The student walked down the hallway by a scientist in a lab coat. A room was opened and they were sat in front of a microphone and a button. “The instructions are simple” said the study administrator. “You are to teach a person in another room simple facts to remember. If they get one wrong, you are to press this button. Each time you press the button the amount of electricity they are shocked with increases; eventually you can reach up to 450 volts.” Then the study administrator left and the student was left in the role of the teacher, to shock the person in the other room if they got anything wrong.
The experiment started. The shocks coming after mistakes with increasing intensity. Screams could be heard in the other room accompanied by pleas due to heart conditions or other issues. Eventually the horrifying screams, after an agonizing duration, abruptly stopped and the study was over.
What the student didn’t know was that it was all a setup. There was no person in the other room and nobody was being hurt when the button was pressed. There was an actor staging the screams. And, perhaps even more tragically, to preserve the credibility of the study, participants sometimes did not find this out until months after the test. Some were permanently traumatized.
This famous experiment conducted at Yale in 1961 by Stanley MIlgram had a horrifying result: a shocking 65% of the hundreds of participants kept pressing the shock button all the way to 450 volts. More than enough to kill a person. It’s how the adverb ‘shocking’ originated. The results, showing a blind human “obedience” to following orders, have been used to explain atrocities from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib. As cited in the Atlantic article, Arthur Miller, co-editor of the Journal Social Issues said this of Milgram’s experimental participants, “They’re not psychopaths, and they’re not hostile, and they’re not aggressive or deranged. They’re just people, like you and me. If you put us in certain situations, we’re more likely to be racist or sexist, or we may lie, or we may cheat.” While the study results have been repeated, considerable debate about what conclusions to draw remains.
Clearly this is an empathy issue. Let’s use Social Thermodynamics and empathy to see what we can learn from Milgram’s experiment.
A Taxonomy of Empathy
Actor Alan Alda has devoted the latter half of his life to understanding empathy and scientific communication. His new book released last month, “If I Understood You, Would I Still Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” is an excellent treatise on empathy and I highly recommend it. Alda is the namesake behind the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Alda uses an evolutionary empathy model with the following levels: mirroring, emotional, and conscious empathy (leading to what he called “dark” empathy and “theory of mind”). As you can see from the Pezeshki empathy pyramid below, that’s not too far off from the model applied in this book.
Mirroring: Alda has created a series of exercises to develop empathy in scientific researchers. One of the first activities for participants in his summer course at the Institute is to develop mirroring empathy. Before they know anyone, Alda puts pairs on stage and asks them to mimic each other’s movements precisely without talking or leading. That’s an incredible challenge that requires listening and observing every bit of information from their partner as possible. You have to get into their head and almost know what your partner is thinking. Reliably though, with practice people get it — and before they know it they even start completing each other’s sentences. Soon enough, participants know how they need to say things for their partner to understand them.
This technique works so well because mirroring neurons are both foundational and common in our brains. Even before we could speak as a species we knew how to mirror the behavior of others, and it’s something that can be observed throughout the animal kingdom, or any schoolyard playground. In many ways, our entire early-life development is centered around development of mirroring behavior — from waving hi and smiling at age 1 to completing a mathematics calculation at age 17. With just our eyes we can say to others, “I’m listening and I know what you’re thinking.”
Emotional: From his acting career, Alda knows how to show an emotion when prompted. He’s found though that others have a very hard time showing and identifying emotions from a simple facial expression. If you’ve played Pictionary or Emoticon in Cranium, you know too how hard this can be. To investigate the effect of emotional identification on empathy, Alda initiated and was a participant in a study to identify and count emotions over a several day trial. The result: the more time you identify emotions in others the more empathic you become (as gauged by a standard empathy quiz). Imagine the difficulty of trying to read emotions without facial or verbal feedback!
Rational: Teaching someone how to think and respond in a potential future situation when nobody is around for mirroring is not easy. It requires a capacity for rational thought! But how do we imbue others with this programming when it isn’t always possible to recreate the situation? Stories like the one at the start of this chapter are key. Researchers have found that when you tell a story to someone who is into it, the same regions of the brain light up in both the story teller and listener. Stories are the key to unlocking the brain and inserting programs to follow when it’s rational to. When I say they are the key I mean it. In today’s world we are constantly solicited for attention, people only invest time reading or listening to something if it is relevant, and they will keep reading as long as relevance and credibility or rationality remains. How to find the keyhole immediately? Start in an unexpected, but rational, way.
Conscious: Alda ended his empathy taxonomy at the rational level, however proceeded with a section on “dark empathy”. Dark empathy, as described by Alda, is using empathy against someone. Psychopaths use “dark” empathy to trap their prey. This is directly analogous to conscious empathy in the Pezeshki taxonomy shown in Figure 1. Empathy isn’t all gum drops and lollipops. Knowing empathy and the empathy of others can be used for both good and evil. In the great book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating Like Your Life Depends on It” author Chris Voss shows how the FBI international hostage negotiation team uses conscious empathy (called tactical empathy in the book) to help resolve hostage crises. It turns out empathy is key to a happy ending. But it’s also easy to see how difficult, and valuable, it is to function at this level of empathy. Just like the energy/value levels described earlier, these levels are nested and evolutionary. To get to higher levels requires a minimum ability at the lower levels. Just think about the number of ways and experiences you need just to generally relate to others!
Global: is exactly that. Knowing the empathy of everyone in the broader/global v-Meme system. The internet will eventually enable this, hopefully sooner than later. It’s already out there in some engineers at Facebook and Twitter watching the global changes in real time. It’s analogous to the Second Foundationers in the Foundations Trilogy or the Children in Childhood’s End. Sorry to leave it at fictional references — it’s an open-ended evolutionary model. Who knows what will come next?
The same pattern of increasing complexity can be applied to empathy/entropy as values/energies. The entropy of a molecule system is directly related to the number of ways/states it can access with higher modes built and enabled by the lower modes. Empathy/entropy too is a fundamental property in thermodynamics and cannot be directly measured. However it may be easier to quantify the number of ways something can communicate than the number of lines of code it takes to program a value. Entropy really is just the log (# ways).
Social Media and the Milgram Experiment
It’s fairly common these days to find an elder politician who feels humanity has gone astray and civilization is doomed. Just look at the verbal abuse, attacks, and how easy it is to end up in a fight on social media. Looking at the above empathy layers, how many would you say are fully in use when on Twitter or Facebook? About the most we get is a thumbs up “I hear you.” That’s it. A picture is worth a 1000 words (990 of which may be irrelevant), but at least you can read the facial ques to try to connect emotion. Sometimes we get a story without the facial ques and audible emotion. Social media, in it’s current form, robs us of nearly all the empathy cues we’ve evolved to help humanity. The trapping of social media is ease. We’re now able to stay informed, and somewhat empathic to our family and friends with a frequency over a space not possible just decades ago. As a result, many of us are spending significant portions of our lives in this low-empathy environment. With a foundation of mirroring neurons, it’s no wonder we’re so quick to fight!
Bring this back to Milgram’s experiment we started this chapter with. Put yourself in the student’s shoes. You’re likely a college student who’s told what to do by an authority professor all day long and simply trying to mimic their techniques. You volunteered in this weird science study just to make some beer money. Just do what they tell you and get out so you can have fun. After being led down the bare, dimly lit halls, you’re put in the room and given the instructions and that’s it. You can either press the button or not. Talk about a low empathy environment.
I wonder if anyone has thought to redo Milgram’s experiment but try Alda’s exercises above between the “teacher” and “student” beforehand. We may get a couple of play tickle shocks for fun, but likely no more.
A 2nd Law for Humanity
What is clear is the rapid pace with which social media is improving in the empathy department. It will eventually connect society at the global level in orders of magnitude stronger and more empathic ways than ever before. While the youth of the last 15 years may have had to suffer through the developmental hurdles, this will likely be a short blip in history if we stay the course and don’t over-react. I’m so confident in this that I consider the increase in empathy to be the 2nd Law of Humanity. The empathy of humanity must increase.
Look at the history of life on our planet. Empathy could be the only trait of life that has consistently increased regardless of epic or die-off. Yes we’ve had our stumbles and gaffes. When we recover, we generally find new and better ways. Here’s hope for the future!