Ask a Mentor-Editor: Maia Szalavitz on the effects of empathy on the economy, learning how to temper personal experience with research, and why the OpEd Project matters to her

Maia Szalavitz is a journalist and author who covers neuroscience and the intersection between mind, brain and behavior.  She has written for the New York Times, the Washington PostElle, Redbook, Time Magazine online, New Scientist, Reason, Mother Jones, O: the Oprah Magazine and other major publications and has appeared on Oprah, CNN, MSNBC and NPR. She is a Senior Fellow at Stats.org, a media watchdog organization. She is co-author, with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook (Basic, 2007) and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). She spoke to OpEd Project intern Ravenna Koenig about her forthcoming book (co-written again with Bruce Perry), what drew her to the book’s subject of empathy, and the importance of balancing personal experience with research in op-ed pieces.

Ravenna Koenig: You have a forthcoming book on the human experience of empathy: “Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered.” I’ll get to the topic of why empathy is such an important skill to cultivate in a later question, but first, how does our brain develop and experience empathy?

Maia Szalavitz: Basically empathy is an innate capacity in most human beings. There are a few developmental disorders that can interfere with it, but the vast majority of people, if given the proper environment, will naturally develop empathy. For example, babies right after they’re born will cry if they hear another baby crying, and at eighteen months, or even a little sooner, if they see an adult trying to reach something they can’t reach, they’ll try to help them. Even chimpanzees if they see another chimp not getting rewarded for something they were just rewarded for, they’ll kind of go on strike. There’s an innate sense of fairness. If you’ve ever had siblings or a child, you know that “that’s not fair” is not something you can deliberately teach. It would be very strange to teach your child to complain that their sister got a bigger piece of pie, but you hear kids say it as soon as they can speak. Most people have parents who are concerned for them, pay attention to them, respond to them, and it’s in that early responding of parent to infant that the sense of empathy and justice really begins to develop.

RK: Can we talk about your personal connection to this concept? Many people refer to drug-users as a shunned community; has your past experience as part of that community, a community that is often not shown empathy, factored into your interest in this project?

MS: Absolutely. I have been horrified for a long time by the lack of empathetic treatment of all sorts of outsiders, particularly drug addicts. I did have a drug problem in my late teens and early twenties and certainly experienced the stigma associated with addiction. My earlier book “Help at Any Cost,” was about abusive treatment that originated in the addiction world. The whole ideas was: if we humiliate, shame, and attack people enough we’ll break them down and “fix” them. First of all, what gives you the right to treat people like that? And second of all, why on earth would that work? We know child abuse doesn’t help children, why would adult abuse fix addiction? I’ve been fascinated by the subject for even longer than that because when I was a kid I was intensely sensitive, I probably would have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome if I was growing up today—I always thought, oh, “I’m selfish,” or “I’m bad,”  because I would overreact to things I couldn’t actually help. I would be overwhelmed by other peoples’ feelings and I couldn’t really separate myself from them. I learned in writing this book about a condition called empathetic over-arousal: you can empathize too much and run away from things because you get overwhelmed by another person’s distress. It’s a condition that you can actually work on, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

RK: I have friends who write off the hype about things like “empathy” and “non-violent communication” as touchy-feely nonsense. What concrete and functional role have you observed empathy to play in human interaction?

MS: Empathy is basically the center of morality. You can’t have morality without empathy. You can’t think about doing “unto others as you would have others do unto you” if you don’t empathize. It’s the foundation of just about all social interaction. Perspective-taking pervades just about every interesting social phenomenon studied. For example, depressed people don’t see the smiles that are directed at them and project this idea that others are rejecting them… they sort of mis-empathize. Take crime as another  example: the scariest people in the world are sociopaths… they have no empathy. We can even talk about empathy in relation to the economy because one of the interesting factors that economists have looked at is the differences in cultures in terms of the amount of trust they have in each other. If you’ve been brought up without empathy, you can’t trust. Cultures that don’t trust strangers have a really hard time with capitalism— they end up corrupt…you’re not going to trade with someone you can’t trust, so you only trust family and friends and you cheat strangers. Trust is essential to economic growth. Lack of trust is incredibly corrosive.

Empathy is a funny word— there are two aspects to it. There’s what you might call cognitive empathy, the ability to take someone else’s perspective… and actually, sociopaths are great at cognitive empathy because they can just put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, and say “how can I manipulate them best?” Obviously that’s not what most people think of as empathy, but you can’t have empathy without having that mental ability to take another person’s point of view and imagine what it’s like to be them.  Then there’s emotional empathy, which is caring what happens to that other person. That’s what we more traditionally think of as empathy.

RK: A lot of parents seem to be concerned with teaching empathy to their children, but can we learn empathy as adults as well? How?

MS: Empathy can definitely be learned, it’s pretty much like any other skill. The more you practice something, the better you get at it, whether it’s worrying or playing golf or any of the ten million other things people do. Basically you become what you do most. One of the best ways to practice empathy is by doing compassion and loving-kindness meditations. If you wake up every morning, sit on your bed for five minutes, focus on your breathing and then meditate on compassion, you start to see more opportunities to be kind. When you see more opportunities you can act on them more. There’s also awareness itself, which makes a huge difference. Nowadays, we’re constantly in front of the computer, but empathy really requires face-contact. Especially for kids to become most empathetic, we need to provide them opportunities to be with other kids in a social way.

In terms of adults, it’s really a matter of working on the relationships you already have. The more you have compassion for other people, the better your relationships tend to be. What’s kind of cool about all of this is that empathy is fundamentally related to health. We’re wired to get stress relief from social contact with people we love and care about. What that means is that the more loving, supportive relationships we have, the better the controls on our stress systems are. A lot of diseases, like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, all kinds of addictions, are related to our stress systems running amok. So, the more you can buffer yourself with social contact, the healthier you’re going to be.

RK: A lot of your writing has stemmed from your personal experiences. What makes personal writing of public value? For all the people out there who are writing from a personal perspective, what are the key items to remember when you try to turn a personal story into something that will engage and enlighten other people?

MS: The first thing to do is just speak. Put it out there, don’t think you don’t have something to say. If you use personal experience, you have to be ready to, in a sense, be naked. You have to be prepared to explain and put everything out there. It doesn’t mean you have to tell your whole life story in 800 words but people will have a good sense of whether or not you’re holding something back. So I guess I’m saying be honest. Also, in terms of personal writing, you want to connect it to something political, to make it have public value. A million addicts tell their stories all the time and those are nice individual tales of sin and redemption, but when I tell my story I tell it in the context of “what the heck is wrong with American policy?” For example, we need clean needles: I know from personal experience that providing clean needles doesn’t make people run out and start using but it does help people who are already using stay safe.

The other thing I would say about personal experience is that you have to put it into the context of research and other people’s experiences. I wrote an op-ed once that I now disagree with: I basically said “methadone sucks, because it didn’t work for me…” okay it didn’t work for me, that’s fine, but it does work for many people and just because one option didn’t work for me it doesn’t mean that that option shouldn’t be available to everyone else. When I looked at the science, I found that methadone actually works for more people than abstinence does in terms of opiate addiction, so we really need to be careful of being blinded by our personal experiences. If I’m going to write about addiction, I need to know about the science in addition to my personal experience. Personal experience absolutely will help you sell your op-ed, and help connect readers to you. What you have to do then is bring in the larger elements and be empathetic with the reader, so you’re thinking “what are they going to be thinking next?” “what’s their response going to be to this?” and “how do I counter that response if it’s something I disagree with?”

RK: Why does the Op-Ed Project matter to you?

MS: I think it’s really, really important to get more people’s voices into debate. It’s also an opportunity to give back and help other people. It still astonishes me that only 20% of op-eds are written by women. I’m not going to go into biology or culture or whatever, but men tend to come out with a feeling that whatever they say matters. Women don’t tend to feel that way as much. Actually, the real experts know that they don’t know everything—they bring subtlety to the debate. We need more of that. It’s difficult to do in 800 words, but the more that we can bring complex and analytical perspectives to the table, the more sane our debate is going to be. If we could have a political culture with sane, rational debate, I think we could do a lot better. This is important in also in bringing civility to our debate. Katie [Orenstein] talks about the importance of having empathy and respect for your opposition in your op-ed piece, and when you bring those qualities into an op-ed you do actually have the opportunity to change someone’s perspective… maybe not as much as you’d like to change it, but still. If we all assume that everyone who disagrees with us is stupid and bad, it’s like banging your head against the wall. You can arrive at compromises and sophisticated solutions that reflect complexity if you work together. The more you bring more reasoned voices into the debate, and more you include people who don’t think “I already know everything,” the easier it will be to achieve progress.

One comment

  1. And our research and modeling with a new business paradigm over the past 10 years puts empathy, and other human values, as leading factors in business success today — it’s what social media, co-creation of products and services rely on. And what the empowered ‘Global Digital Demos’ demands of institutions. Thanks for this, and in such an accessible, Q and A format! Elsie

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