The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading

The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?

Quote

New polling out from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a huge shift in attitudes towards poverty and the poor over the last 20 years. According to the survey, 46 percent Americans believe that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond people’s control, versus 44 percent who think it’s caused by impoverished people not doing enough to improve their station in life. The last time the survey asked that question, in 1995, a full 60 percent of Americans felt that the poor weren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of poverty, compared to just 30 percent who blamed extraneous factors. Hard times, it would seem, have made us more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. There’s nothing like a massive economic downturn to foster a little empathy.

And that makes sense. When the economy so rapidly and viciously turns on so many people, it’s hard to maintain the sense of idealism that leads one to believe that hard work and ambition are all that’s required to secure a comfortable, reasonably prosperous existenc

Simon Maloy, Salon

New polling out…

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.

Disconnected

Studying war has always been strange for me. I’ve been doing it for many years, both for school and out of personal interest. My major, international relations, came into being shortly after the end of World War II, precisely to figure out the origins of human conflict and how to resolve it (obviously, it now encompasses far more than that). Chalk up the fact that I’m also a news junkie, especially for international events – which are sadly often violent in nature – and I’m steeped in human conflict.

Aside from the bouts of cynicism and melancholy that result from steady exposure to so much human misery, there’s also a sense of surrealness – I’m learning about events that have taken the lives of so many people, and ruined the lives of so many more, without really accepting that they ever happened.

World War II alone killed 50 to 60 million human beings, additionally traumatizing and wounding more than double that number, yet I read about it as if it were a fictional story. It was a real event, sure, and I’m certainly aware of its effects. But it doesn’t’ feel like it happened. I don’t connect with the millions of people who suffered horrific and senseless pain. I don’t feel the emotional and physical weight of it. Because I wasn’t there, I just don’t know what it’s like, no matter how hard I try.

It’s the same with current events too. The bombings, massacres, tribal conflicts, state-sponsored oppression – none of it really registers. It saddens and upsets me sometimes, but I don’t truly know what any of it is like. I’ve never seen or experienced it. It feels unreal because it’s not right there in front of me. When I read harrowing first hand accounts or see graphic images and videos, I can only connect so much. Try as I might, my mind is incapable of absorbing the full gravity of what I’m seeing.

And in many ways, that’s probably a good thing. I’d probably be bedridden with depression if I could completely feel what all these unfortunate people do. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that this is something of an evolutionary development: the human mind was never intended to absorb so much data, given our origins as a tribal a widely dispersed tribal species. And certainly, our cognitive limitations help us to focus on what’s immediately around us – which is usually more important – rather than what’s going on farther away (look up “psychic numbing” and the research of Paul Slovik).

But still, I can’t shake off how strange it is to know that so much has happened in the past, and so much is happening now, that I’m completely oblivious to on a deeper level. Even as I speak, people are dying, being born, or experiencing a myriad of different events and emotions simultaneously. Seven billion stories are going on at this very second, some ending and some just beginning. Billions more are behind us, and (if all goes well) many more await us. Additionally, it’s grim to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these stories are rife with injustice, misery, and hardship – though there’s plenty of perseverance mixed in there as well, since that’s what humans have always done best, given the circumstances.

The Ties That Bind

In my lifetime, there have been few experiences as pleasant and gratifying as the moment when strangers become acquaintances or friends. Unlike for most of human history, we now live in a world where we come into constant contact with unfamiliar human beings. In our lifetimes, we interact with tens of thousands of different people a year – if not more – whereas most humans who have ever lived rarely knew of anyone else’s existence outside of their tiny and insular community.

The internet has radically amplified this trend, granting us the unprecedented ability to contact people from across the world. The once imposing scale of time and distance are being increasingly eroded. I can now establish a companionship with people who I have never physically met, and I would have otherwise never known these individuals existed had it not been for the web.

I love meeting new people and establishing new bonds. I love the feeling of connecting with a person on a deeper level, whether it’s through a shared interest or activity, or by empathizing with a more personal experience or feeling. It makes me feel less lonely, and opens me up to experiences, ideas, and perspectives I would otherwise have never known.

We often go about our daily routine without ever thinking much about the people who surround us, who are engaging in the same day-to-day activities as we are. Who are those individuals waiting in line with me? Or those people driving by in all those cars? Where are they going and why? What are their dreams and ambitions? What are there story?

Indeed, it’s hard to realize that as we go about our lives, billions of other individuals just like us are doing the same. They all have a story that they’re living out. They all have fears, desires, ideas, and experiences. The majority of them wants and need companionship too. They need that bond with other humans, whether it’s a friendly associate or an intimate lover. We all need someone in some way.

Going to any social setting – a party or classroom or department store – I always feel that latent sense of interconnection that pervades all collective gatherings; that palpable sense that any moment, I can create a bond with someone by recognizing their mutual humanity and engaging in conversation. It won’t always work of course, but the fact that it can is what excites me. The fact that I can tough another person’s life in some way, or visa versa, is what makes life great. Any stranger has the potential to be my next confidant. Any one of them has the potential to change my life.

These interactions could be brief or shallow, but that doesn’t diminish their value to me. Human interaction in general is the spice of life. It makes things more interesting. It enriches our worldview and our experiences. Most importantly, such contacts forge the ties that bind – the knowledge that we all share this world, that we’re all individual human beings who are capable of the same basic feelings and thoughts. This realization is that makes me a humanist, and what has driven me to care deeply about others I otherwise should have no reason to concern myself with.

I advise others to never pass up the chance to establish some sort of connection with another person – the store cashier, the person stuck in line with you, friend of a friend you meet at a party; make an opportunity to say something nice, to find some sort of icebreaker, or to simply smile and express your mutual interest in their humanity. In this fast-paced and materialistic world, it is easy to go about our lives without taking the moment to stop and just enjoy the company of strangers. Arguably, there is no such thing as strangers – they’re all prospective or future companions.

Love, Knowledge, and Compassion

Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot insure our own prosperity except by insuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy.

Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, social critic, historian, and logician, has long been one of the most influential people in my life. A noted humanist, atheist, and rationalist, he is the model for my own aspirations: to value love, knowledge, and compassion as the greatest pursuits in one’s life. Indeed, my personal mission statement, and that for this blog, is based upon these principles, which he so eloquently espouses in the following tract:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

I should hope to live a life so rich in goodness and enlightenment. Few men have ever been as ethical and moral. Furthermore, Russell gives lie to the popular notion that a rational mindset devoid of religious belief is too cold, calculating, or prone to nihilism to be compassionate and sympathetic. Empathy, love, and the sincere desire to see other people be happy and prosperous are not predicated on any particular dogma – such things should pervade all of humanity, regardless of religious, political, or ideological persuasions. Virtue for virtue’s sake.

I could devote an entire blog on the prodigious amount of writing and thought that emerged from this great thinker, and I’ll no doubt be revisiting him more than once in the future. If anyone would like at least a sample of his wisdom, visit this collection of his sayings and observations.

Why Be Good?

You do not need a reason to be a good person. Certainly there are causes and origins of our goodness – mirror neuronsneurological factors that facilitate empathy, and so on – but we do not need motives. One can be good for the very sake of it, independent of self-interest or (divine) command.

As a nonbeliever, I am often challenged on this position. Why should kindness and compassion matter to me? What is the incentive to be good? Where do I get my sense of morality, ethics, and integrity? Either I derive some benefit from it, or it is imbued in me by a higher power.

To be frank, I don’t know why I care about being good. When I lost my faith years ago, it never occurred to me to reconsider my commitment to being a decent person It’s not as if losing religion made me lose my moral compass – it remained separate, and if anything improved, long after I departed from my religious convictions. I am far from alone in this experience, and as far as empirical evidence has shown, most nonreligious people are as decent as anyone of faith.

Skeptics and cynics will no doubt chaff at this claim, believing that I am in fact benefiting from having moral concerns: more people will like me, well-needed favors will be reciprocated, and my body will release hormones that will make me feel good. Indeed, these factors may very well account for the evolutionary origins of altruism and empathy, which are the bedrocks of morality and virtue. We’re a social species, and we need these biological developments to promote bonding and group survival. Society has become larger and more complex, and therefore these factors have been extended to a much wider circle, encompassing not only kin and close friends, but complete strangers, even on the other side of the world.

But what does any of this mean? Is human goodness really reduced to being nothing more than an evolutionary advantage? Baring any evidence that it’s been implanted in us by God (be it directly or through interventions in our evolution), scientific findings increasingly suggest it.

But so what? To my knowledge, the exact origins of moral behavior remain unclear, but even if it were deterministic, that doesn’t lessen the beauty and value of compassion towards others. Human nature is a fickle and often abstract concept, and we’ve long shown a capacity for both monstrous evil and immense selflessness. We don’t have to be good, even if we seem to have natural inclinations for it. We’re just as liable to benefit from duplicitous – appearing to be good – than we are from doing the real thing. I won’t pretend I’m any different: I can be highly questionable in my character, my treatment of others, and my ethical conduct. There’s not a person who has ever lived that hasn’t demonstrated some dark aspect of their nature – no one is wholly innocent, even when they try.

Yet despite the unsavory elements of each of our characters, many of us still manage to do good things without compunction. Emmanuel Levinas, one of my favorite philosophers, noted how most people will automatically pick up something a stranger dropped in front of them and return it to them. They do not pause to rationalize whether or not they should commit to this favor, or if there is good reason to – it’s just something we’re taught to do by the wider society around us. The Golden Rule is nearly universal, and while humans differ as to what we define as fair and just, it’s clear that we humans have an intrinsic desire to promote cooperation, honesty, and goodness, whether or not it’s to our benefit.

The grayness and complexity of human behavior doesn’t make me cynical or doubtful about the existence of selfless good. If anything, it’s a cause for even more admiration. The course of human history, grim as it may be, is largely an account of steady progress: though many times feckless, uneven, and hardly linear, we’ve improved considerably since were first emerged as a species. More people live better lives than ever, and we have a more developed sense of morality and ethics than ever before, relative to historical standards. We have concepts of human rights that were pretty much non-existent through most historical societies (women’s rights, freedom of expression, etc).

Of course, “we” doesn’t pertain to all humans, and even within largely “developed” societies we see systemic or individual lapses in human decency. I don’t want to make light of the tremendous suffering, selfishness, and injustice that still bedevils most of my fellow denizens. Just because many humans have come a long way, doesn’t mean we should be complacent.

But my overall point, to bring back to the original subject matter, is that we as individuals can – and are often – good for goodness sake. We can rationalize it or attribute whatever reasons or motives we want, but I’ve seen enough of my brief but rich time on this Earth to know that there is tremendous good in most people. Our moral and ethical faculties are developing every generation, and perhaps someday, it won’t be long until altruism becomes the accepted norm of human conduct, however distant the prospect is. In the meantime, we should strike to expand our circle of compassion to encompass more people, and commit to normalizing the notion of goodness for its own sake by setting the examples ourselves.

The Layaway Angels

Sometimes, it takes just a single flicker of light in this often dark world of ours to instill in me great hope for our species. No good deed is too small or insignificant: the world may have its vast problems, often too big and complex to tackle within our life times. But what matters is that we do what we can to make life better for our fellow humans, who often share the same fears, concerns, and desires that we do.

Consider the recent trend in so-called “layaway angels,” individuals who anonymously pay off the layaway accounts of complete strangers. First noticed a couple of weeks ago in a single store in Michigan, it seems to be picking up throughout the country, perhaps as an example of the pay-if-forward approach to altruism that has been observed before.

A 10-year-old boy walked into a Kmart store in San Mateo on Wednesday afternoon, placed $20 on the counter and said he wanted to pay down a stranger’s layaway account.

Sameera Chatfield, the supervisor who helped the young “layaway angel,” an anonymous shopper who pays off layaways for strangers — a recent trend occurring at Kmart stores nationwide — said the boy walked in with his mom and specifically requested an account that included toys for boys.

“It was perfect,” she said. “I wish he had stayed around for a few minutes, because the people whose account he paid for came in.”

She said the family smiled when she told them that the “angel” who paid down their account was a 10-year-old boy.

The boy is one of several such do-gooders Chatfield has helped since Friday, when people started coming in and offering to pay down layaways.

“It has been absolutely fabulous,” Chatfield said. “It makes me want to go out and do something for someone else.”

The contagious good will, which has spread to Kmart stores around the country, appears to have its roots at a store in Michigan, where an anonymous woman reportedly paid about $500 toward the layaway accounts of strangers earlier this month.

The “angels” vary in age and ethnicity, but most request to remain anonymous and that their money go toward paying off accounts that include toys or children’s clothes. On Friday morning, a man in his 30s walked into a Kmart in Hayward with $10,000 in cash.

“He came in and said, ‘I heard what’s going on in other states.’ I’d like to do it,” said John Pawlik, 52, a manager at the Hayward Kmart. He said the man paid $9,800 toward layaway accounts and donated the remaining $200 to the Salvation Army.

Pawlik said in another instance, a couple came in and said they wanted to pay off an account because they don’t have children of their own.

“I think it’s great,” Pawlik said. “It puts your faith back in how you feel about people.”

Michelle Caldwell, 30, said that in the 10 years she has worked at the Kmart in San Leandro, she has not seen anything like this. Since Sunday, Caldwell said she has helped about five people who offered to pay down layaways.

“It’s just really touching,” she said. “If I had the money, I would be doing it myself too.”

John Garcia, a 44-year-old assistant manager at the Kmart in Redwood City, said that when sales associates inform the lucky customers that an anonymous person has paid down their accounts, most of the time their reaction is tearful.

“It’s almost like they’re in shock,” he said. “Like they’ve won the lottery. And in those instances, they have.”

Garcia said the trend is improving morale among sales associates and benefiting Bay Area families who are in need at this time of year.

“I’ve seen lots of demonstrations of goodwill towards people, but never one that gained such momentum,” he said. “It’s something that’s very special that’s happening.”

I’ll say, and that should never been underestimated. For all the confirmation bias we have in focusing mostly on the negative and reprehensible side of our nature – which is sadly quite persistent across our species – we should never overlook our continued propensity to love and be concerned towards one another. We could argue about the amount of good that transpires throughout the world versus all the evil, but it doesn’t remove the magnificence of any act of compassion, no matter how seemingly small or ephemeral. If anything, it’s made even more beautiful.

Now imagine if this sort of thing was to keep catching on, and everyone took it upon themselves to care about each other, if only for a moment. It’s a great thought to entertain, whatever your thoughts on the feasibility.

 

On Gossip, Back-Talking, and Hypocrisy

Those of you who know me well enough are no doubt aware of my fascination with this topic. Aside from my innate interest in sociological and psychological behavior, I also find it engaging due to it’s ubiquity and pervasiveness: there is not a single human on this planet that hasn’t at one point  been involved in gossip, talking behind someone’s back, or some other form of duplicitous behavior. And yet,  strangely, there is also not a single person on this planet that doesn’t claim not to partake in this act.

In other words, everyone does something that everyone claims they don’t do or don’t approve of. We are all – barring for the sake of certainty  the possibility some very exceptional cases – hypocrites.

Of course, this isn’t just limited to speaking poorly about people when they’re not around. Ask any average person who isn’t mentally suspect in some way, and they’ll claim to be opposed to lying, stealing, infidelity, killing, and any other vice. If pressed on it more, they may even claim never to engage in these things (though most people will do so hesitantly when it comes to more common immoral acts like lying or stealing). If any of this were true, there’d be little to no crime, corruption, or grounds for distrust in our society.

And that is what really intrigues me. Who are we fooling when we claim to be guiltless? How can we take ourselves seriously when we fault others for doing things we do all the time? Does anyone have the legitimacy to call out other people for wrongdoings? If we’re all guilty, who do we trust as a proper judge of morality and character? It’s almost as if everyone is just lying for the sake of some third-party – a hypothetical observer  (much like God, though not omniscient) that is keeping watch on all of us and judging us.

Indeed, that’s basically what we call “society” – the sum of every other individual we know, ourselves included, that is nonetheless basically treated as if it one whole, personified entity. Once we break it down, we may start to realize that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what “society thinks” – it’s nothing more than the aggregate opinion of numerous people more-or-less like you who have probably done at least one of the bad things you’re being judged on.

What about ourselves? We often separate “selfs” into two components: we talk to our own minds and try to justify to it why we did what we did. “It’s okay Romney, you’re just lying this one time for a good reason”  or “I’m not really gossiping, I’m just talking about a concern I have with him while he’s not around, nothing like what other  people do.”  It’s almost like one side of us is trying to get the other side on board, even if we don’t see it that way (I hope this makes sense – I know it’s not easy to articulate, so bear with me).

This isn’t strictly a sociological or psychological phenomenon, however. Some studies suggest that there is a biological – specifically neurological – origin to why we behave in this way. In short, our brains are in fact “modular” in nature, meaning that there are many components within our single “self” that each work in their own way and promote their own thoughts, behaviors, or habits. Sometimes these modules work together, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes completely independently.  So while a part of us engages in a certain behavior, another part may struggle to contain it, or continue to act on it’s own and promote better behavior, thus creating the duplicity we take as being “fake” or dishonest. It’s a bit complex, and still only recently discovered, but it makes a lot of sense.

So how many of us could righteously and un-hypocritically call anyone else out on their dishonesty or double-standards?

Well, while we’re hypocrites to a certain degree, clearly some people are more guilty in this regard than others. Sure, everyone talks about one another behind their backs, and as I’ve demonstrated, I have no delusions about that. But there is a clear difference between speaking about someone’s bad habits or abrasive tendencies, and delighting in discussing their petty personal business or making ad hominen attacks. There is also a difference in intent: to vent or share a concern is one thing, while to to spite, lie, or engage in schadenfreude is a whole other. I’d rather people talk about how loud or obnoxious I tend to be, than spread slanderous rumors or make unfair assumptions about my character. Obviously, I’d rather none of us ever talk about one another in secret at all, but obviously that it is unrealistic expectation (on both ends).

With that said, I will not pretend I am historically guiltless in this regard. As far as I can tell through my own reflections, I no longer take perverse  joy in making fun of other people. Even when I let my petty side get the best of me, which happens to all of us at some point, I at least reflect on it, feel guilty, and know that what I did was wrong. I’ll be sure to make amends and promise myself to avoid conflict with said individual as best as I can.

The problem is more with people who engage in this behavior systematically, without any sense of guilt or empathy for the other person (or other people in general for that matter).What’s most troubling is when this happens between close friends, as I’m sure we’ve all had the displeasure to experience. How we are capable of  simultaneously loving and cherishing one another while indulging in such harsh and judgmental criticism is a remarkable and mind-boggling phenomenon  (though the modular brain notion once again applies).

I think it all comes down to the development and maintenance of two things: empathy and reason. Building up our capacity to relate with and understand other living things is the foundation of integrity and compassion, which in turn dilutes petty inclinations to speak ill of others. If you care about other people, and could sympathetically put yourself in their position when tempted to speak ill of them, you’ll know better.

As for reason,  I believe we’re too quick to make assumptions and draw conclusions, often ad absurdum, about other people. This is the biggest issue in my opinion: a tendency to be visceral, reactionary, and emotional towards one another and our differences. Instead of measuring or reflecting on what we may hear – or are thinking – about others  many of us just lose control of our higher faculties. We should always measure up the claims being made, and reflect on what we feel or think about someone, why we do so, and whether it has any validity. We should also scrutinize our own attitudes and behavior, and determine which course of action is best: is it really justified or right to talk badly? Should we not address the source of conflict directly? What of the consequences to your reputation, or if that person were to find out?

Once again, I find that mixing compassion, empathy, and reason can help address another social ill. One can only hope enough people learn to exercise the better part of their faculties – or that those that do can at least learn to move past such petty and needless habits.