by Jalees Rehman
“It's empathy that makes us help other people. It's empathy that makes us moral.” The economist Paul Zak casually makes this comment in his widely watched TED talk about the hormone oxytocin, which he dubs the “moral molecule”. Zak quotes a number of behavioral studies to support his claim that oxytocin increases empathy and trust, which in turn increases moral behavior. If all humans regularly inhaled a few puffs of oxytocin through a nasal spray, we could become more compassionate and caring. It sounds too good to be true. And recent research now suggests that this overly simplistic view of oxytocin, empathy and morality is indeed too good to be true.
Many scientific studies support the idea that oxytocin is a major biological mechanism underlying the emotions of empathy and the formation of bonds between humans. However, inferring that these oxytocin effects in turn make us more moral is a much more controversial statement. In 2011, the researcher Carsten De Dreu and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands published the study Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism which studied indigenous Dutch male study subjects who in a blinded fashion self-administered either nasal oxytocin or a placebo spray. The subjects then answered questions and performed word association tasks after seeing photographic images of Dutch males (the “in-group”) or images of Arabs and Germans, the “out-group” because prior surveys had shown that the Dutch public has negative views of both Arabs/Muslims and Germans. To ensure that the subjects understood the distinct ethnic backgrounds of the target people shown in the images, they were referred to typical Dutch male names, German names (such as Markus and Helmut) or Arab names (such as Ahmed and Youssef).
Oxytocin increased favorable views and word associations but only towards in-group images of fellow Dutch males. The oxytocin treatment even had the unexpected effect of worsening the views regarding Arabs and Germans but this latter effect was not quite statistically significant. Far from being a “moral molecule”, oxytocin may actually increase ethnic bias in society because it selectively enhances certain emotional bonds. In a subsequent study, De Dreu then addressed another aspect of the purported link between oxytocin and morality by testing the honesty of subjects. The study Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty showed that oxytocin increased cheating in study subjects if they were under the impression that dishonesty would benefit their group. De Dreu concluded that oxytocin does make us less selfish and care more about the interest of the group we belong to.
These recent oxytocin studies not only question the “moral molecule” status of oxytocin but raise the even broader question of whether more empathy necessarily leads to increased moral behavior, independent of whether or not it is related to oxytocin. The researchers Jean Decety and Jason Cowell at the University of Chicago recently analyzed the scientific literature on the link between empathy and morality in their commentary Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?, and find that the relationship is far more complicated than one would surmise. Judges, police officers and doctors who exhibit great empathy by sharing in the emotional upheaval experienced by the oppressed, persecuted and severely ill always end up making the right moral choices – in Hollywood movies. But empathy in the real world is a multi-faceted phenomenon and we use this term loosely, as Decety and Cowell point out, without clarifying which aspect of empathy we are referring to.
Decety and Cowell distinguish at least three distinct aspects of empathy:
1. Emotional sharing, which refers to how one's emotions respond to the emotions of those around us. Empathy enables us to “feel” the pain of others and this phenomenon of emotional sharing is also commonly observed in non-human animals such as birds or mice.
2. Empathic concern, which describes how we care for the welfare of others. Whereas emotional sharing refers to how we experience the emotions of others, empathic concern motivates us to take actions that will improve their welfare. As with emotional sharing, empathic concern is not only present in humans but also conserved among many non-human species and likely constitutes a major evolutionary advantage.
3. Perspective taking, which – according to Decety and Cowell – is the ability to put oneself into the mind of another and thus imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. This is a more cognitive dimension of empathy and essential for our ability to interact with fellow human beings. Even if we cannot experience the pain of others, we may still be able to understand or envision how they might be feeling. One of the key features of psychopaths is their inability to experience the emotions of others. However, this does not necessarily mean that psychopaths are unable to cognitively imagine what others are thinking. Instead of labeling psychopaths as having no empathy, it is probably more appropriate to specifically characterize them as having a reduced capacity to share in the emotions while maintaining an intact capacity for perspective-taking.
In addition to the complexity of what we call “empathy”, we need to also understand that empathy is usually directed towards specific individuals and groups. De Dreu's studies demonstrated that oxytocin can make us more pro-social as long as it benefits those who we feel belong to our group but not necessarily those outside of our group. The study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses by Xu and colleagues at Peking University used fMRI brain imaging in Chinese and Caucasian study subjects and measured their neural responses to watching painful images. The study subjects were shown images of either a Chinese or a Caucasian face. In the control condition, the depicted image showed a face being poked with a cotton swab. In the pain condition, study subjects were shown a face of a person being poked with a needle attached to syringe. When the researchers measured the neural responses with the fMRI, they found significant activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is part of the neural pain circuit, both for pain we experience ourselves but also for empathic pain we experience when we see others in pain. The key finding in Xu's study was that ACC activation in response to seeing the painful image was much more profound when the study subject and the person shown in the painful image belonged to the same race.
As we realize that the neural circuits and hormones which form the biological basis of our empathy responses are so easily swayed by group membership then it becomes apparent why increased empathy does not necessarily result in behavior consistent with moral principles. In his essay “Against Empathy“, the psychologist Paul Bloom also opposes the view that empathy should form the basis of morality and that we should unquestioningly elevate empathy to virtue for all:
“But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one's appetites.”
I do not think that we can dismiss empathy as a factor in our moral decision-making. Bloom makes a good case for distanced compassion and kindness that does not arise from the more visceral emotion of empathy. But when we see fellow humans and animals in pain, then our initial biological responses are guided by empathy and anger, not the more abstract concept of distanced compassion. What we need is a better scientific and philosophical understanding of what empathy is. Empathic perspective-taking may be a far more robust and reliable guide for moral decision-making than empathic emotions. Current scientific studies on empathy often measure it as an aggregate measure without teasing out the various components of empathy. They also tend to underestimate that the relative contributions of the empathy components (emotion, concern, perspective-taking) can vary widely among cultures and age groups. We need to replace overly simplistic notions such as oxytocin = moral molecule or empathy = good with a more refined view of the complex morality-empathy relationship guided by rigorous science and philosophy.
De Dreu, C. K., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), 1262-1266.
Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525-537.
Shalvi, S., & De Dreu, C. K. (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), 5503-5507.
Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26), 8525-8529.