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Tag: empathy

On empathy

Empathy, generated with Stable Diffusion

Here’s a thought. High empathy is the most essential element of a culture or civilization in its prime, and the absence of empathy is the most important marker of a collapsing culture or society. 

There is a moment in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game where the character Colonel Graf must explain why he chose the main protagonist Ender instead of one of his siblings as the commander of the human fleet to face an alien invasion. 

The colonel explains that Ender had the perfect balance of empathy and ruthlessness, while his siblings were either too empathetic and caring or too ruthless and sociopathic. Crucially, Colonel Graf also ensured that most, if not all, of Ender’s officers, had higher empathy than him.

Being too empathetic appears to be an obvious obstacle for a military commander who must be ready to destroy an enemy and sacrifice his soldiers. So why would too little empathy hinder a commander or anyone else? 

Empathy is usually associated with soft skills secondary to cold, rational decision-making. It is supposed to be a weakness, a quality for poets, fantasy romance writers, and the like. You wouldn’t want your stockbroker to show signs of empathy, would you? CEOs don’t get awarded bonus points for feelings, do they?

Well, empathy is not about having feelings for someone’s plight. Instead, empathy is the ability to model what it is to be someone else. 

Expressing feelings for someone’s condition is a projection of one’s internal state onto someone else. We see it everywhere today in the form of virtue signaling. 

However, modeling in one’s mind the internal states of someone else as if they were one’s own is an altogether different process.

Empathy starts with the other. To begin to empathize, you must acknowledge the other as a conditionally different entity from you, with different beliefs, values, experiences, feelings, and points of view. You then must model how that other would see a situation from their own POV.

This sounds like common sense, merely a precondition of the golden rule. However, it is an act of profound significance. You just created a synthetic entity that is radically symmetrical to you and then dropped the safety of your familiar POV to adopt the synthetic one.

Genuine empathy is also intellectually demanding, as it presupposes the ability to create mental models with conditional hypotheticals, emotion mapping, and recursive states. Let’s unpack these. 

First, an empath must create a mental model of the hypothetical state of another person, given a set of conditionals N. This involves imagining the other and modeling the other’s state given some hypothetical conditions that have not happened to you. 

The empath must then map the other person’s hypothetical emotional states onto the model because these states may influence how the other perceives reality.

In other words, the empath must model what it is to be the other given a set of hypothetical starting conditions and then map what that other might feel like in these conditions in a given moment. 

Modeling anything based on conditional hypotheticals is hard enough for many people. For example, “How would I have felt if I didn’t have breakfast this morning? What do you mean? I had breakfast!”. 

Emotion mapping adds another layer of complexity, as it involves synthesizing emotional states other than one’s own and then ensuring they cohere with the synthetic POV you adopted earlier. 

Finally, the empath must then run the model recursively to identify possible emotional states for conditionals n+1 for that other. In practice, this looks like continuously asking and then answering a question such as: “What would it have felt like to be person X in situation Z given conditionals N, and then have N+1 happen to me?”

An empath does this mental modeling intuitively and iteratively while observing and operating in changing external conditions. Quite a feat. However, empathic modeling is far less impressive in practice because everyone takes it for granted. Until it disappears, that is. Then it is too late. 

The absence of empathic modeling, particularly at large scales, becomes immediately visible. It is usually followed by disappearing trust, crumbling social and physical infrastructure, and sociopathic behaviors at all scales. 

Returning to Colonel Graf’s logic, you want your commander to be a high empath because that is a precondition to accurately modeling the enemy’s POV, assumptions, and decision-making process. To truly defeat an enemy, one has to truly understand them first.

The importance of empaths becomes more visible as an organization, or a society, increases in complexity. However, at an individual level, sociopaths would always dominate empaths as long as they can keep one step ahead of the consequences of their actions. Sociopaths generate entropy, but all is fine as long as someone else expands energy on dealing with that entropy.

You can observe this in large organizations where the energy source for maintenance is disconnected from most or all of the organization’s decisions and actions. Think government bureaucracies, academia, the peacetime military, and large corporations with a long delay between decisions and consequences. 

Over time, sociopaths congregate in management roles in such organizations, pushing out all empaths simply because of the absence of immediate consequences for bad decisions. Ironically, such organizations would expend exceeding energy on signaling an empath culture while smothering it at every step in the death grip of sociopathic managerialism and HR. 

However, empaths become necessary when the delay between actions and consequences is short, even in small teams, units, or tribes. In this scenario, you either act as an empath towards your unit or you get to learn all about friendly fire. 

Conversely, in a situation with a very short delay between actions and consequences, a team without a critical mass of empaths quickly generates enough entropy to tear apart all internal cohesion. This is because empaths are negentropic. 

As an organization grows in complexity, the number of empaths necessary to maintain critical mass increases because more and more organizational elements begin operating in situations with long delays between actions and consequences. 

This brings me to the importance of culture. A culture that valorizes empathy and consequently has a significant average of empaths would be able to operate large complex organizations while staving off entropy. To an outsider, this would appear as a high-trust society.

A society with a significant average of empaths doesn’t need surveillance cameras on every corner because an empath can model what it would be like to be the person whose bike was stolen. We call them high-trust societies but rarely ask where all that trust suddenly came from.

A society with a significant average of empaths would likely drive carefully and use indicators. As an empath, you use the indicator when merging into a lane because you can model what it would be like to be the driver who has to suddenly jump onto their brakes when someone suddenly joins in front of them without indicating. You also model what it would be like to be the hypothetical you if that other driver chooses not to jump on their brakes. 

It’s the simple things once you start seeing them. The trick is to see the simple things in aggregate as they add up over time and at large scales. Is that an empath thing?