Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

8.18.2015

Morality & Empathy: A Chain of Associations

First, take a moment to ponder a question: What makes you feel disgust?

Vomit, rot, decay, excrement, and that sort of thing, of course.  But what about people?  Are there particular actions or behaviors that you not only rationally believe are wrong, but to which you react viscerally with disgust?  How about categories of others--are there any groups of people you find disgusting?

Who disgusts you?
Disgust is a powerful force for evil.  If you want to exterminate or marginalize a group, this is the emotion to elicit. . . .

Now, one needn't actually make others disgusting to trigger such a response; the more usual method is to use the power of the imagination.  You can tell stories . . .

Empathy makes one more likely to care: it boosts compassion and altruism.  Disgust has the opposite effect: it makes us indifferent to the suffering of others and has the power to incite cruelty and dehumanization. . . .

Disgust is the opposite of empathy.  Just as empathy leads to compassion in many (but not all) circumstances, disgust usually (but not always) leads to repulsion.  Empathy triggers and appreciation of another's personhood; disgust leads you to construe the other as diminshed and revolting, lacking humanity. . . .

Disgust makes us meaner.


I recently finished the book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom.  In it, Bloom considers the idea of morality from many angles, starting from his work as a psychologist studying the cognition of infants and young children.  He believes we are born with a basic sense of good and bad that is developed and refined into morality as we grow:
The right theory of our moral lives has two parts.  It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness.  But we are more than just babies.  A critical part of our morality--so much of what makes us human--emerges over the course of human history and individual development.  It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.
His research has led him to conclude that empathy is a biological instinct we are born with:
Hunger drives us to seek out food; lust inspires sexual behavior; anger leads to aggression in the face of some sort of threat--and empathy exists to motivate compassion and altruism.
Of course, that empathy only naturally extends to those with whom we relate: family, friends, and others we consider part of our self-interested coalition:
Laboratory studies find that adults automatically encode three pieces of information when we meet a new person: age, sex, and race. . . .

Race matters only insofar as it piggybacks on coalition. . . .

Societies form hierarchies based on three factors: age, sex, and a third, variable category that is sometimes race but may also be religion, ethnicity, clan, or any other social factor.
And those we don't consider part of our coalition?  That's where things start to get messy.
Even if outright violence is an extreme reaction, the natural reaction when meeting a stranger is not compassion.  Strangers inspire fear and disgust and hatred. . . .

Any adequate theory of moral psychology has to explain both our antipathy toward strangers and how we sometimes manage to overcome it.
And that's where my chain of associations begins, hopefully leading from these theoretical considerations into some interesting applications.


Bloom says some very similar things to a section of The Well-Dressed Ape--which I blogged extensively a few years back--about the nature of the morality of cooperation and punishment, particularly the bits I quoted in From the "That Makes So Much Sense" Files:
Reputation is now strongly suspected as the engine that drives altruism: Because I am such a social animal, it's important to me that other humans trust and respect me. . . . What goes around comes around, in human groups. . . .

Punishing is crucial to the survival of cooperation, because punishment erodes the cheater's precious social support. However, punishing also looks like a purely altruistic act: I confront the cheater, and all I get out of it is a racing heart and a peeved wolverine. No dopamine rush, even. Why, then, should I make such a sacrifice for the common good? Once again, the behavior looks biologically bankrupt at first glance. And once again on closer inspection, it appears punishing the cheaters is part of a long-term strategy wherein I trade today's stress for tomorrow's social support. When I volunteer to punish a cheater, I advertise my own high standards for trustworthiness and decency. I attract a better class of allies. My stock rises. . . .
And Bloom doesn't go quite this direction, but his thoughts mesh very well with the fascinating Smithsonian article How Time, Space and Authority Figures Influence Your Moral Judgment:
“Human societies all have higher-order punishment, which means that we don’t just punish wrongdoers, we punish people who fail to punish wrongdoers,” says co-author Daniel Fessler, a professor of anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles. “So it is costly not to be outraged when you should be.” . . .

According to Fessler, moral judgments are the products of an evolved psychology that motivates people to follow and enforce a set of rules. Although it can be costly in terms of time and energy, this community-oriented psychology confers benefits upon individuals who establish a moral reputation. People seen as highly moral are more likely to be included in future cooperative ventures in the community, such as a hunt or a barn raising, that enhance their ability to survive.

But there is a time and place when it comes to enforcing moral codes. “There are few payoffs for caring a lot about things that happened far away or long ago, because passing judgments on these things is cheap talk, and the local community is not better off for the policing of those actions,” says Fessler.

Instead, someone can only obtain “moral capital” when the situation is relevant to the community and there is an actual cost to the enforcement of a moral code. . . .

But when individuals continually express outrage at events far removed from the present, they dilute their moral potency and lose reputation.
So, in the right context, punishing others can be a good thing, particularly if it's altruistic punishment--no gain for me except to promote the social order and my reputation as someone who upholds it.  But then there's that whole category of "otherness," those who don't have a place in our coalitions.  Back to Bloom:
In our modern Western societies, first-person revenge plays a less prominent role than it does in the so-called cultures of honor--the Bedouin, criminal subcultures such as the Mafia, and the cowboy culture of the American West, for example.  Individuals living in such cultures cannot rely on external authority to mete out justice, so it's up to each individual to defend himself and those he cares about.  A reputation for violence matters in these societies; this is what deters others from attacking or abusing you.  Consistent with this theory, psychologists find that individuals in such societies tend to be disapproving of acts of disrespect and forgiving of acts of retribution.

The psychologist Steven Pinker argues that one reason for the drop in violence over history is the decline of such cultures.  We've managed, in many parts of the world, to check our appetite for personal retribution.  First-party revenge has been largely replaced with third-party punishment, enforced by the government.
Except:
The psychology of third-party punishment is little more than the psychology of revenge writ large.  That is, we have evolved a tendency to retaliate against those who harm us and who harm the people we love because by doing so we deter such behavior in the future.  When we extend these sentiments to cases that we are not directly involved in, it is through the exercise of empathy.  We imagine ourselves in the victim's shoes and respond as if we ourselves were being harmed.  Third-party punishment, then, reduces to revenge plus empathy. . . .

Consistent with the idea that our appetite for third-party punishment is parasitic on empathy, it varies according to our relationship with the victim and the person harming the victim.  We are drawn to punish those who harm individuals that naturally inspire empathy, such as kittens; those whom we care about; and those who are part of our group, tribe, or coalition.  We are less motivated to punish when our empathetic connection is with the aggressor. . . .

This explanation for third-party punishment--that it stems from our desire for revenge--also explains some of the odder features of our punitive sentiments.  Most notably, people are surprisingly indifferent to the actual consequences of punishment. . . . People are more concerned that punishment should injure the punisher than that it should make the world a better place. . . .

We want to punish, but we don't think about the purpose of punishment.
Even in the case of children:
In studies of siblings between the ages of two and six, investigators found that most of what the children said to their parents about their brothers or sisters counted as tattling. . . .

The love of tattling reveals an appetite for payback, a pleasure in seeing wrongdoers (particularly those who harmed the child, or a friend of the child) being punished.  Tattling is a way of off-loading the potential costs of revenge.
So punishment can be good for the social order, but it can also be small-minded revenge.  Context matters.

The Smithsonian article, in talking about the importance of  local and temporal relevance to morality, also says:
Inspiring people to be more universal in their sense of moral outrage may involve one of the most powerful forces currently driving social change—the Internet. Photography, video and other social media can turn our planet into one common neighborhood. There is strong evidence these tools tap into our inherent psychology and give people the impression that morally unjust events happening far away are in fact happening locally—just ask the U.S. dentist at the center of the controversy over Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion.

“We really are one global community now and we have to act like it, because if we don’t, we are all in trouble," says Fessler. “Happily our psychology is already geared toward thinking about a single community. We just have to convince one another that the whole world is that community.”
Ah, Cecil the lion.  This reference will fade from memory as this blog post ages, but there was a recent firestorm on social media about the illegal killing of a protected lion by a big game hunter.  All sorts of opinions were shared, then opinions about the opinions and reactions to the opinions about the opinions and on and on.  Movements started and policies changed--most notably, to my knowledge, airlines refusing to transport hunted animals.  At the heart of it all was a large, unified sense of outrage about what had been done that led to the common recent animal: the internet mob.

Remember Bloom's thoughts above on third-party punishment being about a self-satisfying need for revenge more than concern for beneficial consequences, then consider this article from Vox: From Gamergate to Cecil the Lion: Internet Mob Justice Is Out of Control.
In the mold of Gamergate, the campaign has targeted Palmer in two ways: by going after his livelihood and by seeking to inflict psychological suffering in the form of harassment and threats. . . .

This campaign against Palmer has been disturbingly successful. His dental practice is closed at the moment, and his harassers are gleeful that they are denying him an income. . . .

But even if you believe that this particular mob made the correct decision in both identifying the targets and meting out punishments, the way its members reached these decisions — arbitrarily, based on what they thought would feel good to punish — should worry you. . . .

The internet mob determines the severity of a crime based on subjective factors, such as how unlikable they find the alleged criminal to be, how likable they find the victim, and the degree to which the alleged crime fits into their preconceived beliefs. You'll notice that most of these trace back not to the crime's impact on society, but rather the degree to which punishing the crime will feel good for the punishers. . . .

This gets to one of the root problems with mob justice: It is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance. . . .

The mob is not about justice in the abstract sense of furthering society's collective good. Rather, it is about pursuing vendettas — for example, Gamergate's fury at the growing role of women in technology, or Reddit's open hatred of people who are overweight — or about simply indulging the mob's desire for blood.
Recently I shared a bit from the short piece "Group Polarization" by David G. Myers--which I initially read in the book This Explains Everything, edited by John Brockman--in the post On Communication.  The bit:
Out of this befuddlement--does group interaction increase risk, or caution?--there emerged a deeper principle of simple elegance: group interaction tends to amplify people's initial inclinations. . . .

The Internet accelerates opportunities for like-minded peacemakers and neo-Nazis, geeks and goths, conspiracy schemers and cancer survivors, to find and influence one another. When socially networked, birds of a feather find their shared interests, attitudes, and suspicions magnified.

Ergo, one elegant and socially significant explanation of diverse observations is simply this: opinion segregation + conversation → polarization.
Group interaction tends to amplify people's initial inclinations. That is the conclusion of careful study by social scientists.  Bloom reports a similar conclusion from investigations into religion:
The only large effect [of religion on morality] is that religious Americans give more to charity (including nonreligious charities) than atheists do.  This holds even when one controls for demographics. . . .

None of their answers to such questions [of religious belief] were related to behaviors having to do with volunteering and charitable giving.  Rather, participation in the religious community was everything.  As Putnam and Campbell put it, "Once we know how observant a person is in terms of church attendance, nothing that we can discover about the content of her religious faith adds anything to our understanding or prediction of her good neighborliness. . . . In fact, the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of the congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone.  It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing."

This importance of community, and the irrelevance of belief, extends as well to the nastier effects of religion.  The psychologist Jeremy Ginges and his colleagues found a strong relationship between religiosity and support for suicide bombing among Palestinian Muslims, and, again, the key factor was religious community, not religious belief: mosque attendance predicted support for suicide attacks; frequency of prayer did not.  Among Indonesian Muslims, Mexican Catholics, British Protestants, Russian Orthodox in Russia, Israeli Jews, and Indian Hindus, frequency of religious attendance (but again, not frequency of prayer) predicts responses to questions such as "I blame people of other religions for much of the trouble in this world." . . .

Religious belief does not cause moral belief--it reflects it. . . .

This doesn't necessarily mean that religious belief is irrelevant to morality.  It might serve as an accelerant--part of a self-reinforcing system.  Individuals or societies who are inclined to hate some group of people--homosexuals, say--will seek support from religious texts and the words of religious figures; once they find it, this can reinforce and justify and intensify hatred.  Those who are inclined toward compassion or justice can find support for this as well, and hence religion can ground causes that even the staunchly secular will deem morally positive.
So.  Punishment can be for the good of everyone or it can be about revenge (or both), and group interaction--whether in the form of religion, the internet, or other--is likely to accelerate and amplify that effect.  How can we keep a beneficial morality as our framework?  Consider: What makes you feel disgust?

It's no secret that I consider a beneficial morality one that is more liberal.  In a vein similar to the work reported in the book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Bloom shares studies that link disgust with conservative positions:
[We] measured the disgust sensitivity of a broad sample of American adults (leaving out any questions about sexual disgust) and found that greater sensitivity was associated with more conservative attitudes on a range of political issues--and the association was particularly strong for sex-related issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  The effect held even when we factored out gender, age, and religious affiliation.  In a second set of studies, we tested students at the University of California, Irvine, and Cornell University.  This population is highly socially liberal and, when explicitly asked, tends to be unbiased toward homosexuals.  Still, the students' disgust sensitivity scores correlated with their implicit attitudes about homosexuals: the more disgust-sensitive they were, the more negative their attitudes.
Bloom considers disgust particularly as it relates to sexual matters in his book, but the feeling has many other contexts: Nazi feelings toward Jews, white Americans toward black Americans--the sharing of water fountains and swimming pools; interracial marriage--the internet outrage about Cecil the lion, and so much more.  At the heart of it all: disgust.
The moral outrage directed toward those who engage in incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and so on is not a biological adaptation. . . . Instead, this aspect of moral psychology is a biological accident.  It just so happens that evolved systems that keep us away from parasites and poisons respond in a certain negative way to sexual activity.  Over the course of history, this aversive reaction has been reinforced, directed, and sanctified by various cultural practices, including religion and law. . . .

Sexual morality is not about "justice, rights, and welfare," and it's not necessarily about "how people relate to each other." . . . Nor is it obvious that our sexual morality serves to "make cooperative societies possible."  It didn't evolve for that purpose (or for any purpose), and there is little reason to believe that it serves any such role in the here and now. . . .

The intuitions associated with disgust are at best unnecessary (after all, there are other reasons to argue against rape or murder) and at worst harmful in that they motivate irrational policies and license savage behavior.
Disgust is at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.  Very harmful.  And the opposite of disgust?  Empathy.  As I've written many times before, one of the most powerful and essential skills we need to develop is the ability to take that instinctive empathy we're born with and enlarge it.

Bloom considers stories as a way to do that, as I have so many times before:
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains how stories teach children to empathize and identify with people whose perspectives and identities may be very different from their own: "We see personlike shapes all around us: but how do we relate to them? . . . What storytelling in childhood teaches us to do is to ask questions about the life behind the mask, the inner world concealed by the shape.  It gets us into the habit of conjecturing that this shape, so similar to our own, is a house for emotions and wishes and projects that are also in some ways similar to our own; but it also gets us into the habit of understanding that that inner world is differently shaped by different social circumstances."

Now, stories are not necessary for relating to the minds of others.  As we discussed earlier, even one-year-olds think of the "personlike" shapes around them as having emotions and wishes and projects that are distinct from their own.  But Nussbaum is talking about habit, not ability, and it is worth taking seriously her claim that exposure to stories makes us more prone to think about the minds of other people. . . .

Stories can elicit compassion on a case-by-case basis, but they can also lead us to question our moral principles and our habits of behavior.  As the psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, "Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm ('That's the way it's done') into an explicit observation ('That's what our tribe happens to do now')." . . .

There is no law of nature, though, stating that the messages conveyed through stories have to be morally good ones.  For every story that expands the moral circle, motivating the audience to take the perspective of a distant other, one can find another that shrinks it, describing how people outside the in-group are evil or disgusting.
Like religion and group interaction, stories can be a tool to help or hurt the growth of empathy.  In politics, all too often, stories are used to create disgust.  I feel my work as a story pusher helps create a habit of empathy.  Both my experience and a wealth of articles like this one from Mic would seem to back me up:
Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction

They tend to be more empathetic toward others. . . .

Specifically, researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement. When you visualize yourself scoring a touchdown while playing football, you can actually somewhat feel yourself in the action. A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling. . . .

"We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple," Castano wrote to Mic.

Literary fiction enhanced participants' empathy because they had to work harder at fleshing out the characters. The process of trying to understand what those characters are feelings and the motives behind them is the same in our relationships with other people.

As the Guardian reports, Kidd argues that applying the skills we use when reading critically to the real world makes sense because "the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience."
Reading is a social experience that teaches the habit of empathy.  But habit is not always enough.  Sometimes empathy needs to be a choice.  Consider this recent piece from the New York Times that quotes Bloom and considers the idea of extending empathy beyond coalitions, Empathy Is Actually a Choice:
Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

What, then, is the relationship between empathy and morality? Traditionally, empathy has been seen as a force for moral good, motivating virtuous deeds. Yet a growing chorus of critics, inspired by findings like those above, depict empathy as a source of moral failure. In the words of the psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy is a “parochial, narrow-minded” emotion — one that “will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.”

We disagree. . . .

Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

Two decades ago, the psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues conducted a study that showed that if people expected their empathy to cost them significant money or time, they would avoid situations that they believed would trigger it. . . .

Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy. . . .

People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others. . . .

Psychopaths and narcissists are able to feel empathy; it’s just that they don’t typically want to. . . .

Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.
Often it means tapping into time, energy, resources, or other apparent drains on narrow self-interest, but we can choose to feel empathy anytime we want for anyone we want.

Does self-interest have to be narrow, though?  And does it have to be the only frame?  I constantly berate myself for not doing as much for others as I could, but I also know my energy has limits and if I try to do too much I will use up my resources and won't be able to help anyone.  It's a matter of pacing.  (For more on that, see: Ego Depletion.)  But even when I don't have the ability to actively help, my goal is to find enough energy for empathy that I at least don't harm.  Empathy is better than apathy is better than disgust, and I try to stay as close to the beginning of that spectrum (and as far from the end) as possible.

I parenthetically referenced Ego Depletion above, which I've blogged in the context You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion.  With that in mind, two more associations related to self delusion (within the context of empathy).

Another short piece from This Explains Everything is "We Are What We Do" by Timothy D. Wilson. Wilson writes about self-perception:
People draw inferences about who they are, Bem suggested, by observing their own behavior.

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. People act the way they do because of their personality traits and attitudes, right? They return a lost wallet because they are honest, recycle their trash because they care about the environment, and pay $5 for a caramel brulée latte because they like expensive coffee drinks. While it is true that behavior emanates from people's inner dispositions, Bem's insight was to suggest that the reverse also holds. If we return a lost wallet, there is an upward tick on our honesty meter. After we drag the recycling bin to the curb, we infer that we really care about the environment. And after purchasing the latte, we assume that we are coffee connoisseurs. . . .

Two other powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. . . .

But it turns out that we don't just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren't there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition. Perhaps we aren't particularly trustworthy and instead returned the wallet in order to impress the people around us. But, failing to realize that, we infer that we are squeaky clean honest. Maybe we recycle because the city has made it easy to do so (by giving us a bin and picking it up every Tuesday) and our spouse and neighbors would disapprove if we didn't. Instead of recognizing those reasons, though, we assume that we should be nominated for the Green Neighbor of the Month Award. Countless studies have shown that people are quite susceptible to social influence, but rarely recognize the full extent of it, thereby misattributing their compliance to their true wishes and desires--the well-known fundamental attribution error.
So we draw conclusions about our character by observing our actions.  And we do so when we have full knowledge of the situations, contexts, and reasons shaping our actions.  We also draw conclusions about the character of others by observing their actions, except the less we know them the less we know about their situations, contexts, and reasons--which means the less we know them, the more likely our conclusions are to be inaccurate.

An article from The Guardian, The Mistake We All Make ... and the Simple Experiment That Reveals It, gives a much more detailed explanation:
Important influences can be hidden, but even when powerful situational determinants of behaviour are staring us in the face, we can be oblivious to their impact. . . .

In everyday life we ignore equally powerful influences on people’s behaviour. Whether you’re heroic or heartless may depend on a contextual factor whose impact is far greater than we would tend to assume. . . .

The “fundamental attribution error” gets us in trouble constantly. We trust people we ought not to, we avoid people who really are perfectly nice, we hire people who are not all that competent – all because we fail to recognise situational forces that may be operating on the person’s behaviour. We consequently assume that future behaviour will reflect the dispositions we infer from present behaviour. (It’s past behaviour over the long run, observed in many diverse situations, that is the excellent predictor, not behaviour observed in only a few situations, especially a few situations all of the same type.)

A few years ago a graduate student who was working with me told me something about himself that I would never have guessed. He had done prison time for murder. He hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he had been present when an acquaintance committed the murder, and he was convicted of being an accessory to the crime.

My student told me a remarkable thing about the murderers he met in prison. To a man, they attributed their homicides to the situation they had been in. “So I tell the guy behind the counter to give me everything in the till and instead he reaches under the counter. Of course I had to plug him. I felt bad about it.”

There are obvious self-serving motives behind such attributions. But it’s important to know that people generally think that their own behaviour is largely a matter of responding sensibly to the situation they happen to be in – whether that behaviour is admirable or abominable. We’re much less likely to recognise the situational factors other people are responding to, and we’re consequently much more likely to commit the fundamental attribution error when judging them – seeing dispositional factors as the main or sole explanation for the behaviour. . . .

When you ask people to say whether their behaviour, or their best friend’s, usually reflects personality traits or whether their behaviour depends primarily on the situation, they’ll tell you that their friend’s behaviour is more likely to be consistent across different situations than their own is.

The main reason for differences in the attributions actors and observers make is that the context is always salient for the actor. I need to know what the important aspects of my situation are in order to behave adaptively (though of course I’m going to miss or ignore many important things). But you don’t have to pay such close attention to the situation that I confront. Instead, what’s most salient to you is my behaviour. And it’s an easy jump from a characterisation of my behaviour (nice or nasty) to a characterisation of my personality (kindly or cruel). You often can’t see – or may ignore – important aspects of my situation. So there are few constraints on your inclination to attribute my behaviour to my personality. . . .

There is vastly more going on in our heads than we realise. The implications of this research for everyday life are profound. Firstly, we should pay more attention to context. This will improve the odds that we’ll correctly identify situational factors that are influencing our behaviour and that of others. In particular, attention to context increases the likelihood that we’ll recognise social influences that may be operating. Reflection may not show us much about the social influences on our own thinking or behaviour. But if we can see what social influences might be doing to others, it’s a safe bet we might be susceptible as well.

Secondly, we should realise that situational factors usually influence our behaviour and that of others more than they seem to, whereas dispositional factors are usually less influential than they seem. Don’t assume that a given person’s behaviour in one or two situations is necessarily predictive of future behaviour. And don’t assume that the person has a trait or belief or preference that has produced the behaviour.

And finally, realise that other people think their behaviour is more responsive to situational factors than you’re inclined to think – and they’re more likely to be right than you are. They almost certainly know their current situation – and their relevant personal history – better than you do.
Empathy is often described as putting yourself in another person's shoes.  This could more accurately be restated as putting yourself in the other person's context and situation.  We're much less likely to draw inaccurate conclusions when we take the time to do so.  We're much less likely to feel disgust toward them.  And we're much more likely to embody a morality that is beneficial for more people.

Recently I updated my cover photo on Facebook with a riff on the popular family window stickers that show up on the backs of so many cars, trying to broaden the concept to a much larger definition of family.  I attempted to represent my coalition as not only my nuclear family, but also my extended family, my local communities, my state, my country, my world, and my galaxy.  My limitations, flaws, and situations may prevent me from living that value to perfection, but I strive for that kind of empathy as much as possible.

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