow more male-like with age and men get less linear. The changes — and the possibilities — are endless. What’s more important is the value our society assigns to each quality. That — and the insistence on dichotomizing — is where the fault-line lies…

  2. Metta Spencer

    I’m keenly interested in this systemizing/empathizing distinction, which I employ in analyzing the emotional involvement of audiences to fictional characters. (I have a book in press on the subject: “Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society.”)

    In reading your post, two questions occurred to me. One has to do with empathy and ethics. I agree fully that empathy is the best basis for ethics. However, my assistant (an intense systemizer married to a systemizing novelist) has an autistic daughter. He insists, however, that autistic people are as ethical as anybody, which the theory would not suggest. I?m also curious about your notion that systemizing ethical principles is not a good way to go. I would love to hear more about that. I suppose it?s more than just not being a Kantian, but i can’t fill in the blanks to guess what you mean, and there aren’t citations in these blog thingies.

    I think there must be some connection linking systemizing to introversion and empathy to extraversion. I exchanged e-mails with Baron-Cohen about it a couple of years ago, but he said he hadn’t looked into that question yet.


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