The Republican National Convention is going to take place this week and one of the stated goals of many republicans is to "humanize" Mitt Romney. It reminded me of this graph that I pulled from our yourmorals.org database which looks at systemizing vs. empathizing scores. Based on work by Simon Baron-Cohen, the measure concerns how much one likes to analyze and construct systems as a way of understanding the world (e.g. being fascinated by how machines work) versus trying to understand social situations and empathize with others (e.g. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward and uncomfortable.). Men (in general) tend to systemize, while women tend to empathize and this difference tracks rates of autism (Baron-Cohen's main line of research), which strikes 4 males for every 1 female. Men also tend to support Romney vs. Obama.
This graph shows the correlation between favorability ratings of potential 2008 presidential candidates and the difference between systemizing and empathizing scores for those candidates' supporters.
Based on our libertarians research, we would have expected Ron Paul supporters to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing scores and certainly his supporters do have a positive, and relatively high correlation. It is similarly unsurprising that Hillary Clinton's supporters in 2008 tended to be empathizers, or that Democrats generally tend to attract empathizers, rather than systemizers. What surprised me, however, was that Mitt Romney's supporters appear to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing difference. Does this reflect something intrinsic about Mitt Romney, or at least his image? After watching some of the Sunday shows today, I think so.
Consider this quote from ABC's This Week, by George Will, a conservative who observed that "with most politicians, the problem is their inauthenticity. His (Romney's) problem is that he is authentically what he is...he has a low emotional metabolism. That's who he is. He can't turn to the country and say I feel your pain because the pain isn't his. It's other people's. What he can say is that I can fix your pain and that should be good enough for most people, unless we are electing a talk show host".
Mike Huckabee said something similar on Fox News Sunday about likability being less important than technical skill. These are perhaps inherent admissions by some of Mitt Romney's supporters that his strength is in appealing to systemizers, and therefore, they would like frame the debate in those terms. It will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney aims his Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech at empathizers or at systemizers.
I recently read this article from Fast Company about Father Greg Boyle's work at Homeboy Industries, and just like every other time I've encountered stories of this work, it ended with me in tears. It reminded me that I've been meaning to write about Tattoos On The Heart, which just might be my favorite book ever. It certainly is the most moving book I've ever read.
Since this is a blog that is largely about psychology, I'd like to frame my discussion of the book in terms of one of my favorite psychological theories of personality, Simon Baron-Cohen's Empathizing-Systemizing distinction. Father Boyle is a great empathizer, who seems to "enjoy caring for other people", is able to "predict how someone will feel", and knows "what to do in a social situation" (quotes are from Baron-Cohen's scale). In contrast, he is a fairly mediocre systemizer (e.g. reading "legal documents very carefully"), if we are to infer that trait from the finance side of Homeboy Industries depicted in Fast Company. Luckily, he now has help. This empathizing dimension relates to the two things that I feel are most powerful about Father Boyle. His ability to forgive and his ability to tell stories. From the book:
We had lots of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior. Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common...From my office once, I heard a homegirl answer the phone, and say to the caller, "Go ahead and bring that bomb, mutha fucka. We're ready for your ass."..."Uh, Kiddo, um," I tell her, "Maybe we should just say 'Have a nice day and God bless you.'"
Some of the gang members have done terrible things, but one of his favorite things to say to those whom most of society would rather ignore is that "you are so much more than the worst thing that you have done." In the Fast Company article, they give money to a woman who punched their receptionist in the face. Sometimes the generosity seems so without limits as to be insane, yet for these youth who have no fear of prison or death, it seems hard to imagine anything but unconditional love being their salvation. In some ways, Father Greg is giving these youth the unconditional love that many of us take for granted from our parents.
Our YourMorals.org data tells a similar story about the characteristics of empathizers. Empathizers (the blue line) in our dataset, tend to forgive others (as measured by questions like being "understanding of others for the mistakes they've made").
As well, empathizers, in our dataset, also tend to enjoy stories (r=.17, p<.001, N=495), and the second trait that makes Father Boyle unique is his ability to tell stories. Stories are a way for human beings to communicate not just information, but the feelings that go along with that information. Indeed, the most common measure of empathy used in psychology, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, uses items like "I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel" and "Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me" (reverse scored) to measure empathy. Stories are powerful things. From the introduction of the book:
I have all these stories and parables locked away in the "Public Storage" of my brain, and I have long wanted to find a permanent home for them. The usual "containers" for these stories are my homilies at Mass in the twenty-five detention centers where I celebrate the Eucharist...After Mass once, at one of these probation camps, a homie grabbed both my hands and looked me in the eye. "This is my last Mass at camp. I go home on Monday. I'm gonna miss your stories. You tell good stories. And I hope....I never have to hear your stories again."
Father Boyle's stories really are good and show the polish of years of curation. They transform me every time I read them, reminding me that while justice may feel good, kindness is far more powerful.
If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.
Food for thought. Please do read the book and I'll be quite shocked if you can read the stories in the book without being similarly moved. I can't recommend it enough.
- Ravi Iyer
Recently, Jon Haidt wrote a an opinion piece about the death of Bin Laden, which points out that people are expressing love for their ingroup, it does not necessarily translate to hate of other groups. As I've said before, few things in psychology are categorically one thing or the other, and certainly there is a minority who will use the death of Bin Laden to express dislike of Islam. Testosterone, that accompanies winning, can have that effect. However, several research studies have shown that ingroup love and outgroup hate are indeed separable, and that if you give people a chance to separate the two, they are often feeling ingroup love, not outgroup hate.
When does ingroup love lead to outgroup hate and when does it not? The simple answer (see this review article for more detail), is that when people think of a situation in competitive zero-sum terms, they are likely to highly correlate. Think of the difference between a rock concert and a baseball game. If you are at a Prince concert, you don't shout slogans about how much Madonna sucks. There is no competitive frame. But a "yankees suck" chant can occur anywhere in Boston or inside the men's room of Comerica Park.
Politics is certainly a zero-sum game and for some liberals and conservatives, anything which is a congruent with either the politicians or beliefs of the other side is seen as bad. So some conservatives have been reluctant to credit Obama and some liberals are reluctant to endorse patriotic zeal. Indeed, in our yourmorals.org data, identification with your country (using a subscale of Sam McFarland's Identification with All Humanity scale) is negatively correlated with liberal identification.
However, given that ingroup love and outgroup hate are not always correlated, and in this case, Bin Laden is not popular in the Arab world, cases where ingroup love leads to outgroup hate are likely to be outliers. Most people see it as love for their country, justice, and/or a blow for terrorists, not as a win in a larger battle against non-Americans. One could see it as a victory for the type of universalism that liberals desire, given that what Bin Laden wanted most was a competitive zero-sum conflict with the west. Indeed, patriotism itself has an empathic component to it, correlating with Empathic Concern (e.g. "I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person", Davis, 1983) scores (see below).
I am generally liberal and have prototypically liberal angst about celebrating any death. But in the case of the collective unity we are seeing, I think liberals should take yes for an answer to our universalist impulses and appreciate the resulting unity. There are forces in the world (e.g. selfishness, competition, or threat) that cause us to restrict our circle of concern to ourselves and those immediately around us and there are forces in the world that cause us to expand our circle of concern and care. I welcome the celebrations, because I'm hopeful this is a case of the latter.
- Ravi Iyer
Below is a simple little graph of yourmorals.org data that I thought would be worth posting. Interest in politics is positively correlated with empathic concern in liberals/democrats and not in conservatives/republicans. It's somewhat self-evident in posts like this, or debates about the role of empathy from either the Democratic or Republican side.
Can this difference be used to the advantage of the Democratic party? Perhaps inspiring empathy in the electorate will motivate liberals to be politically active more than conservatives? and how exactly might one appeal to empathy? Perhaps by pushing poverty reduction programs, increases in foreign non-military aid, or putting a human face on health care reform?
btw, empathic concern is measured using Davis' Interpersonal Reactivity Index which contains questions like "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me." The next obvious step is to manipulate empathy and see if it has any impact on political behavior, or at least on the intention to engage in political behavior, as there is only so much that can be inferred from this correlation. Still, it's a promising research lead with interesting potential applications toward inspiring political interest.
- Ravi Iyer