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The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics

Child psychology can teach us about the current GOP.

In 1978, developmental psychologist Edward Tronick and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry that demonstrated the psychological importance of the earliest interactions between a mother and her baby. The interactions of interest involved the playful, animated, and reciprocal mirroring of each other’s facial expressions. Tronick’s experimental design was simple: A mother was asked to play naturally in this way with her 6-month-old infant. The mother was then instructed to suddenly make her facial expression flat and neutral—completely “still,” in other words--and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity. Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.”

When mothers stopped their facial responses to their babies, when their faces were “still,” babies first anxiously strove to reconnect with their mothers. When the mothers’ faces remained neutral and still, the babies quickly showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless. When the mothers in the experiment were then permitted to re-engage normally, their babies, after some initial protest, regained their positive affective tone and resumed their relational and imitative playfulness.

When a primary caretaker (the “still-face” experiments were primarily done with mothers, not fathers) fails to mirror a child’s attempts to connect and imitate, the child becomes confused and distressed, protests, and then gives up. Neurobiological research (thoroughly summarized by child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, M.D. and science writer Maia Szalavitz in their book, Born to Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered), has powerfully demonstrated that in humans and other mammals, a caretaker’s attunement and engagement is necessary to foster security, self-regulation, and empathy in the developing child. Parental empathy stimulates the growth of empathy in children. The infant brain is a social one and is ready to respond to an environment that is appropriately nurturing.

On the other hand, when the environment is inattentive and not empathetic, the child’s stress response system, embedded as it is in the architecture of the child’s developing nervous system (mediators in this system include oxytocin, opiate and dopamine receptors, cortisol levels and parasympathetic nerve pathways), is overwhelmed and many types of psychopathology result. Higher cognitive functions, including language, can suffer as the brain instinctively relies on more primitive regions to deal with an unresponsive environment.

The worst scenarios are ones occurring in conditions over which children have no control, such as the dangers faced by the babies in the still-face experiments. When we are powerless to prevent our nervous systems and psyches from being overwhelmed, our physical, emotional, and intellectual development is disrupted. We call this trauma.

As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government. And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness. Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.

The pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.

People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests. They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare. And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services, the IRS, building permit and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles. Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent.

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under condition of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy. Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies. Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.

But as the still-face experiments show, human beings are primed from birth to be social, to seek out empathic and attuned responses from others, and to develop the psychobiological equipment to respond in kind. Still-face bureaucracies and the powerlessness that marks systems of income inequality contradict our very natures. As Wilkinson and Pickett put it, “For a species which thrives on friendship and enjoys cooperation and trust, which has a strong sense of fairness, which is equipped with mirror neurons allowing us to learn our way of life through a process of identification, it is clear that social structures based on inequality, inferiority and social exclusion must inflict a great deal of social pain.”

This pain is increasingly prevalent among working and middle-class Americans who have seen their jobs lost to technology and globalization, their incomes stagnate, and the promise of a better life for their children appear increasingly unlikely. Their interactions with their doctors, pharmacists, bankers, landlords, state and federal tax collectors, social service agencies, auto dealers, and cable providers are too often marked by frustration and feelings of dehumanization. Like Tronick’s infants, they can’t get anyone to even see them much less smile at or with them. Finally, to make matters worse, they also live in a meritocratic culture that blames the victim, even while these victims have little power to escape their lot. The old adage that “it’s lonely at the top” and that Type A executives have more than their share of stress is false. Studies on stress show that what is most stressful isn’t being in charge but being held accountable for outcomes over which you have little or no control.

The painful interaction of inequality and indifference is especially poignant and strongly felt as well by groups in our society who bear the brunt of discrimination. People of color, immigrants, the LGBT community—all are especially traumatized by the “still face” of social and political invisibility, of the demeaning effects of prejudice and institutional bias. They are in the most dire need of empathy and, yet, are the least likely to get it.

As studies of infants and the development of children have shown, empathy is essential to build our capacity to deal with pain and adversity and to develop into social empathic beings. Without empathy, we get overwhelmed and either go about our lives in a “fight or flight” state of hyper-vigilance or else retreat and surrender to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Thus, while empathy depends on being accurately and frequently understood in social interactions, our society is increasingly one in which people can’t find responsive faces or attuned reliable relationships anywhere.

This absence isn’t simply an individual matter. Household size has shrunk. The average number of confidantes that people have has sharply shrunk over the last few decades, from three in 1985 to two in 2004, with a full quarter of Americans reporting that they have no confidantes at all. Time spent socializing with friends or having family dinners has similarly declined. The last five decades have witnessed stunning declines in virtually every form of social and civic participation, spaces where people can encounter each other, face to face, in their communities, including churchgoing, social clubs, the PTA, and even, according to sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling leagues. The number of hours that children spend playing outside in unstructured activities—necessary for the development of social skill and empathy-- was reduced by 50% between 1981 and 1997, a loss compensated for by radical increases in time spent watching television or sitting in front of computer screens. On average, American kids watch two to four hours of television daily. And consider this: 43% of children under two watch television or videos every day. Children need face-to-face human interaction and digital substitutes just won’t do.

On nearly all measures of social life, Americans tend to have fewer and lower quality interactions with one another than their parents or grandparents did. Isolation has grown along with inequality. They go together. Societies with more economic fairness and equality are ones that encourage and privilege cooperation and mutuality. Societies like ours that are so exceptionally unequal encourage and privilege aggression, paranoia, and competitiveness, traits associated with the so-called “rugged individualist.” While sometimes adaptive, such an ideal also makes a virtue out of disconnection and trauma.

The links between the failures of empathy in childhood and similar experiences in adult social and political life are not simple or straightforward. We cannot reduce white working class anger, for example, to childhood traumas, and it is certainly true that the feelings of neglect and rejection associated with encountering the “still face” of social institutions are ubiquitous and not restricted to the economically disadvantaged. As I already said, people of color, the majority of the working class, endure this neglect and rejection in especially harsh ways. Race matters, but so does wealth. It remains true that wealth and income can enhance feelings of agency and control and can “buy” greater responsiveness from those from whom we need help or support.

To get a deeper understanding of the intersection of politics and the psychobiology of empathy and trauma, we need a deeper and more nuanced account of the interior lives of the working and middle class people who have been “left behind” in our society. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild gives us such an account in her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Based on her many years embedded with Tea Party sympathizers and activists in southwest Louisiana, she describes what she calls the “deep story” of the white working class people she got to know. For Hochschild, a “deep story” is a person’s subjective emotional experience, free of judgment and facts. It is the subjective prism through which all people (in this case, Tea Party voters) see the world.

Hochschild presents their story in a metaphorical way that represents the hopes, fears, shame, pride and resentment in the lives of her informants. It’s a story of people for whom there is no fairness, in the lives of whom the still-face of government is seen to smile on others but not on them. In fact, Hochschild’s subjects perceive the faces of many people in American society (for example, liberals living on the coasts) looking at them with disdain or contempt, not smiling in recognition or understanding. The following is an edited version of this “deep story":

You are patiently waiting in a long line leading up a hill…you are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not.

Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor.

Will I get a raise?...Are there good jobs for us all?...

The line is moving backward! You haven’t gotten a raise in years. and your income has dropped. You’re not a complainer, but this line isn’t moving...

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. Some are black—affirmative action—women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers: Where will it end?

If you are a man, [there are] women demanding the right to the men’s jobs, and overpaid public sector employees who seem to you to work shorter hours in more secure and overpaid jobs, enjoying larger pensions than yours ... Four million Syrian refugees fleeing war and chaos—even the brown pelican which is protected as an endangered species, even they have cut in line. . . . .

You feel betrayed.

In this story, the economy and government are indifferent to the people in the middle of the line. Their sacrifice is ignored. And other people seem to them to be getting the smiles that should shine on them. It would be as if the mother in the still-face paradigm not only didn’t respond to her child’s attempt to engage, but instead looked the other way and smiled at someone else. Their resentments are stereotyped as intrinsically racist or misogynist, while their own claim to victimhood is discounted.

While this story is not only racist, it clearly taps into racist sentiments. It is important to be clear about the difference between the subjective experience of white working class men and the reality. Poor and middle class whites have been sensitized to the sounds of racist dog-whistles for generations. The right-wing media machine, one that has reached its zenith in the Trump campaign, has stoked the fires of the scapegoating reflex that always seems to lie just beneath the surface of the psyches of victimized whites. Thus, it’s important to pause and recognize that the propagandistic xenophobia of the Right has helped propagate the deep story that Hochschild so empathetically tells. No one, in fact, is actually “cutting in line”—not people of color, immigrants or LGBTs. Thus, while it is still important to understand the subjective experience of her subjects is in the deepest possible way, we must also recognize the play of hidden ideologies.

The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.

Adults, like children, try to cope with the stress of failures of recognition in the best ways they can. They certainly get anxious and depressed and may turn to drugs and alcohol to manage these painful feelings. In addition, when social trust is weakened and people are isolated, they try to find ways to belong, to be part of a community. The Tea Party is one such community. Others turn to their church communities. Their social brains seek an experience of “we” and often do so by creating a fantasy of a “them” that they can devalue and fight. Tribalism draws from our need for relatedness but, tragically, can also pervert it. Rejected by employers and government, they reject and demean others. All the while, they are trying to deal with the pain, powerlessness, and lack of empathy that they experience in their social lives.

Donald Trump clearly spoke to this pain. He empathized with the traumatic losses and helplessness of the white middle and working classes. He helped them feel part of something bigger than themselves, a “movement,” which combatted their isolation. And he helped them restore a feeling of belonging by positioning them against demeaned others, primarily immigrants and countries on the other end of “horrible trade deals.”

The research on the development of empathy and the trauma resulting from its absence, on the links between economic inequality and physical and psychological suffering, and on the corrosive effects of social isolation has to lead progressives to renew their campaign for radical reforms of our economy and politics. Tronick’s and others’ research on the development of empathy and the trauma resulting from its absence has to lead us to support families in every way possible such that parents have the time and resources to empathetically connect with their children. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality should force us to make redistribution the centerpiece of our political program, just as it was for Bernie Sanders. Their research clearly shows us that greater equality itself can ameliorate a wide range of suffering. And the fact that our society disconnects us from each other means that we have to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what Hochschild calls the “empathy wall” and communicate to them that we not only feel their pain, but share it, and that, in the end, we are all in this together.

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