Empathy scores are in

Yesterday I took an empathy test. It´s this test, based on Simon Baron-Cohen´s empathy theories. I scored low. The test said that people on the autism spectrum score about 20, while the average range starts at 33. I scored 29. It also said that average women score 47. I´m about twenty points below an average woman´s “empathy quotient”.

Most of all, this confuses me. Because for some reason I tend to be perceived as someone who “understands” people. Well. Maybe in the sense that I´m understanding. I´ve had friends telling me that if it wasn´t for me they wouldn´t know who they could talk to about their problems. Often I felt like I could instinctively relate to people, though mostly to those who were “different” in some way. I tend to have elaborate theories on what might have motivated a certain crime. I also tend to analyze people. Well, and then there´s the most complicated thing. Sadism. How does it work without some kind of empathy? You cannot enjoy eliciting emotions from someone if you don´t get them.

I´m not sure how well-defined the term empathy is. I actually had to deal with Baron-Cohen´s theories for uni and I had the impression that he´s mixing things together that might need to be looked at separately. To him, functioning empathy means that you can 1) correctly parse other peoples´mental states and 2) respond appropriately. Now, when I encounter the word “appropriate” in a psychological theory I feel like I´ve left the realm of science and enter the realm of arbitrary judgement. I tended to think that I had 1), while not having 2). I´m starting to realize, though, that maybe things are a lot more complicated than that.

Let me look at a typical situation: I hear about some heinous crime. People around me are all like: “What kind of person does such a thing? This is completely incomprehendable!”, while I simply don´t have that reaction. I´m curious. I could imagine all kinds of mindsets within which someone would commit such a crime. I´m curious which one applies. I try to find out more, sometimes obsessively so, reading accounts by victims and eye-witnesses, and people wonder why I don´t get nightmares. Then, at some point I stumble across something in those accounts that makes me tear up. It usually is a tiny little detail. I read about a mother who got back her murdered son´s watch, and there was still his blood on it, yet she couldn´t bear to wash it off, as it was part of him. And that line of reasoning was something I could understand. It moves me to tears, while others don´t even want to hear about that.

What does this say about me?

“I can imagine a whole lot of different mindsets within which one would commit such a crime.” Most people can imagine none, yet they seem to have a good understanding of why people in everyday life behave the way they do. To them, some behaviors and mental states are self-evident and natural, while others are sick, crazy and even borderline non-human. I appear to be neutral. I have no strong feeling that it is crazier to chop someone up and arrange their body parts according to some complicated scheme than to dress up for a job interview. I know that we dress up for job interviews in order to impress our potential employer, but why does it impress him that someone wears a suit? It does not in any way enhance his intellectual capacities, does it? And while we might accept that we have to please people who we depend on, I don´t understand why so many people seem to accept that it is normal to dress up. Why don´t more people think it´s pointless, stupid and an abomination? Why don´t more people see their behavior as a result of a power imbalance? Are they all suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or do they genuinely believe in and support social rules? Am I the only one who doesn´t get it?

I also know that it is wrong to chop people up and I don´t feel much of a desire to do it, but I have no “strong feeling” that it is any more random and pointless than the behaviors and goals most people perceive as normal. Maybe this is why I think of myself as nihilistic.

So, okay. Apparently I don´t get social rules. I feel no intuitive connection to them.  I don´t have one theory of mind, though, which is informed and refined by putting it to practice every day. On an intuitive level, I´m perfectly clueless, everything´s possible. I don´t think I would be overly surprised if I ever found out all other people arond me are actually robots. I´m a bit like a child that way. It doesn´t mean, however, that I cannot imagine possible mental states other people might be experiencing. I do that all the time, and I´m very imaginative that way. And this can actually be a strength. Maybe people come to talk to me because I won´t ever call them crazy. If they are worried that they might have offended the feelings of their car by calling it ugly, I´ll sympathize. I might tell them something to make it alright again, like that the car understood it a different way, or I´ll tell them that their car knows they had a bad day and that they feel sorry about it. Yes, I know that objects don´t have feelings, and most of the time I manage to act as if I don´t think they do. It happens, though, that I feel as if they do, which means that throwing things away is very difficult for me. That is actually an interesting aspect regarding the empathy question. Empathy is about attributing mental states to others. I seem to have issues with that, but I do attribute mental states to objects. What the hell?

Yes, well, then the little details that suddenly make me sad. I cannot seem to instinctively relate to the pain of the victims and their families, but when I encounter little details that enable me to do so I have a very strong reaction. I take that as a sign that I´m not actually a sociopath. I´m not sure, though, how I shall interpret my reaction. Is it empathy? I feel like for a short, incoherent moment I can sort of “feel their pain”, but quite literally. Not the overall pain of losing a child, but the pain of looking at that watch. I can quite vividly imagine what it feels like. If I was writing a story about it, I could listen to my own inner signals and come up with a reasonably plausible and, in a way, heartfelt description. This kind of feeling can be triggered by events I read about in the news, but also by pure imagination on my part. I´m very good at evoking mental states and moods in myself just by daydreaming. I use these for writing and since people enjoy the fiction I write I seem to be able to imagine feelings rather well.

Gah. Now for the most complicated part. Sadism. How does it work without empathy? Huh. I feel like when I top I´m really myself. I´m cold, I analyze people, and their squirming proves me right. Nothing is confusing. Now, though, given that I seem to have very low empathy scores, I do feel confused. How can I understand them when allegedly I´m incapable of doing so? And yet I feel like I understand them. I get them. I just have no inclination to stop. Not unless I see they themselves have dropped out of the “mood”, that is, they are really miserable and don´t want this to continue. I mean – I usually don´t need to be told to stop, I realize when my partner is really feeling bad before they say anything. I do seem to be able to parse body language and tone of voice fairly well in those situations. This is so weird. If I had those capacities in ordinary social situations my life would look quite different.

I feel robbed. Topping people was a way to experience intimacy with others. Now it feels like some kind of lie. Last night I felt so detached from everything and everyone that I wanted to be dead. It was like physical pain. Actually, that feeling is far from gone. I still feel that everything is pointless and that I´d be better off dead.

I feel like some kind of monster who tries to crack open peoples´ skulls and press my face into their brains just so I can feel close to them and lose myself for a while. It isn´t even true. I´m not always mean. I´m rarely selfish when I top. I started out doing exactly what others enjoyed. They came with it to me, not vice versa. I had something they wanted. I was giving something.

Do I even have anything to give, when I have such low empathy? It seems that for some reason I do. Could it be that empathy is – if not overrated, then interpreted in a wrong way? Believed to mean something it doesn´t really mean?

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2 Responses to “Empathy scores are in”

  1. writingthebody Says:

    I love these tests – I do not know how valid they are – I got 56, above average (the average score for guys is just 42? Why do women score on average 47? Are they really more empathetic? I wonder). Anyway, I think it is the job of “bottom” people like me to absorb some of the pain. And if you scored too high you would not be able to dominate anyone, I suspect. I don’t know, that could be wrong…anyway…

    Of course you have something to give. You are analytic, obviously – that is a gift in itself! I guess I am not a believer in reason – I feel things, and trust intuition. These are just ways of being in the world. So do not worry!

  2. Thank you for your kind comment!

    Baron-Cohen seems to think that the male brain differs strongly from the female brain. Indeed, he believes that women empathize more, while men tend to “systemize”. There is a systemizing test on his website (http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen.aspx), too. Maybe I´ll write a post on that some time, because I do have some issues with it.

    When you say it´s the bottom´s job to absorb some of the pain – do you mean the top´s pain?

    I don´t know either what enables me to dominate people and if it has to do with these scores, but it´s definitely an interesting question! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this!

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