Affective Empathy, An Evolutionary Mistake?

Peter Frost, Unz Review, September 20, 2014

In a previous post, I asked, “How universal is empathy?” The question is tricky because empathy has three components:

1. pro-social behavior–willingness to help people out, hospitality to strangers, acts of compassion.

2. cognitive empathy–capacity to see things from another person’s perspective and to understand how he or she feels.

3. affective or emotional empathy–capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately. Failure to help a person in distress can trigger a self-destructive sequence: anguish, depression, suicidal ideation.

Pro-social behavior is very widespread among humans and may even be universal. It isn’t unconditional, however. It can be used strategically and is often influenced by previous experiences with the person in question.

Cognitive empathy seems much less universal. In Oceanic cultures, for instance, there is both an unwillingness and an inability to know what other people feel. A person’s inner feelings are said to be private and unknowable (Lepowski, 2011).

Affective empathy has an even more restricted range. If the range of empathic guilt is indicative, it may reach its highest incidences in the “guilt cultures” of northwestern Europe. In these cultures, guilt outweighs shame as a way to enforce social rules. What’s the difference between the two? You feel shame when someone from your community sees you breaking a rule. With guilt, no witnesses are needed. You feel guilty when no else is watching or even when you merely think of breaking the rule.

Until recently, empathy has been studied only in Western populations, with the result that it is often assumed to have the same characteristics everywhere, at least potentially. {snip}

When Siu and Shek (2005) studied empathy in a Chinese sample ranging from 18 to 29 years of age, they found that the participants made little distinction between cognitive empathy and affective (emotional) empathy. These two components seemed to be weakly differentiated from each other. The authors attributed this finding to “cultural differences” “Chinese people might not perceive the items from the two dimensions as too different in nature.” The authors went on to note that “there are still debates concerning the boundaries of emotional and cognitive processes underlying empathy” and that “the causal relationships between cognitive and emotional processing underlying empathy are not simple or unidirectional.”

In short, the Chinese participants could see things from another person’s perspective and understand how that person felt. There is much less indication, however, that they involuntarily experienced the feelings of other people, especially feelings of distress. This is not to say they were incapable of such emotion transference, but rather that it seems limited in scope, perhaps being confined to family members and not extended to strangers.

In general, empathy is perceived in China as a moral duty and not as an involuntary emotional response. {snip}


In humans, empathy seems to have differentiated progressively into its three components, with pro-social behavior being the oldest and most widespread one, followed by cognitive empathy and, finally, affective empathy.

This kind of mental evolution has been certainly possible in our species:

First, all three components display moderate to high heritability, especially the last one, i.e., 68% (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). There has thus been a potential for gene-culture co-evolution.

Second, gene-culture co-evolution seems to have been widespread. About 10,000 years ago, human genetic evolution accelerated by over a hundred-fold, yet by that time our ancestors had colonized this planet from the tropics to the arctic (Hawks et al., 2007). They were evolving primarily in response to different cultural environments, and only secondarily to different physical environments.

Third, people have thus been selected for their ability to function in a certain cultural environment, just as they have been selected for their ability to function in heat or cold.

That answers the “how” question, but what about the “why”? Why was affective empathy more advantageous at the northwestern end of Eurasia? Together with empathic guilt, it may be part of a larger behavioral adaptation called the Western European Marriage Pattern, which seems to reflect a culture where kinship ties are relatively weak and thus insufficient to enforce rules of correct behavior.

The WEMP predominates north and west of an imaginary line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg and has the following general characteristics:

– men and women tend to marry relatively late and many never marry

– children usually leave the family to form new households

– a high proportion of non-kin circulate among different households (Hajnal, 1965)

This zone of relatively weak kinship existed before the Black Death of the 14th century and is attested by fragmentary evidence going back to the 9th century and even earlier (Hallam, 1985; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94). I suspect its origins go back to a unique Mesolithic culture that once existed along the North Sea and the Baltic (Price, 1991). At that time, an abundance of marine resources drew people to the coast each year for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting, thus creating large but fluid settlements unlike anything seen in other hunter-gatherers. Social interactions would have largely involved non-kin, and there would have thus been strong selection for mechanisms that could enforce social rules in the absence of kin obligations.


Through their high capacity for affective empathy and empathic guilt, these Northwest Europeans had an edge in adapting to later cultural environments that would be structured not by kinship but by other ways of organizing social relations: the State, ideology, and the market economy.

This has been one path that leads to advanced societies, but it is not the only one. East Asian societies have pursued a similar path of cultural evolution while having relatively low levels of affective empathy and empathic guilt. They seem to have done so by relying more on external means of behavior control (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance) and by building on cognitive empathy through learned notions of moral duty.


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