Where is this empathy that we are so proud of?

This post will be a momentary departure from the usual theme of mathematical and computational modeling that has defined this blog. I apologize for discussing non-scientific news and pushing this medium outside its comfortable academic niche. This post has also been edited after original posting to reflect on a comment discussion

The regular reader might notice that some of the models I try to examine concern themselves with topics like evolution of cooperation, compassion, and empathy. In fact, in my last lecture half of the questions I posed were about compassion:

2. What does Wright say compassion is from a biological point of view? Do you think this is a reasonable definition?
3. Can a rational agent be compassionate? Is understanding the indirect benefits (to yourself or your genes) that your actions produce essential for compassion?
5. Can compassion or cooperation evolve in an inviscid environment? What about a spatially structured one?
7. What is a zero-sum game? Does a non-zero-sum relationship guarantee that compassion will emerge?

As cynical as I am and as cold as the stereotype of a mathematician is, I have always functioned under the assumption that humans are empathetic, caring, compassionate beings. I did not ask if that is a reasonable axiom, but instead would be more interested in questions like: what were the earliest compassionate ancestors of modern humans? But as I reflect on misdeeds in my own personal life (don’t worry, the blog won’t get that personal) and stories in the news… I can’t help but wonder: Is compassion just a story we tell ourselves to sleep at night? Arm-chair hypothesizing on the beauty of our own morality? Where is this empathy that we are so proud of?

Yesterday afternoon, a deranged 29 year old man pushed a 58 year old Ki Suk Han onto the tracks in a Midtown, NYC subway station. There was not enough time for the train to come to a halt before Han was caught between it and the platform. The husband and father-of-one was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. Mayor Bloomberg commented: “It’s one of those great tragedies, it’s a blot on all of us, and if you could do anything to stop it, you would.”

What happened on the platform? One of the grizzling developments of the story (and unfortunately the reason it has become big) is a ghastly photo by NY Post photographer R. Umar Abbasi. I have not reproduced the photo here out of respect for Han: it captures the moment before his death, as he tried to scramble back onto the platform with the train bearing down upon him. The Post ran the image as its cover, with caption: “Doomed: pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die”.

As you can tell from this post, I am not a journalist and it is not my place to question the Post’s editorial decisions. I am also not writing to join the attacks on photographer Abassi. Actually, I think that (with the available evidence) twitter and the media are putting too much blame and guilt on him, already. My concern is with everybody on the platform.

At that time on Monday, I had just returned to Montreal from a trip to New York City. In my time in the city (and my earlier years of visits and living there) I have almost never seen a platform that deserted. Empty. Abandoned. There is nobody trying to reach over the edge to help Han; there is nobody running towards him. All you can see in the photo is a crowd of people standing nearly 10 meters down the platform simply looking. Watching. Paralyzed.

Can we continue to think that we are a compassionate species? Can we claim that we feel empathy? Is our groupthink so overbearing that it can paralyze us from helping a man in distress? Would I have had the strength to run over and try to help? Even knowing the physics of the situation, low likelihood of my success, and high chance of personal injury? Or would I have just remained motionless? As if robbed of my agency. What about you?

As pointed out by Joe Fitzsimons, the situation is not that simple:

When something like this happens right out of the blue, it takes most people a considerable amount of time to parse what has happened. Not through a lack of empathy, but through a mixture of incomplete information (presumably most people only look *after* something has happened), a lack of context, and so on. People instinctively hesitate. That’s why we train those people we expect to have to deal with such situations (for example soldiers, police, fire fighters, etc.) so that they don’t lock-up. Without training or prior experience, people do lock up, simply not react at all, or make the situation worse by doing something stupid. It’s nothing to do with a lack of empathy.

In such a situation, the confusion and surprise can be paralyzing. I have definitely felt this before and in much less stressful situations. In such a context, it is meaningless to discuss empathy since the stress robs humans of their agency. It is this setting that is most likely. The question becomes: what can we do to prevent ourselves from such paralysis? Is it reasonable to define empathy on such short timescales? Is compassion meaningful without the agency to act on it? How would I feel in a situation where I was witnessing a horror that I could not will my body to prevent? Would I feel robbed of the sense agency that defines my humanity? What about you?

I was not there. My questions should be secondary to the testimony of witnesses. I cannot reflect (or even understand) the mental state of the people caught up in this awful situation. After the incident, it is reported that Dr. Laura Kaplan (who did not see the incident occur) and a security guard, rushed over to try to administer CPR, but “there was no pulse, never, no reflexes.”

My heart goes out to the widow and child of Ki Suk Han. Although they will never read these words, I hope that there is still some cosmic comfort in them. In no way do I want to assign guilt to the bystanders on the platform, I am not in a position where I can glean understanding. The only clarity to me is that the assumption of humans as empathetic, compassionate, and caring is much more complicated than I had believed. Empathy needs to be operationalized and carefully studied. Its connection to agency, fear, and rationality needs to be carefully examined. We need to understand what makes humans seem so inhumane in such tragic situations.

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

12 Responses to Where is this empathy that we are so proud of?

  1. Bystander effect? Or that part of our brains that likes to watch a car crash? Don’t write us off yet http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6231971.stm

  2. Hi Artem,

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would suggest you delete this post (ironically, out of empathy). Here’s why:

    I’m not sure if you have ever found yourself in the position of the bystanders, even for a less serious event. In case you have not, let me mention a few things which you may have overlooked. When something like this happens right out of the blue, it takes most people a considerable amount of time to parse what has happened. Not true a lack of empathy, but through a mixture of incomplete information (presumably most people only look *after* something has happened), a lack of context, and so on. People instinctively hesitate. That’s why we train those people we expect to have to deal with such situations (for example soldiers, police, fire fighters, etc.) so that they don’t lock-up. Without training or prior experience, people do lock up, simply not react at all, or make the situation worse by doing something stupid. It’s nothing to do with a lack of empathy.

    Given the speed that trains enter stations, and the fact that the photo was taken by a professional news photographer (who has probably ended up, as the result of his profession, conditioned to reach for his camera as soon as something unexpected happens), the whole incident may not have lasted more than a couple of seconds. Even after the man was on the tracks, I suspect a lot of people hadn’t figured out what was happening. We have the benefit of hindsight, with newspaper articles explaining to us what happened, but for people on the platform, at a distance, I suspect the situation was far less clear.

    If you were one of those people on the platform, and you froze, you would quite possibly be racked with guilt, independent of whether you were actually capable of intervening or not. Now imagine you are in that position, and you came across a blogpost like the one above, suggesting that these people lack empathy. I think you’ll agree, that certainly wouldn’t help.

    So I would suggest you delete the post. It won’t help the dead man, and it is unlikely to change how people react, but if someone who was there comes across it, it is likely to cause them significant pain. I know this is probably a drop in the ocean compared to what is written else where, but if nothing else, empathy might convince you to rethink whether you want this to remain.

    • You make a strong point. I did not realize how much of a jackass I was being. I did not mean to press blame and add guilt to the bystanders.

      However, I think the failures of empathy that occur in such high-stress situation need to be discussed in the open. Such emotional responses are theorized to occur at a faster time scale than a rational risk assessment. Why is this not observed in this setting? I will see if I can rewrite the post in such a way as to not be hurtful to the people present at the event, and retract it I am incapable of such a wording.

      Thank you very much for pointing out my brashness. I think I was mostly angry at myself because I think I am afraid of the loss of agency in being paralyzed in the same way.

      • Hi Artem,

        I didn’t mean to suggest you were being a jackass. I just thought you may have overlooked that possible consequence of the post.

        I don’t think it is a failure of empathy, and I certainly don’t think it is anything to do with a rational risk assessment. I think it is simply that peoples inaction is dominated by uncertainty over what is happening and what to do, fear that they will do the wrong thing and maybe a certain feeling of an inability to help. If anything, I think people get overwhelmed by emotions, and don’t get the opportunity for sufficient rational thought.

    • It seems that science agrees with your analysis.

      A year ago Bartal, Decety, and Mason — following on Mogil lab’s 2006 work on emotional contagion in mice — showed that rats display an operationalized form of empathy by releasing trapped compatriots. A particular part of the Washington Post article on this research that resonated with me (and your sentiment) was Mason’s comment on why she believes that 7 of the 26 male rats did not come to the aid of their comrades:

      ““I don’t think it’s because they didn’t have empathy. I don’t think they had the ability to down-regulate their own stress and act on the empathy.”

      Which seems to be the same point that you were making about paralysis in stressful situations. Yay, science!

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  4. Yan says:

    I am not sure if I agree with the point made by Joe Fitzsimons. A two year girl was run over by two vehicles and more than a dozen passer-bys walked past without doing anything. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/21/us-china-girl-idUSTRE79K0HM20111021
    There are certainly enough time for them to process the information and understand what’s going on: a girl was run over and she needed help. Maybe Joe’s argument applies in the tragedy you mentioned, but it is certainly not always the case. Sotmetimes, people are too selfish

  5. Perhaps this will restore your faith in humanity: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/16/newtown-shootings-gunman-soto-details/1772791/

    Obviously I don’t mean the gunman. A young teacher seems to have protected her students even at the cost of her own life. That’s about as heroic a deed as I can possibly think of.

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