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Empathy's Failings And Surprises

What is this ability to step into someone else’s shoes? To imagine how they feel, to hurt for them or to be happy for them? 

Empathy is widely considered a universal and uniquely human trait.   Science goes on to define empathy one step beyond shared emotions, towards a motivation to help others.   

"Empathy involves getting inside the person's head, understanding how they're feeling, feeling that yourself, and finally being motivated to help them," said Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in an interview with Frank Stasio on The State of Things.

Harris' lab researches the limits of empathy.  According to Harris, surgeons and judges intentionally hold back their empathy to practice with clearer minds.  But social factors also affect empathy.  Harris, who previously resided in New York, offers a scene he often witnessed: a person walking down the street who pays more attention to her dog than to the homeless people around her. 

"This flies in the face of traditional scientific thinking," Harris said.

But Jesse Prinz, a Distinguished Professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, says that empathy might not operate the same when a person is exposed to the unfamiliar.

"Our investment in empathy as a crucial moral emotion may be misplaced," he said. "Empathy helps us form a sense of concern for people similar to us, but it may be very difficult to cultivate when we're dealing with members of other groups."

Ralph Savarese, author of “Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, said that empathy is a multi-faceted emotion. He adopted an abused and severely autistic six-year-old boy named DJ and now speaks publicly against the myth that people with autism are incapable of empathy. 

Years ago, Savarese's nephew died of a brain tumor.  "My sister-in-law was incredibly distraught, and she didn't really want to hear from those of us who hadn't lost a child," he said. "I had just taught my son the word 'reasonable'... And he went over to his machine and typed out, 'Do you have reasonable people to help you with your hurt?'" 

According to Savarese, people with autism may lack the motor control to express empathy in their facial expressions, but the emotional process may still be present. 

Shawn Wen joined the staff of The State of Things in March 2012 and served as associate producer until February 2014.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.