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Testing Our Capacity for Empathy with MCAT CARS

CARS 54: Testing Our Capacity for Empathy with MCAT CARS

Session 54

If there is such a thing as the in-group and the out-group, can we expect to have absolute empathy for everyone? Jack Westin and I tackle this big question with MCAT CARS.

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Link to article:

http://nautil.us/issue/35/boundaries/no-you-cant-feel-sorry-for-everyone

The world seems to be getting more empathetic. Americans donate to charity at record rates. People feel the pain of suffering in geographically distant countries brought to our attention by advances in communications and transportation. Violence, seen on historical timescales, is decreasing.

The great modern humanitarian project of expanding the scope of our empathy to include the entire human race seems to be working. Our in-group (those we choose to include in our inner circle and to spend our energies on) is growing, and our out-group (everybody else) shrinking. But there’s a wrinkle in this perfect picture: Our instinctive tendency to categorize the world into “us” and “them” is difficult to overcome. It is in our nature to favor helping in-group members like friends, family, or fellow citizens, and to neglect or even punish out-group members. Even as some moral circles expand, others remain stubbornly fixed, or even contract: Just think of Democrats and Republicans, Sunnis and Shiites, Duke and North Carolina basketball fans.

The endpoint of the liberal humanitarian project, which is universal empathy, would mean no boundary between in-group and out-group. In aiming for this goal, we must fight our instincts. That is possible, to a degree. Research confirms that people can strengthen their moral muscles and blur the divide between in-group and out-group. Practicing meditation, for example, can increase empathy, improving people’s ability to decode emotions from people’s facial expressions and making them more likely to offer a chair to someone with crutches. Simply increasing people’s beliefs in the malleability of empathy increases the empathy they express toward ideologically and racially dissimilar others. And when all else fails, people respond to financial gain. My co-authors and I have shown that introducing monetary incentives for accurate perspective-taking increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to understand each other and to believe that political resolutions were possible.

But these exercises can take us only so far. In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.

Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. We can see this in our public discourse today. Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.

[01:20] General Advice

If you’re struggling with MCAT CARS right now, don’t give up! Don’t stress out and just try your best. Your life will go on. You’re fine. In anything you do, have this kind of mentality and you will be fine.

'Don't think that your worth is resting upon your score. Your worth depends on who you are as an individual.'Click To Tweet

It’s the quality of things that matters. The numbers may matter but they’re not that important. You can still get in even with bad scores. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s going to care what school you went to. 

Love what you’re doing and you’re going to be great at it. Don’t worry about your school or the exact school you’re going to. Try your best, but it’s not worth killing yourself over. It’s not worth it.

[04:45] Paragraph 1, Sentence 1

The world seems to be getting more empathetic. 

Jack says:

It’s a straightforward sentence with the author saying the world seems to be getting more empathetic.

[04:57] Paragraph 1, Sentence 2

Americans donate to charity at record rates. 

Jack says:

It’s an example of empathy.

[05:06] Paragraph 1, Sentence 3

People feel the pain of suffering in geographically distant countries brought to our attention by advances in communications and transportation. 

Jack says:

We feel the pain of what’s going on around the world because of media and travel.

[05:30] Paragraph 1, Sentence 4

Violence, seen on historical timescales, is decreasing.

Jack says:

The author is painting two pictures here. We’re getting more empathetic and violence is decreasing. They’re not necessarily correlated but the author is assuming they’re related. But you don’t have to make this connection. Just understand what the author is saying. 

The big picture of this paragraph is that we’re being more empathetic. One great thing about this passage is that the author presents this theoretical point of view. it becomes a truth and the foundation for the actual point the author cares about. Then they define that reality further to give us more specific arguments around that bigger picture.

“If you see yourself reading something that's a more general or theoretical point of view, know that they're going to use that to establish a reality that we live in. “Click To Tweet

[07:25] Paragraph 2, Sentence 1

The great modern humanitarian project of expanding the scope of our empathy to include the entire human race seems to be working. 

Jack says:

We don’t know where the author is going with this except that we’re being nicer.

[08:00] Paragraph 2, Sentence 2

Our in-group (those we choose to include in our inner circle and to spend our energies on) is growing, and our out-group (everybody else) shrinking. 

Jack says:

The in-group is those we choose to include in our inner circle and spend our energies on. We’re spending our energies on more people and that’s a good thing. It sounds like we’re more empathetic. 

[09:03] Paragraph 2, Sentence 3

But there’s a wrinkle in this perfect picture: Our instinctive tendency to categorize the world into “us” and “them” is difficult to overcome. 

Jack says:

The author is showing us that we tend to categorize the use of us and them by instinct. 

[09:34] Paragraph 2, Sentence 4

It is in our nature to favor helping in-group members like friends, family, or fellow citizens, and to neglect or even punish out-group members. 

Jack says:

We’re now adding a layer to our painting. The first layer is that we’re getting nicer. But now, the author is saying that we have this built-in nature to not be nice. It’s contradictory to what the author was actually saying in the beginning.

There’s a dichotomy here where there are two different ways of looking at things. One is that we’re getting nicer and the other is that we’re naturally trying to exclude people.

[10:44] Paragraph 2, Sentence 5

Even as some moral circles expand, others remain stubbornly fixed, or even contract: Just think of Democrats and Republicans, Sunnis and Shiites, Duke and North Carolina basketball fans.

Jack says:

The author talks about moral circles and some examples of where we have the conflict of “us” vs. “them.” This goes back to the fact that we may exclude people.

[11:25] Paragraph 3, Sentence 1

The endpoint of the liberal humanitarian project, which is universal empathy, would mean no boundary between in-group and out-group. 

Jack says:

Liberal means it’s one-sided.

[12:02] Paragraph 3, Sentence 2

In aiming for this goal, we must fight our instincts. 

Jack says:

This is again talking about the goal of in vs. out. Our instincts are telling us that there is an us vs. them so we have to fight that. This is the “grey”. We can have both. We can be towards empathy but we’re also healing of inherently biased exclusion. We have to fight that natural urge.

[12:38] Paragraph 3, Sentence 3

That is possible, to a degree. 

Jack says:

The author is saying we can fight it but only to a degree.

[12:44] Paragraph 3, Sentence 4

Research confirms that people can strengthen their moral muscles and blur the divide between in-group and out-group. 

Jack says:

The author is giving an example of research. “Blur the divide” means making the line less between us and them. So it’s bringing in the groups. 

[13:18] Paragraph 3, Sentence 5

Practicing meditation, for example, can increase empathy, improving people’s ability to decode emotions from people’s facial expressions and making them more likely to offer a chair to someone with crutches. 

Jack says:

Meditation is one specific example and what it can do.

[13:36] Paragraph 3, Sentence 6

Simply increasing people’s beliefs in the malleability of empathy increases the empathy they express toward ideologically and racially dissimilar others. 

Jack says:

Just having people know that you can change empathy, increases empathy. 

[14:02] Paragraph 3, Sentence 7

And when all else fails, people respond to financial gain. 

Jack says:

An example of this would be the founder of the Kind Bars. He got the Palestinians and Israelis together for business purposes. So they responded to the “financial gain” and they agreed to put up with each other. Over time, working together, they realized they’re the same.

[14:56] Paragraph 3, Sentence 8

My co-authors and I have shown that introducing monetary incentives for accurate perspective-taking increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to understand each other and to believe that political resolutions were possible.

Jack says:

It’s okay if you don’t understand this sentence. As long as you know that you can incentivize people financially to be more empathetic, that’s all that matters.

But for the purpose of understanding this sentence, it’s saying that if we incentivize it monetarily for you to think of things in the right perspective and try to be empathetic then we will reward you.

[15:55] Paragraph 4, Sentence 1

But these exercises can take us only so far. 

Jack says:

But the author is saying we can only do this to a certain extent. We can’t turn everyone into empathetic beings. 

[16:11] Paragraph 4, Sentence 2

In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. 

Jack says:

It’s a very confusing sentence so you can just basically move on. But it means that we can’t be as empathetic as we’d like to be. Maybe we are just naturally close-minded. 

Here it says, “in fact,” so right off the bat, it’s going in the same direction. So don’t worry too much about this sentence.

Let’s break down this sentence though. “Irony” is something happening that we don’t expect. If we assume that we can somehow overcome these narrow-minded tendencies, we’re going to be screwed.

Parochial, in his case, could mean narrow tendencies. Again, if you don’t know the meaning, just let it go.

[18:14] Paragraph 4, Sentence 3

Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. 

Jack says:

It’s a bit of a history of why we have this in-group and out-group. 

[18:40] Paragraph 4, Sentence 4

That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. 

Jack says:

If we don’t hate our out-group then it might hurt our in-group. Understand the “ancestor” stuff because it’s helping us in terms of evolution. 

[19:16] Paragraph 4, Sentence 5

Empathy is a zero-sum game.

Jack says:

You can get this from the second to the last sentence. It means that we can’t have all winners. Not everyone is going to be aware. We’ve got some winners and some losers.

Zero-sum suggests that if you add everything together, you’re going to get zero. That’s why empathy is a zero-sum game. So if some people gain more empathy, we lose on some other end. So if there’s a plus one, there must be a negative one to account for that plus one. This leads us to zero. 

You don’t have to understand it to this level. The point is that if one gains, the other one loses.

[20:48] Paragraph 5, Sentence 1

Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. 

Jack says:

The author is saying we just can’t love everybody. It’s going back to the zero-sum game.

[21:13] Paragraph 5, Sentence 2

Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. 

Jack says:

If we ignore this fact, which means that if we don’t believe this idea that compassion is impossible for every individual, then we’re going to be paralyzed. “Unchieavable demands” could mean it may be overwhelming you because you have to be nice to everyone. 

[21:54] Paragraph 5, Sentence 3

We can see this in our public discourse today. 

Jack says:

The author is just setting us up for more information.

[22:04] Paragraph 5, Sentence 4

Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. 

Jack says:

So there’s this weird, am-I-doing-it-right kind of discussion here.

[22:24] Paragraph 5, Sentence 5

These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.

Jack says:

This is the whole zero-sum game where we are undermining the in-group love if we give too much out-group love. That’s the overwhelming nature of this. It says that it’s impossible to achieve if we get paralyzed by this. We have this issue if we empathize with everyone.

A good example of this is something a lot of premeds deal with espeically those who go on trips abroad and do some volunteering. A lot of the in-group thinking is that there’s plenty of places in the states that need their help so why go to those people.

[24:38] Final Thoughts

Just be aware that the author is going to present different sides and they may be in the middle. In this case, the author is initially going towards more empathy. But then saying we can’t be empathetic towards everyone.

So it’s basically trying to establish that there’s a grey. We are being more empathetic but we can’t reach total absolute empathy for everyone. You have to be okay with that middle. 

Also, understand that the author is trending towards empathy for most people. It’s like a line where you’re not necessarily directly in the center of the line but you’re not completely at one end either. 

'Just go with what you understand and be aware of middles and that there may be exceptions.'Click To Tweet

[26:00] Jack Westin

If you want to improve your CARS section, try to understand what the author is trying to tell you. Check out Jack Westin’s free daily CARS passages.

Links:

Meded Media

Jack Westin

Jack Westin’s free daily CARS passages

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