The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to Do Good

Why do we behave? Janneke Joly, Ph.D., the University of Groningen, suggests that we are prompted by others to do so and that we do it under three distinct influences – other people’s physical presence, the association of a particular person with a normative behavior, or having their memory on our minds.  In other words, my mother standing next to me, the association of her with cleaning my plate of all its food, or the memory of her telling me to clean my plate will all have the effect of influencing me to finish my meal.

Now, if the norm happens to be that altruism or doing good is a proper thing to do, then each of the three influences above will tend to direct me to do good.  But why I do good could be motivated by a variety of things.  Recent research by psychologist Lidewij Niezink, also of the University of Groningen, suggests that we help friends due to our empathy with them whereas we tend to help relatives because we expect help back in return.  This has a certain logic.  As the old cliche goes, you can’t choose your relatives.  We may or may not have a lot in common with siblings or parents whereas we will tend to have more in common with the friends that we choose – hence an easier time empathizing with them.

Finally, we are hardly off the hook if we state that we just don’t have a lot of empathy for people, period.  Maybe so.  But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison state that kindness and compassion can be learned.  Functional MRI studies indicate that “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”  Activity increased in the insula, a portion of the brain where bodily representations of emotion tend to be processed, and the temporal parietal juncture, which processes empathy.  The net result was that individuals who practiced “compassion meditation,” the art of generating kind and compassionate thoughts towards others, thought and acted more compassionately.

So in summary, thoughts of my mother telling me to be kind to my crazy Aunt Meg will influence me to do so, even though I don’t want to.  I may expect that Aunt Meg will be nice to me in return, even though she and I have little in common.  Nevertheless, under my mother’s influence I decide to do so and after a few minutes of quiet thoughts of good will towards her I surprisingly find it easier to do so.  Anybody relate?

Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves. 

Link: I Feel Good

The Political Brain

One current discussion involving the brain’s emotional bias is to be found in and circulating around Drew Westen’s recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Whatever one’s political persuasion, the book suggests among other things that emotion trumps reason when it comes to choosing political candidates.

Westen’s book is based upon studies done at Emory University.

The study has potentially wide implications, from politics to business, and demonstrates that emotional bias can play a strong role in decision-making, Westen says. “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’ ” Westen says.

The mechanism can be seen as an illustration of confirmation bias, the seeking of information that supports existing beliefs while ignoring or discounting contradictory evidence.

What can be done? Factoring in awareness of emotional bias is a start. A process of positive skepticism, as suggested by Michael Shermer (publisher of The Skeptic, no less), might be a useful methodology. And there are many others.

What remains foundational, whatever our arena of decision-making, is the strength of emotional bias within our mental processes and the need to manage it well.

The Great Dualism

We’re not talking here about THE great dualism (being and non-being), but about the great dualistic argument between thinking and emotion that is always going on in our heads. The argument goes back and forth thusly – I think this, but I feel that. This battle between thought and emotion remains one of the great management issues in our personal lives – and in the work of coaches.

The problem is that emotion has such a primacy in our hardwiring that we must often take great pains just to bring our more “rational” side to the table as it were. I have flashes of emotion that can instantly bring my whole body into sync with an emotional state. I have yet to have a flash of cognition that does the same.

This is important because I need to recognize my filters if I want to change something in my thinking or my actions. In terms of the Ladder of Inference the battle looks something like this:

  1. Something happens in the Real World.
  2. I select “data” from that event. The great dualism begins for me at the conscious level here, even though a great deal of processing has already been going on “beneath” my consciousness. The great battle begins over what I think about the event – and how I feel about the event. I select data, typically from both camps.
  3. I add meaning to this event from my culture and my personality. The great battle rages between intellectual meaning and emotional meaning. Emotional meaning carries more force unless I aggressively manage it.
  4. I now make some assumptions from this meaning that I’ve added. The great battle continues. I make immediate assumptions based on my visceral feelings. I make what I hope are fairly objective assumptions based on reason.
  5. I draw some conclusions. I hope I’m being fairly logical. I also hope I’m in touch with how I feel and why.
  6. From these conclusions I adopt some beliefs. I think this, therefore I believe that. I feel this, therefore I believe something else.
  7. I finally take actions based on these beliefs. Either passionately, coldly and rationally, or some combination of both.

That’s a pretty quick and basic thumbnail view. And of course, we’re not even addressing drives and gene expression and the other basic parts of Ted that influence our behaviors.

The point to keep in mind, both about ourselves and others, is that this great dualistic battle is always raging, and that it takes a bit of effort to keep one side from dominating the other. That’s why we have family and friends. That’s why there are coaches.

Have a Bad Memory?

The brain can suppress emotional memories is the suggestion of a new study by the University of Colorado at Boulder. It takes practice, and the results are quite preliminary, but it has medical implications certainly for people suffering from depression and other disorders. It could also have implications for coaching.

One of the more difficult aspects in coaching is helping a person deal with the resulting worldview “cage” created by the strong impact of negative emotional experiences. The emotion colors the thinking and can make it nearly impossible to think apart from it. It would certainly be useful if techniques could be developed that could be used from more than a clinical standpoint. Whether that is likely remains to be seen.

Link: Science Daily