Friday, Sep. 25, 2009

Are Humans Actually Selfish?

Gordon Gekko got it wrong. In his new book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal uses a variety of studies on empathy in animals to debunk the idea that humans are competitive to the core. He talked to TIME about contagious yawning, why we share and Bernie Madoff.

How do you define empathy?
Empathy is sometimes defined by psychologists as some sort of high-level cognitive feat where you imagine how somebody else feels or how you would feel in their situation. But my definition is more focused on the whole of empathy, and that includes emotions. If you are sad and crying, it's not just that I try to imagine how you feel. But I feel for you and I feel with you.

You explain in the book that empathy really starts with our bodies: running together, laughing together, yawning together. So yawning really is contagious?
Yeah. Dogs catch yawns from their owners. Chimpanzees yawn [in response to those] that we show them. Yawn contagion is very interesting because it's a very deep bodily connection between humans or between animals. Humans who have problems with empathy, such as autistic children, don't have yawn contagion. It's either because they don't pay attention to the yawns of others or they're not affected by them.

There's an example in the book where you talk about apes sharing food as a demonstration of empathy. What's in it for the apes who already have food — why do they choose to give it away?
In biology, we usually make a sharp distinction between why things evolved and why animals do things. For example, sex evolved for reproduction. But if you ask people why they have sex, reproduction is not always mentioned. So there's a separation between why the behavior evolved and why the actors actually engage in it. The same is true for altruistic tendencies. You share food with your kin; you share food with individuals who may repay the favor. So the sharing behavior evolved for self-interested reasons. But that doesn't mean that the individual actor, at the moment that he does it, is thinking of the potential benefits.

Is it true that women are more empathetic than men?
All mammals have obligatory maternal care. A female who doesn't respond right away to the distress or the coldness or the hunger or the danger of her young ones is going to lose them. She has to be very sensitive to their emotional state. So if that's the basis, and out of that grew other sensitivities to other individuals who were not offspring, then it's very obvious that there should be a gender bias.

It's interesting that you say certain things one might expect to be related to empathy aren't, necessarily — like fairness.
Fairness is something we started investigating in monkeys. We would have two capuchin monkeys side by side, working on a very simple task. One would get cucumber pieces and the other would get grapes. If they both get cucumber they're perfectly fine. But if you give one of them grapes, the other guy is all of a sudden not happy anymore. Some explanations of fairness are the golden rule: I treat you well and in a fair manner because that's how I want to be treated. Which is a very complex explanation. What we see in monkeys is probably much simpler. It's probably more related to resentment.

If you look at young children, that's exactly where they start. But then by thinking about it, we develop a fairness ideal and a norm, where we say it's better in society if things are fairly distributed. Part of our response at the moment to Wall Street and the bonuses of the bankers is still that simple response: what are they getting, compared to what we are getting? So many people have nothing at the moment, and that enhances our sensitivity to it. But it's basically a monkey reaction.

What about people who seem to lack empathy altogether, like psychopaths? You talk about a "mammalian core."
There's a book called Snakes in Suits, which is about psychopaths in business. Madoff would be a good example, probably, and Kenny Lay, the head of Enron. I find that such a striking title because it makes them into reptiles. Empathy is not a reptilian thing. Empathy is a mammalian thing. Psychopaths are capable of taking the perspective of somebody else, but only to take better advantage of you. They're able to play the empathy game but without the feelings involved. It's like an empty shell. The core of empathy — emotional contagion and being in tune with the feelings of somebody else — seems to be completely lacking. They are like aliens among us.

Do we know why that happens?
We don't know how people end up that way. There is a theory that says that people who don't have that emotional connection with others when they're young don't develop an aversion to hurting others. I'm from a family of six boys, so I know what fighting is among siblings. What you learn is that if you're fighting with a younger sibling and you squeeze him too hard, he screams, and you stop. Dogs learn the same thing. When big dogs play with small dogs, they learn to restrain their strength. If you don't learn that, then you keep doing it, and actually you may gain benefits from that. If the screams of somebody else or the crying of somebody else don't have any effect on you, you may look at it as a good strategy of getting things.

Given all the science that tells us about empathy in animals and in ourselves, why do you think the idea persists that at bottom we're competitive backstabbers?
It was established at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when probably it was useful to have a picture of humans as competitive and to base the capitalist system on that image. And in doing so, a lot of political ideologues and economists started to forget that we are also a highly social species. The founder of economics, Adam Smith — to his credit — did realize that if you build a system completely on competitive principles it would not work very well.

What happened a year ago on Wall Street is exactly an example of what Smith was warning [about]. Society is not really made to be a purely competitive operation. And I think we have learned that lesson, but I don't know for how long. The whole argument that nature is red in tooth and claw, and for that reason society ought to be like that, is flawed. Because nature is not like that. If you look at our close relatives, you see animals who survive by cooperating. Yes, there is competition; there is dominance, hierarchy. They sometimes fight. They sometimes even kill each other. But they stick together because they survive together much better than alone.