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How to understand people better

76 pwno 14 October 2011 07:53PM
I’ve been taking notes on how I empathize, considering I seem to be more successful at it than others. I broke down my thought-patterns, implied beliefs, and techniques, hoping to unveil the mechanism behind the magic. I shared my findings with a few friends and noticed something interesting: They were becoming noticeably better empathizers. 

I realized the route to improving one’s ability to understand what people feel and think is not a foreign one. Empathy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of practice, anyone can make drastic improvements. 

I want to impart the more fruitful methods/mind-sets and exercises I’ve collected over time. 

Working definitions:
Projection: The belief that others feel and think the same as you would under the same circumstances
Model: Belief or “map” that predicts and explains people’s behavior


Stop identifying as a non-empathizer

This is the first step towards empathizing better—or developing any skill for that matter. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and very avoidable. Brains are plastic; there’s no reason to believe an optimal path-to-improvement doesn’t exist for you. 

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

When we learn our housemate spent 9 hours cleaning the house, we should blame our flawed map for being confused by his or her behavior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cockroaches and found a few that morning, maybe they’re passive aggressively telling you to clean more, or maybe they just procrastinate by cleaning. Our model of the housemate has yet to account for these tendencies. 
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Not By Empathy Alone

19 gwern 05 October 2011 12:36AM

The following are extracts from the paper “Is Empathy Necessary For Morality?” (philpapers) by Jesse Prinz (WP) of CUNY; recently linked in a David Brooks New York Times column, “The Limits of Empathy”:

1 Introduction

Not only is there little evidence for the claim that empathy is necessary, there is also reason to think empathy can interfere with the ends of morality. A capacity for empathy might make us better people, but placing empathy at the center of our moral lives may be ill‐advised. That is not to say that morality shouldn’t centrally involve emotions. I think emotions are essential for moral judgment and moral motivation (Prinz, 2007)1. It’s just that empathetic emotions are not ideally suited for these jobs.

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Sympathetic Minds

25 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 January 2009 09:31AM

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

"Mirror neurons" are neurons that are active both when performing an action and observing the same action—for example, a neuron that fires when you hold up a finger or see someone else holding up a finger.  Such neurons have been directly recorded in primates, and consistent neuroimaging evidence has been found for humans.

You may recall from my previous writing on "empathic inference" the idea that brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly.  A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car—observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch—then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes.  The only possible way you can hit on an "Aha!" that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind—namely your own brain—which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.

So that is what I would call "empathy".

And then "sympathy" is something else on top of this—to smile when you see someone else smile, to hurt when you see someone else hurt.  It goes beyond the realm of prediction into the realm of reinforcement.

And you ask, "Why would callous natural selection do anything that nice?"

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