Skip to content

Age of Empathy – book review

The main premise of this book is to challenge the simplistic ideas that society is about “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection.” Frans de Waal argues that for both animal society and human society, cooperative behavior is necessary. We are social animals (mammals in particular) and we need to the group for security and for status.

Frans de Waal studies empathy in monkeys — thus this book is biased towards the positive aspects of empathy. He tells stories and anecdotes about animal studies and he also tells, most of which are based on his research or related research. He generalizes some things to humans. He challenges the notion that human society is ONLY competitive, war-like and selfish.

There are 3 key things I got from this book:

  • A definition and description of empathy
    • state-matching emotional contagion – innermost/foundational is matching the state of the other – this is done by emotional contagions. It is thought that mirror neurons, mimicry and body mapping/reading all play roles in state-matching (my interpretation)
    • concern for others consolation behavior – 2nd layer is ability to express concern and try to console the other — such as a young child or monkey trying to console a mother who is crying
    • perspective taking targeted helping – this last layer is about the ability to understand what the other needs. Being able to help the other in a specific, targeted way implies the ability to understand their need from their point of view.
  • Animal research into fairness and how it links to communal survival
    • The main reason humans seek fairness is to prevent negative reactions upon rejoining the group (think about the CEOs who flew in private jet planes to receive bailouts). We may however, relax our rules about fairness when it comes to a close relation.
    • If you don’t act in a fair manner, others will take note and repay you in kind when you are in need (yes, monkeys do this too!)
    • however, there are way to kill prosocial behavior:
      • pair the monkey with a stranger
      • put the partner who you should be acting fairly towards, out of sight, and selfish behavior emerges
      • others must see the outcome.
  • Change in empathetic behavior depends on kinship or group ties
    • As noted in examples above
    • This is not fully explored — I would like to know more about how we promote identification and/or kinship between groups. This dehumanization is the cause of many wars, no?

Though a bit long-winded at times (needs a good edit IMHO!) – this book is worth the effort to read. It’s not scannable, you actually have to read the stories and anecdotes to get the most out of it. Frans de Waal does extrapolate somewhat freely to human behavior, either explicitly or implicitly. The underlying assumption is that we are very similar in base behavior to monkeys, apes, dolphins and elephants — and that might be hard for some people to take.

Some additional quotes I liked:

  • Security is the first and foremost reason for social life (20)
  • Is war an aggressive drive or driven by power and profit? (25)
  • Discussion of body mapping within species and between species (53)
  • Plutarch – “if you live with a cripple, you will learn to limp.”
  • Mirror neurons – the firing of brain cells when doing and action, and to a similar extent when *watching* another do an action (79)
  • lack of distinction between monkey see and monkey do, erasing the line between self and other
  • Oscar the cat – who would stay with a dying person at an old folks home — and he always knew when someone was going to die, even before the nurses did!
  • Self-protective altruism – helping another shields self from adverse reactions (75)
  • petting relieves stress in the monkey/human that is petting or being petted
  • identification is a basic pre-condition for empathy (80)
  • Do emotions arise from the body (body first theory – “i run, therefore I am scared”) (81)
  • Or do emotions in others raise awareness in ourselves (emotions first theory) – leads to emotional contagion concept (monkeys run from those that have experienced a negative emotion like fear from rattlesnake)
  • body posture wins out over facial expression in judging emotional states
  • but faces still matter – people can’t relate to those with immobilized faces
  • self-absorption kills empathy – you have to distangle yourself from the other to pinpoint actual source of feelings –> leads to perspective taking and targeted helping
  • VEN cells – go deep in to the brain (are like neurons) and are thought to connect disparate parts of brain (138)
  • true cradle of cooperation is the community (182)
  • thus human fairness goes hand in hand with communal survival (187)
  • inequity aversion (187)
  • empathy is understanding another; sympathy is taking action
  • Theory of the mind – understanding the state of the other (98)
  • 3 ideals of the French Revolution – liberty (US has this bias); equality (Europe has this bias); fraternity (forgotten?)
  • the tendency towards social hierarchy/competitiveness undercuts empathy/cooperation – as emphasized in institutions such as in the military and church (political bias)
  • cruelty also rests on perspective taking (knowing what will hurt the other the most)
  • we often operated in enlightened self-interest
  • one cannot expect trust in a society with huge income disparities, insecurities, disenfranchised underclass

Posted in book reviews, business.

Tagged with , , , .

One Response

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A Whole New Mind – book review | wander@will linked to this post on November 21, 2009

    […] the importance of Empathy I’ve written about before in this blog. Research of interest – one study of aphasics (those with damage to the left-side or […]

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.