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Daniel Goleman Headshot

"Empathy" -- Who's Got It, Who Does Not

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When President Obama tells us he wants a compassionate Supreme Court justice with "empathy" for people's struggles, he's wandered into arguments within psychology of what we mean by the term.

There are at least three varieties of empathy, each with very different implications for spotting the right candidate. The first, cognitive empathy, means that we can understand how the other person thinks; we see his point of view. This makes for good debaters, sales people and negotiators. On the other hand, people who have strengths in cognitive empathy alone can lack compassion -- they get to see how you see it, but don't care about you. Psychologists speak of the "Dark Triad" -- narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths, who can be slick with their arguments but have a heart of stone (think Dick Cheney).

The next variety, emotional empathy, refers to someone who feels within herself the emotions of the person she's with. This creates a sense of rapport, and most probably entails the brain's mirror neuron system, which activates our own circuits the emotions, movements and intentions we see in the other person. This lets us feel with the other person -- but not necessarily feel for, the prerequisite for compassion.

That requires empathic concern, the third variety of empathy. Empathic concern means we not only understand how the person sees things and feels in the moment, but also want to help them if we sense the need. A study of empathic concern in seven-year-olds found that those who showed least concern when they saw their mother in distress were most likely to have a criminal record two decades later.

All three varieties of empathy should be at play in the compassionate nominee President Obama seeks.

Does that point to a woman as the likely best candidate? Maybe. Converging data confirms that women tend to be more empathetic on average than men, especially when it comes to emotional empathy. On the other hand, Ruth Jacobs, who coaches executives to boost leadership essentials like empathy, has found that among those who perform in the top ten percent on business outcomes, the men's empathy is as strong as the women's.

Empathy can be strengthened -- at least some varieties. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who inspired the TV series Lie To Me, developed a web-based training tool that lets anyone (at least, me, when I tried it) up their ability to read another person's emotions from their facial expressions. You can learn to detect super-fast facial tics that reveal a person's true feelings -- a way to sense when they might be lying, or denying that something upsets them, or that they are really attracted to so-and-so despite their protestations to the contrary.

Then there are the studies on "mindsight" of Dr. Daniel Siegel, a child psychiatrist at UCLA, that suggest these are essential human abilities we should be teaching every child. Since empathy is the basis of concern and compassion, should it be just for Supreme Court Justices?

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