Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Emotional perspective taking

Last night my mum phoned to say that Traffic Cops was from Cardiff. Creepers break into houses and steal the keys of cars before stealing the cars. A car was found having rolled over on a road near where I used to work. The driver died. He couldn't be identified as his facial injuries were so severe, and a passenger abandined the car. A liaison office was called to break the news of the drivers death to the family. He called at the house of the owner of the car, to find that the house had been burgled and that the owner was alive and well.
I thought how awful it must be to find out that someone has died in your car, even if it not in any way your fault.
Next we were shown the owner of the car at the police station where he had gone with his father in the middle of the night to make a statement. He said that when he first heard that his car had been stolen and the driver had died in an accident he felt no sympathy. He thought to himself that it was what he deserved, after all he could have came up the stairs and clubbed him to death as these things happen.
I said out loud to my brother who was visiting that his response seemed to be the opposite of mine. My brother said 'maybe you empathise too much'.

So can we empathise too much? What does this mean? And in this case why were my feelings so different to the person who the event had actually happened to?

To read: Empathy Gaps in Emotional Perspective Taking


  1. My snap judgment for what it's worth:

    The owner's anger at having his property violated quashed his empathy for the dead thief.

  2. I trained as a person centred counsellor and believe that empathy can be learned - and indeed has to be, and honed as a skill. It involves asking oneself the simple question - "what is it like to be this person right now?". The car owner's response is a natural, self protective one, with some distance - after a period of time, or if you are not the owner of the car - it is possible to ask "what was it like for the driver - or how is it now for his fmaily?". Also it does matter if Drs care: I recently had a major op and right before I went under, the surgeon came over, touched my arm and said "It's going to be fine". He was clearly asking himslf what it was like to be me right then....and that human touch made me feel he cared for me. That's pretty important when you are about to let someone open you up with a sharp knife!!

  3. Hi Dave and Jane

    Thanks for checking the blog out.
    I think you are both absolutely right about the owner's reaction. I was sitting at home curled up on the sofa watching this, and had been primed by discussion about what it is like to be a FLO (family liaison officer).

    When I told you this story both of you could see what was going on. But when it happened to me on Monday night I was a little bit taken aback.

    And that despite having read work by Loewenstein on hot and cold empathy gaps a few days before! But more about that later!

    Jane, I guess I could be provocative and say that it didn't make any real difference to the outcome of your operation whether the doctor cared or not. Within medicine we sometimes think that surgeons are respected for their technical skills and not for their people skills. Students think that GPs (like me) are the wooly/fuzzy ones. But there are many examples such as yours which show that patients want all their doctors to be caring.
    What direct benefits do you think there were to this doctor showing kindness to you?
    Thanks again
    Anne Marie

  4. Hi Jane, - to be even more provocative - I don't know if the doctor was necessarily trying to put himself in your shoes - making a personal connection with 'patients' is part of our jobs as health professionals (I am a midwife) - sometimes we do these things because we are expected to, not necessarily because we are thinking in any great depth about what the patient is thinking.

  5. Anne Marie, what struck me was that your empathy was for the owner of the car in which a person had died, not for the dead thief. Perhaps both you and the owner think that he deserved some consequence from his theft.

  6. Hello Nicky,

    That's an interesting point. Perhaps it could have been the narrative of the Traffic cops. The driver of the car had not been established at this time, and even later when he was there was little discussion of him or how his family responded.
    I certainly didn't feel that the driver deserved any kind of injury for his crimes, which I suppose is why I thought it would be horrible to think that somehow or other one could be drawn into this tragedy through no fault one's own. I think I was even pondering whether or not I would feel guilt- if I had left the car keys somewhere else would they perhaps not have been found and therefore the car not stolen and the accident not have occurred.
    It seems that in most cases we don't really try to take the place of the other person, instead we think first, how would I respond in those circumstances and then try to make some assessment of how similar we are to the other person.

    At the same time why would I have been trying to place myself in the shoes of the person who had died? I find it very hard to imagine myself ever stealing a car when drunk, so in a way there is not much benefit to me in trying to learn from that story. I could think about how it might be to be the parent of someone who dies in this way, that might be relevant to me. But altogether the person who I was most likely to be in the same position as was the victim of the crime and from the unemotional comfort of my sofa I could afford to feel very differently about the driver to him.
    Thanks for making me think more about this:)
    Anne Marie
    PS Would be nice to be able to acccess your blogger profile:)


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