Over lunch on the Upper East Side, Maia Szalavitz, science blogger for Time.com and co-author, with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, explained why empathy needs better PR, and how we can make that happen. Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview, which focuses on how to cultivate empathy in children.
Ada Calhoun: What got you interested in empathy?
Maia Szalavitz: It crosses into everything from neuroscience, sociology, psychology, history… Virtually everything we do is dependent on our ability to read the mind of others.
AC: And then to care about what we read there.
MS: It’s perspective taking plus caring. People with autism sometimes have difficulty perspective-taking, but when they successfully perspective-take, they genuinely care. People that genuinely do not have empathy are sociopaths and psychopaths, and they are very good at perspective-taking, but they don’t care. They use it to manipulate you. So it’s like the sociopaths know but don’t care and the autistic people care but don’t always know.
AC: How are we doing with that as a nation?
MS: The General Social Survey asks, “Can people be trusted? Or is it true that you can’t be too careful?” Since 1970, it’s gone from about 50/50 to about 63 percent or 62 percent saying people can’t be trusted. If we want to have a world where not only does capitalism work well, but where people are nice, we actually want to foster empathy in people. I think it’s important to realize that it’s not just this fluffy, nicey-nicey thing, as everybody tends to think about it: “Oh, we’re training people to be nice,” and kids then think, “Oh, that’s really boring.”
AC: Yes, I think empathy needs better PR.
MS: We underemphasize how fun and cool it is to connect with other people, and how actually our greatest joys in life are about connection and empathy. Let’s say you’re the most successful person in the world but you have nobody to share it with—it’s pretty bad, right? That most of our joys are relational and not material, again underlines the importance of this. We feel like empathy is a vegetable and it’s like something that we have to do because it’s good for us or like exercise or something, but actually it’s the root of all fun.
AC: You argue in Born For Love that even our economy is empathy-related.
MS: Modern economies are fundamentally reliant on trust. The less trust you have, the more police, lawyers, and locks you need to just simply make a transaction. The more trust you have, the more free-flowing the capital can actually be. We’re seeing now this great breakdown in trust, and you can see also economic collapse issues. Trust is one of those things very easy to destroy but not so easy to create, and I think fundamentally it’s built in childhood.
AC: So, how should we present it to kids?
MS: It’s one of those very private pleasures that we don’t really talk about very much, but it really is one of the greatest things. We’ve always had this idea in Western culture that human nature is naturally selfish. But human nature is as naturally altruistic and caring as it is naturally selfish, about 50/50. What if our history had emphasized the other side? What if we had seen Darwinism as being based on cooperation, which it is, because a social species cannot live without cooperation? If we had, how different would the world be?
contributions from Frankie Thomas and Ilya Tsinis